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Organizing and Reorganizing Your Classroom

By Nancy Jang on January 13, 2011
  • Grades: 1–2

Teachers have a LOT of stuff. Especially primary grade teachers and pack rats. I am both. And I am not a naturally organized person. I have to really work to keep things where I can find them. I stalk organizational blogs, look into other people's classrooms for ideas, and buy tons of gadgets and sorters. Nevertheless, it's a daily battle to keep my life from becoming the next episode of Hoarders. Here is the 12-step program that I invented to keep myself organized.

1. Do not rescue anything from the trash unless you are going to use it this year. I often look at people's trash, sitting outside someone's classroom or on the sidewalk, and think, "OOOH, I can use that!" I lug it home, where it just becomes clutter in my garage or classroom. This a tough thing for me to resist because I have gotten some really cool items this way! If you do pick something up, get rid of two other items in your classroom that you don't use anymore.

2. Schedule ten minutes a day, an hour a week, an evening a month, and a vacation day every three months to reorganize and clean up. Follow it. I find that coming into school on one vacation day helps me get my head back into teaching and planning. It also allows me to take as long as I need to move some of my big furniture around and tackle major projects like cleaning out a BIG cabinet and reorganizing it.

3. When you are cleaning, make three piles: Trash, Give Away, and Keep. If you haven't touched something in three years, put it in the trash or giveaway pile. If it is something you use yearly, keep it, but put it away somewhere you can easily find it, and label the box or bin. Things I have a few sets of, that any teacher could use, I put in the give away pile, if they're in good condition.

When you are done with one area, say that BIG cabinet, take a minute to toss the trash out, send a quick email to your staff to come shop from your giveaway pile (make sure that you list what you have available), and give yourself a pat on the back for getting rid of stuff. In my case, I keep chocolate handy to give out to friends who come and take things away and to reward myself for cleaning. :) Items in the Keep pile get put away immediately. And though it's not environmentally friendly, I toss all extra copies of worksheets and scraps of used construction paper. I'm not at a point where I can manage it all.

If you have changed grade levels recently, take all the grade level stuff you are NOT using and either store it in your garage at home or give it away to the people currently in those grade levels. You don't need to have it handy, taking up space in your classroom. Keep only those things that you are still using for your classroom now.

4. Find your organizational style. I love the idea of neatly organized filing cabinets filled with color-coded, labeled files, but I am very visual. Things in file folders go into the filing cabinet to die. I am a "file by pile" gal. I like to things that go together to be all together, whether they are 3D or 2D. I couldn't do that with a filing cabinet (believe me, I tried). If you are a filing cabinet person, Angela Bunyi has some wonderful tips for you! If you are a file by pile person like me, there is still hope! I keep things organized by month and units, but in boxes, binders, and drawers.

Scholastic 008I use large boxes labeled by month to hold classroom decor and bulletin board setups. Legal-sized boxes are labeled with the months or units. So one box contains all of my holiday materials with examples for September through June. Binders live in these boxes as well, to keep the master copies flat and organized. I also have boxes for each theme in language arts with their respective blackline masters and for each science unit with samples, resources, teacher's editions, and pictures.



004 001 Math is separated into topic units, each with its individual topic teacher's editions and blackline masters packets. All of the manipulatives are housed in a tall Sterilite drawer unit, with each drawer clearly labeled. In each drawer, each child has their own baggie labeled with how many of each unit belong in the baggie. I train them to count their items when they get a baggie. If they have too many, they put the extra in the  drawer. If they don't have enough, they take from the extras that are floating around in the drawer. We count our units again before putting them back in the baggies and drawers. The drawers are easy to pull completely out of the unit, so it's easy to just grab the drawer and have a students pass out baggies.


5. Put your materials in a space that is easy to get to and easy to find. Under tables and between cabinets are gold mines of space. Utilize them to hold your materials. Before, I had four cabinets standing together with no space between them. My cabinets were full to capacity. I wanted my classroom to look less cluttered, to reduce visual noise and to create a smooth eye line in the room. So I spread my cabinets apart and bought a shower curtain holder and some curtain panels to create two closets. I put bookshelves in my closets, but you could store other items. I also make use of the areas under my table, but hide the clutter with a table cloth in a neutral color.

6. Support other pack rats and organizationally challenged people. Don't give things to them, offer to help them reorganize an area, or give them ideas for updating their space.

7. Ask people who are super organized to help you. A colleague of mine had her sister who is a professional organizer come in to help her. Her scrap paper was organized and everything had a home. I went in to talk to her and pick her brain for ideas.

8. Use your time wisely. I have a few colleagues who use their phones to help keep them on track with their time. They set their alarms to remind them when students need to go to special pullout programs. Use your phone to help you manage your time when you are cleaning, too. Remember, it will get messier before it gets cleaner, and even Rome wasn't built in a day.

9. Learn to notice when your materials are beginning to get out of control. Because I am used to the clutter building up, I often tell myself, "I'll do it later," but later never comes. So I have a "Later Basket" to help me. I throw things in the box when I don't have the time to deal with them or put them away. When the box is full, I stay after school (when I can have a chunk on uninterrupted time) and deal with ALL of it. This is also the basket I try and get to when I have a few minutes free during the day.

10. Don't buy anything new unless it is absolutely required. Use what you have, and borrow the rest. Many times I come back from a conference or a seminar with the latest gadgets and gizmos only to discover that I really didn't need them. They just end up in my overcrowded closet.

11. Don't be afraid to spend money on an organizational tool that you really need.
When I bought my Sterilite tower of drawers, I cringed at the bill. After I moved all the materials into the containers, I realized that it was a wise use of my money.  After three months of living with the materials in their organized spaces, I realized that I couldn't live without them now.

12. Being organized and staying organized takes work and patience. It's a process. Yes, things might get messy. The piles might threaten to swallow your desk, and you might become frustrated looking for things that you know you have. Don't give up. Take a step back and begin again. Have your kids, your significant other, your parent volunteers, teacher friends, and your students help you. Take a day or two and reorganize. Sometimes you have to try a few methods out to find the one that fits you best. I have a ton of file folders and three filing cabinets that I gave away after my failed attempts at filing.

I hope that you had a lovely, relaxing vacation and are ready for a fun, organized, efficient rest of the year. Join me next week as I post about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and  a heroes report for your students.

Happy organizing,


Comments (16)

Thanks for the reminders of cleaning out regularly! I also hate keeping extra copies of worksheets, but hate wasting the paper (even if I do recycle it!) just as much! I reuse it by putting it in either my writing center or my classroom printer. I am helping my students learn how to be aware of waste and I am not using up the expensive printer paper for things that I don't need perfect copies of. The kids can write/draw on the backside and I can print things that are not as important on the reused paper. Works great!

I agree with the settings file you have. I also use some places to distinguish which files you want to use and which files are not in use. Settings file is suitable for use in offices and schools.

Thanks Michelle for your comment. Now if only I could be as organized at home! :)

Happy Organizing, Nancy

Good to read your post. Well, organizing is a part of cleaning and cleaning is a great way to maintain a healthy and a safe environment.

Amanda Nehring, Thanks for your comment. The cheapest places that I have seen for organizational stuff... Target and Walmart, Costco and online, reallygoodstuff.com. I don't have a lot of money of spend, so I ask for donations from parents in my class, get stuff from my family members, and buy things at garage sales, Goodwill and Salvation Army. Walmart and Target are awesome because if you condense some of their displays, you can empty some of the cool strong cardboard organizers. I ask if I can have them when I check out. Most of the time, these items just get thrown away.

Happy Organizing, Nancy

Regina, Thanks for your comment. Hey we are all looking to save some money and recycle! I have reused many items that came with my basal or math program and repurposed them for something else. It's a smart way to organize and save money as well as be GREEN! (Smile!)

Happy organizing! Nancy

I used my Literacy Place Leveled Reader Boxes to sort and store my various art supplies. (I guess I'm cheap ~LOL) I prefer to keep the books in an easy to reach cabinet.

I love your steps for keeping organized! I have a multiage room, so I have two grades of kids with twice the stuff! I have been wanting to organize more, but cost has been getting in the way. Have you found any good companies/stores/sites with low prices on organizational supplies?

Julia, Thanks for taking the time to post a comment! Well, my room is actually a hodge podge too. I just disguise it a bit. I buys lots of shelving and storage items from Goodwill and garage sales and have received lots of treasure from donations as well. First off, it's awesome that you are handy!

You would be surprised at how much a coat or two of neutral paint on everything helps make it look like it matches. I chose a color that is close to my classroom wall color to make it blend in more. I also used the same color for my curtain closet.

The other thing I would look at is how to create a smooth eye line to reduce visual noise. Put things that are like heights together and for things that are bothering you or messy looking, cover it up by placing it under a table with a tablecloth.

You don't need a show! (Smile) I would love to help you. Where in the U.S. are you? If you send me your email address and some pictures, maybe I can give you even more help. Let me know!

Happy Organizing, Nancy

Amanda, thanks for your comment! If you have a small space, it's great to use space under tables, and on top of cabinets. I keep my math units in a tall lightweight bookshelf with cardboard magazine holders that are labeled on the side for each chapter. Other teachers have used a filing cabinet to condense it and keep it handy. We cover about one unit a week, so I like to keep them in a book shelf as opposed to on top of a cabinet, so I don't have to climb up every week.

The monthly/unit boxes have really worked for me. BUT I suggest trying it on for awhile maybe with just math and see how you like it. I tried filing things for about a month, gave up and then tried the monthly boxes and LOVED IT.

The black boxes with labels on the side came from a law office that went out of business and donated them to our school. You might be able to find them online like at Office Depot or Staples or if you know anyone that is a lawyer, ask them.

If you need more help, send me your email address and some pictures of your classroom.

Happy Organizing, Nancy

I love all of these ideas but what about when you have limited space? I love the idea of putting math in individual drawers and could do that since each chapter is a different TE but then I'd have to keep them up on top of the shelves and "climb" when I need them...which is fine....but does this work? The kids have bins that they keep their supplies in.

Also, what are teh containers you are using with the months? I LOVE that and could do the same with those(keep them on top of my cabinets and "climb" when I need to get them each month!)

Nancy -- all I can say is, I WISH! I have a former storage area as my alternative elementary classroom. I only have 2 tall cabinets and 1 short one. Everything else I have was either donated or garage sale, thrift store, etc. Nothing matches. I built my own hanging shelves, but my poor room still looks like a prime example of hodge podge. It is a daily frustrating battle. I'd love to have one of those room makeover shows come in and overhaul. Help!!

Gail, The slide in labels are a great idea! I am going to Staples to look for them. Thanks for the tip.

Happy Organizing, Nancy

Thank you for your comment. I love your idea of monthly folders to send finished work home with your kids.

Happy Organizing, Nancy

I am a very organized person too.

When I labeled my tubs, boxes, containers, etc., I used the clear pockets and clear labels. These are the type you slide your own piece of paper into for labeling. I am so glad I did that! After years of teaching at a grade level, I was assigned to a new grade level. If I hadn't used the clear pockets, I would have been picking labels off my containers. I didn't have enough storage room to keep all the old units, so I gave most of the "stuff" away to new teachers.

I replaced labels like "Native Americans" with "Space" for example, and was ready to start collecting information, ideas, and creative projects for my new units.

Nancy - I love all of your ideas. I know what you mean about having too much stuff. Where does it come from? I love the drawer units - easy to see and get to. One thing I do to organize students work is every student has a folder that they put their finished work in and at the end of the month, I pull out all of their work and put it in a large baggie that is labeled with their name and the month/year. Kinders are always losing things and this way parents can see it all and it won't be crumpled up and messy on the bottom of their backpacks. Now just to stay organized! Great job.

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