Your Messy Classroom is a Problem

clutter

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Are you one of those teachers who never throws things out? Is your closet stuffed to the gills with art supplies, science kits for topics no longer in your curriculum, and student projects from 1998? Do you have multiple filing cabinets filled with worksheets that haven’t seen daylight since the Bush administration, totes containing manipulatives you’d be surprised to learn you own, and a box of confiscated toys that lost their popularity five years ago? If so, you may be making your job and the job of your students harder.

We hold onto things for lots of reasons, and the more committed emotionally or financially we are to an item, the more we want to keep it. We might hold onto a box of old road maps because we have fond memories of using them to teach scale. We refuse to get rid of The Mailbox magazines because there are good ideas in them (never mind we haven’t opened one in a decade and all those ideas are on the Internet, taking up no physical space at all). We wrote and won a grant that we used to purchase keyboards for iPads, and even though the iPads have been replaced with Chromebooks we can’t bring ourselves to get rid of the keyboards.

One reason we don’t like to purge is that we may have made a mistake when we purchased or accepted the items in the first place. It’s painful to admit we’re wrong. Science has found that our brains react to the loss of a valued possession the same way they respond to physical pain. But although it might hurt, clearing out some of your crap will help you and your students.

Neuroscientists at Princeton University found that subjects in a disorganized environment had a harder time maintaining attention than those working in an organized environment. The study showed that physical clutter competes for our attention, resulting in poorer performance and increased stress. You and your students will be less irritable, more productive, distracted less often, and able to process information better in an uncluttered classroom.

The cleanliness of your room can also impact students’ behavior. A study conducted in 2006 by the University of Sussex took an in-depth look at over 100 English families with small children. Researchers found a clear link between cleanliness and order, and well-behaved children.

Like other teacher characteristics that harm student learning, we shouldn’t excuse a teacher’s messy classroom as a personality quirk. We don’t look the other way when teachers are unable to give clear directions because they’re scatter-brained. If we agree that students learn more from people they like than those they don’t, we shouldn’t permit teachers to be jerks. A teacher who’s a bully doesn’t get a free pass just because he experienced rejection as a child and has low self-esteem. Messy classrooms are a hindrance to student learning, and teachers should be encouraged to clean them up.

If you’ve got too much stuff, take these four steps to conquer your clutter:

Yearly Cleaning

Near the end of each year clean out your closets, filing cabinets, and desk. Do it while school in still in session. Many students like to help. Plus, it’s free labor. Your district isn’t going to pay you to de-clutter over the summer, and you shouldn’t work for free, especially when the work you’re doing will benefit your students. Get rid of anything you haven’t used in two years. Toss it, sell it, or give it away. I’ve never once went looking for something after this length of time.

Set Limits

Set limits. Don’t exceed them. Allow yourself three totes for science materials. Don’t buy any more bookcases. Get rid of a filing cabinet. When the totes, bookcases, and filing cabinets are full, you’ll be forced to get rid of something to make room for something new. Setting limits is like establishing a spending budget; when you hit the magic number, you’re done.

Cut Space

Force yourself to live within new constraints.  If you’ve got 12 boxes of stuff in your room, cut them down to six. You can do the same for digital clutter. Limit the number of emails in your inbox to 100. Limit the amount of Google Drive folders to 25. Limit the amount of files in each folder to 50. Learn to live within new limits and you’ll be forced to carefully monitor your stuff.

Would You Buy It?

Finally, if you can’t decide whether to keep or trash an item, ask yourself this question: “If I didn’t already own this and I saw it in a store today, would I be willing to buy it?” If the answer is no — and it usually will be– then get rid of it.

What about you? Are there strategies you’ve used to stay on top of clutter and keep your classroom organized? Let us know in the comments.

One Simple Way to Steal Time for Grading

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Every teacher I know would like to take less work home. It’s a worthy goal, and part of accomplishing it is finding ways to grade papers during the school day. There are obvious times like planning periods, recess, or, if you’re really dedicated and/or desperate, lunch. But I like to use those times for other responsibilities (in the case of lunch, to eat). That leaves grading while students are in the room.

Many teachers never grade papers in their students’ presence. With only so many hours in a school year to make a difference, they feel like when students are in the room they need to be actively engaged with them. They must be instructing, or working with small groups, monitoring, or mentoring. After all, they reason, so many kids need so much, how can they justify grading papers?

They also worry about what others will think. What if the principal walks in and finds them at their desks checking math tests? What if the reading specialist comes in to work with at-risk readers? Will she look down her nose or think the teacher lazy or lacking in dedication?

And there’s the guilt many teachers seem to carry around like a free tote bag at a reading conference. Guilt comes from violating our own beliefs. Since most teachers believe they should do everything they can to help students, taking time out of the day to score student work just doesn’t feel right.

But if you want to reclaim your personal life and stop taking so much work home, you’ll need to carve out time while students are in the room to grade papers. How can you do this in an educationally sound way that’s scientifically proven to benefit kids? Simple:

Give your students breaks.

Transitions Are Stupid, Breaks Are Not

I started giving my third graders five-minute breaks because I hate managing transitions. Conventional classroom management wisdom says that teachers should train students to execute transitions between subjects with crisp, quiet efficiency to maximize every minute of the day. Teachers are warned that sloppy transitions lead to misbehavior and wasted time.

But I always hated demanding these kinds of transitions. They made me feel like a drill sergeant. And I couldn’t help notice that with the exception of the military, adults rarely transition seamlessly from one activity to another. When I finish this blog post, I won’t immediately start planning next week’s lessons. I’ll watch football, or check Twitter, or eat Cheetos.

So instead of quickly switching from one subject to the next, I give my students five-minute breaks. Students can play games on their Chromebooks, read, draw, or just hang out and talk. I let them know when time is running out and count down so they’re back in their seats and ready when the five minutes are up.

Science Agrees: Breaks Are Good

Breaks are good for everybody. They allow us to recharge, adjust our moods, engage with others, laugh, stretch, and refocus. Science backs it up. A 2011 University of Illinois study showed that participants who experienced diversions once per hour did better at a task than those who plowed ahead with no breaks.

Breaks also help with student behavior. Because my students know I’m going to give them choice time on their Chromebooks a few times each day, they’re less likely to sneak onto a game site during work time.

Breaks can also help students get over frustration. One morning I was picking student jobs for our class lemonade stand. One student got upset because he wasn’t selected. If we would have moved directly into more academic work, his negative attitude would have led to a lack of attention during the lesson and a poor effort on the assignment. Instead, we took a five-minute break. I could almost see his thinking: He could sit there and stew and lose the five minutes of free time, or he could do something fun. He chose to play a game, and by the time we resumed, he had forgotten all about his disappointment over the lemonade stand.

Breaks also help me. They free me up to do some of the work I used to take home. While I sometimes use the time to get ready for the next subject, I’ve also used break time to work on my newsletter to parents, write sub plans, and check student papers. Throughout the course of the day, my students usually get three or four breaks, which means I get 15-20 minutes of work time. And it’s not as if I’m checking Facebook. Communicating with parents, writing sub plans, and grading papers are part of my job. I should do them while I’m being paid.

For Your Critics

There are teachers and administrators who will read the above and cringe at the “lost instructional time.” They’re hypocrites, and should the need arise, you can prove it to them.

The next time you attend a long professional development session with one of your critics and the presenter announces a break, interrupt her and ask if the break can be skipped. While everyone stares daggers at you, explain that you value your learning time too much to take a break. Tell her you don’t want to waste a single minute.

See how that goes over with your critics.

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Related:

Stop Complaining About Your Teacher Salary If You’re Working For Free

How Teachers Should Respond to Guilt Trips

Dear Teachers, Please Go Home

 

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