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August 17, 2017

5 Ways I Organize My Classroom and Myself: Don't Drown in Details

By Julie Ballew
Grades PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

    Like many teachers, I am currently preparing for a new class of students to walk into my classroom and become my family for the next 10 months. I have been preparing in big and small ways all summer, and it still feels like I’m never quite finished. When I work in my classroom in July, it feels easy and light, like I should pat myself on the back for getting things done so early. Then I blink, and July has whooshed past me, and I tend to spend the first week of August in complete denial that it is actually August.

    Working in my classroom in August feels markedly less easy. In Texas, we start school that month, so I can hear the clock ticking as I check my to-do list, which tends to gain two items for every one I check off. This is year 12 for me, and it still happens. August comes, and I have to remind myself not to panic.

    To keep the stress away, I rely on several strategies to organize my classroom (and myself) so that I don’t get so overwhelmed with the details on the first day and can focus my energy on my new students. If you are looking for some new ways to organize your classroom, read on for more information!

    Five Ways I Organize My Classroom and Myself

    1. Control the Cabinet Chaos
    2. Label, Label, Label
    3. Set up Supply Stations
    4. Combine Calendars
    5. Manage Lists Digitally

     

    Control the Cabinet Chaos

    I have a love-hate relationship with my classroom cabinets, and I suspect I’m not the only one. I love that I can close the doors to keep overflow supplies hidden so my classroom looks tidy. However, because of that very advantage, I shove things behind the doors in the moment and then, wary of an avalanche and difficulty in finding things, I keep them there.

    Late summer is the perfect time to clean out those cabinets and put everything where it belongs. I start by plowing through one cabinet at a time and emptying it completely, sorting things as I empty. Once I have a cleaned-out cabinet, I decide what its function will be. Is this the home for extra craft supplies? Will it house the books that don’t belong in my library yet? Is it a good place for unit-specific materials? I have upper and lower cabinets in my room, so I also consider which ones the students can reach and how that impacts what I’ll store there. If I want students to be able to go to the supply cabinet to replenish erasers, then that needs to be a cabinet they can reach.

    Once I decide what the cabinet will store, I put a sticky note on it and put away anything that belongs there from the piles I’ve made. I continue through the cabinets, emptying, sorting, and adding to piles or putting away in the finished cabinets if the item belongs there. Note: It never fails that I reach the end of my cabinet-cleaning process and have a few small piles of random things that don’t belong in any of the categories I’ve created. This is a great way to determine the necessity of such things. Does it even loosely fit with the cleaning supplies? Pack it in that cabinet. Is it something really unique that requires its own category? No problem: I can rename a shelf in one of my cabinets. Maybe I haven’t seen it in a few years and can’t for the life of me remember what it’s even for. It’s probably time for that to go. Letting go is the hardest part of cabinet cleanup, especially since I can attach sentimental value to just about anything. If it doesn’t have a home or a use, I try hard to thank it for its contributions and tell it goodbye.

     

    Label, Label, Label

    I cannot stress enough the importance of labeling. Particularly if you didn’t have a system before, labeling ensures that the new systems you’ve created are actually functional. Cleaning and organizing hasn’t saved you much time if you have to open every single cabinet every time you need your hot glue gun.

    The type of label you use doesn’t matter, but I’m partial to something that I can laminate and attach with tape or sticky tack. This saves me money on the labels themselves, but it also helps when I inevitably need to move something because I realize it makes much more sense on the other side of the room.

    Scholastic has a great, free tool called Word Workshop that has a multitude of uses, and labels for the classroom are one of my favorites. You can start from scratch and choose the font, border, size, and text yourself, or you can use a ready-to-go list and make whatever edits you need. What an amazing timesaver! There are options for printing directly to labels, but you can also print onto paper if you want to laminate and reuse them like I do. In the example below, I started with the “Classroom Items” ready-to-go list because a lot of what I need to label includes supplies.

    Side note: This tool is invaluable for making cards for your word wall too! Save yourself some table-formatting headaches and check it out!

     

    Set up Supply Stations

    If you’ve spent any time in a classroom, you know that it takes a lot of stuff to make it run smoothly. There are a million ways to organize supplies for student use; I happen to use community supply stations. (I know this isn’t a possibility everywhere, but organizing supplies is important no matter what your setup.) This can cause a bit of a headache in the first few days of school if the system isn’t clear, so I make it a priority to get these set up before kids come. Please note that I have a large stash of school supplies because I have limited self-control when the bright shiny displays show up in July, but even when my own supplies run low, I set up these stations the exact same way and label them. Even if they are empty on the first day, kids will know exactly where to put things away when they arrive. This means they can experience some independence in the classroom from the very first day. I teach older students, so my labels are text, but you could easily put a picture of a glue bottle on the glue basket for young students.

    I have two major supply stations in my classroom. This one houses notebooks, crayons, scissors, glue, highlighters, and sticky notes. Students take what they need when they need it, and we replenish as necessary. I will teach them how to manage the replenishing process as we get settled.

    Yes, my crayons are sorted by color, as are my markers and colored pencils (see below). I know this may seem a bit over-the-top, but I have been amazed at how much longer supplies last when they are separated. Black markers go fast, for example, but I don't need to put out a whole new box when that happens.

    This small writing center gives students access to a variety of pens and paper for drafts and publishing. In some classrooms, you may need a similar station for construction paper.

     

    Combine Calendars

    I know that there is room for fierce debate between those who love paper and those who love digital calendars, and I have spent time as a member of both sides. I’m not pitching one or the other here, I am just in favor of combining the highlights of every calendar you have into one master calendar. That way, you’ll know when a faculty meeting will interfere with soccer practice, and parent night won’t sneak up on you when you were planning to go to Girls’ Night. I even put things like afternoon duty on my master calendar so that I’ll know when I can schedule a dentist appointment or agree to babysit for a friend. Having everything in one place (whether on paper or digitally) helps me feel in control of my time so that I’m prepared for the conflicts that will inevitably arise.

     

    Manage Lists Digitally

    The last tip I have for keeping back-to-school stress at bay is to consider managing all of your lists digitally. I was once the queen of sticky note lists, and I often had one for each store I needed to visit, plus another one (or five) with my never-ending to-do list. This made for a pretty color-coded grid of notes on my desk, but it was less fun when I forgot my Target list on my way out and managed to spend $100 and only buy one thing I acutally needed. Combining these lists into a digital app has ensured that I am never without my lists, so I always know what I need to do and buy. On an iPhone, the built-in Notes app works great and lets me add photos and checklists. There are also a wide variety of list apps available if your needs are more specific.

    It is so easy to drown in the details this time of year, but I am committed to staying as stress-free as possible so that I’m not mowed over by the time my new students arrive. How do you keep stress away when August creeps up on you?

    Like many teachers, I am currently preparing for a new class of students to walk into my classroom and become my family for the next 10 months. I have been preparing in big and small ways all summer, and it still feels like I’m never quite finished. When I work in my classroom in July, it feels easy and light, like I should pat myself on the back for getting things done so early. Then I blink, and July has whooshed past me, and I tend to spend the first week of August in complete denial that it is actually August.

    Working in my classroom in August feels markedly less easy. In Texas, we start school that month, so I can hear the clock ticking as I check my to-do list, which tends to gain two items for every one I check off. This is year 12 for me, and it still happens. August comes, and I have to remind myself not to panic.

    To keep the stress away, I rely on several strategies to organize my classroom (and myself) so that I don’t get so overwhelmed with the details on the first day and can focus my energy on my new students. If you are looking for some new ways to organize your classroom, read on for more information!

    Five Ways I Organize My Classroom and Myself

    1. Control the Cabinet Chaos
    2. Label, Label, Label
    3. Set up Supply Stations
    4. Combine Calendars
    5. Manage Lists Digitally

     

    Control the Cabinet Chaos

    I have a love-hate relationship with my classroom cabinets, and I suspect I’m not the only one. I love that I can close the doors to keep overflow supplies hidden so my classroom looks tidy. However, because of that very advantage, I shove things behind the doors in the moment and then, wary of an avalanche and difficulty in finding things, I keep them there.

    Late summer is the perfect time to clean out those cabinets and put everything where it belongs. I start by plowing through one cabinet at a time and emptying it completely, sorting things as I empty. Once I have a cleaned-out cabinet, I decide what its function will be. Is this the home for extra craft supplies? Will it house the books that don’t belong in my library yet? Is it a good place for unit-specific materials? I have upper and lower cabinets in my room, so I also consider which ones the students can reach and how that impacts what I’ll store there. If I want students to be able to go to the supply cabinet to replenish erasers, then that needs to be a cabinet they can reach.

    Once I decide what the cabinet will store, I put a sticky note on it and put away anything that belongs there from the piles I’ve made. I continue through the cabinets, emptying, sorting, and adding to piles or putting away in the finished cabinets if the item belongs there. Note: It never fails that I reach the end of my cabinet-cleaning process and have a few small piles of random things that don’t belong in any of the categories I’ve created. This is a great way to determine the necessity of such things. Does it even loosely fit with the cleaning supplies? Pack it in that cabinet. Is it something really unique that requires its own category? No problem: I can rename a shelf in one of my cabinets. Maybe I haven’t seen it in a few years and can’t for the life of me remember what it’s even for. It’s probably time for that to go. Letting go is the hardest part of cabinet cleanup, especially since I can attach sentimental value to just about anything. If it doesn’t have a home or a use, I try hard to thank it for its contributions and tell it goodbye.

     

    Label, Label, Label

    I cannot stress enough the importance of labeling. Particularly if you didn’t have a system before, labeling ensures that the new systems you’ve created are actually functional. Cleaning and organizing hasn’t saved you much time if you have to open every single cabinet every time you need your hot glue gun.

    The type of label you use doesn’t matter, but I’m partial to something that I can laminate and attach with tape or sticky tack. This saves me money on the labels themselves, but it also helps when I inevitably need to move something because I realize it makes much more sense on the other side of the room.

    Scholastic has a great, free tool called Word Workshop that has a multitude of uses, and labels for the classroom are one of my favorites. You can start from scratch and choose the font, border, size, and text yourself, or you can use a ready-to-go list and make whatever edits you need. What an amazing timesaver! There are options for printing directly to labels, but you can also print onto paper if you want to laminate and reuse them like I do. In the example below, I started with the “Classroom Items” ready-to-go list because a lot of what I need to label includes supplies.

    Side note: This tool is invaluable for making cards for your word wall too! Save yourself some table-formatting headaches and check it out!

     

    Set up Supply Stations

    If you’ve spent any time in a classroom, you know that it takes a lot of stuff to make it run smoothly. There are a million ways to organize supplies for student use; I happen to use community supply stations. (I know this isn’t a possibility everywhere, but organizing supplies is important no matter what your setup.) This can cause a bit of a headache in the first few days of school if the system isn’t clear, so I make it a priority to get these set up before kids come. Please note that I have a large stash of school supplies because I have limited self-control when the bright shiny displays show up in July, but even when my own supplies run low, I set up these stations the exact same way and label them. Even if they are empty on the first day, kids will know exactly where to put things away when they arrive. This means they can experience some independence in the classroom from the very first day. I teach older students, so my labels are text, but you could easily put a picture of a glue bottle on the glue basket for young students.

    I have two major supply stations in my classroom. This one houses notebooks, crayons, scissors, glue, highlighters, and sticky notes. Students take what they need when they need it, and we replenish as necessary. I will teach them how to manage the replenishing process as we get settled.

    Yes, my crayons are sorted by color, as are my markers and colored pencils (see below). I know this may seem a bit over-the-top, but I have been amazed at how much longer supplies last when they are separated. Black markers go fast, for example, but I don't need to put out a whole new box when that happens.

    This small writing center gives students access to a variety of pens and paper for drafts and publishing. In some classrooms, you may need a similar station for construction paper.

     

    Combine Calendars

    I know that there is room for fierce debate between those who love paper and those who love digital calendars, and I have spent time as a member of both sides. I’m not pitching one or the other here, I am just in favor of combining the highlights of every calendar you have into one master calendar. That way, you’ll know when a faculty meeting will interfere with soccer practice, and parent night won’t sneak up on you when you were planning to go to Girls’ Night. I even put things like afternoon duty on my master calendar so that I’ll know when I can schedule a dentist appointment or agree to babysit for a friend. Having everything in one place (whether on paper or digitally) helps me feel in control of my time so that I’m prepared for the conflicts that will inevitably arise.

     

    Manage Lists Digitally

    The last tip I have for keeping back-to-school stress at bay is to consider managing all of your lists digitally. I was once the queen of sticky note lists, and I often had one for each store I needed to visit, plus another one (or five) with my never-ending to-do list. This made for a pretty color-coded grid of notes on my desk, but it was less fun when I forgot my Target list on my way out and managed to spend $100 and only buy one thing I acutally needed. Combining these lists into a digital app has ensured that I am never without my lists, so I always know what I need to do and buy. On an iPhone, the built-in Notes app works great and lets me add photos and checklists. There are also a wide variety of list apps available if your needs are more specific.

    It is so easy to drown in the details this time of year, but I am committed to staying as stress-free as possible so that I’m not mowed over by the time my new students arrive. How do you keep stress away when August creeps up on you?

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