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Tackling My Junk Drawers (and Closets, Shelves . . . )

By Alycia Zimmerman on May 16, 2012
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

There are dark moments when I look at photos of my “idol” teachers’ classrooms, and I freak out. Don’t these teachers ever have piles of papers? Unsorted books? Pencil-smudged tabletops? How are these classrooms so picture perfect? I look around my classroom and sigh — sometimes it feels like one giant junk drawer.

This year as the last months of school arrived, I’ve decided to truly tackle the mess. I’m lucky that I haven’t moved classrooms in four years, but that means my closets are overflowing with four years of assorted stuff. Come September, I know I will be swept into the bustle of setting up my classroom for my new students, labeling new supplies, and organizing new books.

Now is the time to get my current mess under control. Yes, I could just close the closet doors, but that’s not the deep-cleaning, power-washing, ultra-purging that my soul craves. Here is a real-time account of how I am de-junking my many junk drawers, one by one.

Sometimes I get so used to clutter piles, that I don't even see them anymore. I'm going to sort this area next!


My Random Philosophies on Classroom Feng Shui

Digging through piles of old projects, yellowed books, and unmentionable urban pest detritus, I’ve had plenty of time to think about my classroom, and what it means as a space. First a couple of truths, according to a dust-covered me. Take it for what it’s worth . . . 

Truth Number 1:

Teaching magazines, sitcoms, and teacher bloggers (yes, mea culpa!) will try to make you think that classrooms are orderly, glossy places. Think Post-it Notes stored in rainbow order, tastefully primitive artwork on the walls, and nary a pencil shaving to be found. This is a preposterous expectation for most of us real-world teachers, and we should not feel guilty when our classrooms don’t look like the academic version of a Martha Stewart Living cover.

Truth Number 2:

When I began teaching, my professors loved to preach about child-centered classrooms and “making room for students.” I’ve grown up with these teaching philosophies, so I never had a teacher’s desk to miss, and I’m quite comfortable letting my students’ projects colonize the flat surfaces in my classroom. However, at one point this year, with my students’ cardboard box inventions living on the rug, their papier-måché globes drying on the tables, and research posters leaning against all the walls, I had an epiphany. Yes, it is important to make room for my students’ work and their passions, but I also have to leave room for my students! As in, twenty-six bodies that need places to sit and move. Finding this balance is important.

Truth Number 3:

Don’t hate me for this one, but I do believe that teaching inherently begets hoarding. We don’t mean to do it. In fact, we teachers are incredibly good at sharing. But when we spend so much money already on our classrooms, it feels wrong to throw or give away items that we may someday put to good use. We’re also an incredibly resourceful bunch — there are so many possibilities for egg cartons! How to have a supply of egg cartons on hand when we need them, without being buried alive in the accumulated stuff, is quite a feat. I’m still working on this one . . . 

I can't even reach these boxes without a ladder! I wonder how much of this I really need.



Here in New York, we still have six more weeks of school to go. About a month ago I decided to tackle one problem spot a week until the end of the school year. My idea is that by the time school ends, my classroom will be clutter-free and sensibly organized for next year. I can try out my different organization schemes now, test what works and what flops, and refine my systems so I’m ready to go come the fall. I’m also clearing out a lot of space, leaving some shelves empty to take on the new materials that come my way next year.

A newly cleaned shelf makes me feel hopeful and ready for the next challenges.


My Findings

This is turning out to be a wonderful way to bring some closure to my school year. As I sort through closets and drawers, I think about what worked this year, what I used, and what I want to change. This deep cleaning is getting me excited for the possibilities of a new year and a new class. More specifically, here’s what I’ve discovered.

  • It feels great to give stuff away! I really don’t need the file-folder games I made when I taught 1st grade. Sure, it took me hours to laminate colored paper pieces, but when I hand the games off to a newer teacher who doesn’t yet have her own collection of center games, it’s more than okay — it feels great!
  • Stay away from the blogs. (Yes, I know this is counterintuitive to hear from a blogger!) There is an endless stream of beautiful classroom organization ideas calling to me from Pinterest, but I’m going to wait until summer break to start browsing. Right now I really want to focus on what I have, what works for me, and on doing some problem solving on my own. This honestly feels more authentic and less overwhelming, and it is making me think about why I want my classroom organized in certain ways, not just what it should look like.
  • Sometimes I need to ask for help. I was totally stressed as I approached my most offensive closet, filled with oddball books, crafts supplies, and shopping bags filled with everything! I ran to a colleague’s room, and she patiently walked me back to my closet and spent an hour helping me sort. No, she didn’t clean the closet out for me — I had to do that myself. But she listened as I talked through the process; she brought me more garbage bags; and she suggested teachers who’d love to inherit some of my cast-offs. A fresh set of eyes really makes a difference!

 My students will love to get this closet back!

I know my photos here of many of my trouble spots are hardly inspiring. I’ll share my new and improved organization systems another time. But for now, I hope that a few of my fellow teachers who also have problems managing their junk drawers will breathe a sigh of relief and know that they’re not alone. A classroom does NOT have to look perfect to be the perfect place for our students to grow.

Do you have a junk drawer you’ve been meaning to tackle? Tell me about it, and let me know that I’m not the only messy teacher! Do you have advice for my final push of cleaning? Please bring it on! You can also follow my organizing odyssey on Facebook or Twitter

Comments (22)

After what seems like a hundred years of teaching I am faced with calling it a day and packing up my elementary classroom. It seems like an impossible task, and the hoarder in me has me wanting to run screaming down the street! I can't give it all away because I need to sell as much as I can - we'll need the money. Any ideas for this packing extravaganza that's giving me nightmares?

Two more days with my students, I have rewarded them each afternoon this week with an educational movie that is related to something we have learned this year. During this time I have been purging files and cabinets. My closet is another story. I have so many plastic shoe boxes filled with stuff(my previous stab at organization) that I can't remember what goes where. I got so overwhelmed sorting charts this afternoon that I apologized to the custodian as I stepped over the piles on my way out the door to my car. I am determined to get it all organized even if I am the last teacher standing on my hall. The others are fairly new teachers, so I will be alone.

Your blog made me smile! I am one of those "I might need it someday" hoarders, to whom you refer, but two and a half years ago, my school got closed mid-year and all those hoarded treasures made their way into my basement, ready to move into my new classroom that fall.

As luck would have it, I didn't get a classroom that fall - I began teaching in the virtual environment, and my classroom is my home office. No need for student libraries (Grades 1-8, thank you very much!), but I did pull out and sort all of my resource materials, and my husband was kind and patient enough to set up a wall of bookcases onto which I transferred all of those resource books (yes, Grades 1-8). Now that I can see what I have, I can cull or loan easily.

If no one in your school building is in need of your treasures as you cull, consider posting them on a local Freecycle website - you post what you don't want or need, and others come and pick up your postings. It must be free, but it is a great way to recycle those materials that are too good to throw away, but you no longer need, or want, to keep. I've supplied a few brand new teachers with a number of resource books and piles of manipulatives, and it not only feels really good, it's a great way to winnow out a few more boxes of stuff!

I always introduce myself like this to new teachers: Hi, I am Ann, and I am a hoarder. lol so when they need something where do they come? you guessed it. I am also known as Mrs. Wal-mart cause I usually have whatever item u need. I did take the last week and clean out my file cabinet a job I had been dreading for at least 2 years. I admit it felt good to get some order in that one small area. Now on to the closet. Ugh pray for me.

I completely feel your pain. I'm just finishing up my fourth year as a teacher but I inherited resources and _stuff_ from 4 different retiring teachers. I had to change rooms at the beginning of last year and it nearly killed me. But you've inspired me: I'm tackling my closet next week!

I am surrounded by super-organizers at my school!! It's intimidating, to say the least. There's no way I can keep up, and I'm not sure I want to. I'd much rather enjoy the company of my kiddos than wipe tables or file like some other teachers do. I have too much stuff, inherited and accumulated, so most of the time I don't even know what I have or be able to find it if I know I have it. I need a system, but keeping the system going takes so much work! Help!

I can relate. Your classroom looks a lot like mine. One thing I do at the end of the year is give 1/2 of my classroom library away to students. I have so many books!

I am truth #3 as well. I hate to throw things away if it has the possibility of being used again. My kids just made aliens out of recyclables for earth day. My daughter always checks with me when there is something she needs, although her classroom is minimalist and she easily purges if things haven't been used. My thinking...as soon as I purge it, I'll need it.
I will head into class tomorrow with a goal of clearing one space and passing on a few things... Thanks for the encouragement.

Hi everyone - I'm Alycia, the blogger who wrote this post, and I just want to give a heartfelt thanks to all of you who have commented. It's pretty scary writing about things I'm not so great at (like closets - haha!) I feel so much better knowing that I'm not alone, and I really appreciate the advice from fellow teachers. I love teaching so much, and one reason is that teachers are so supportive of one another. So, thank you! :)Alycia

We have tow days left here in Arizona. I consider myself to be very organized, but am amazed in the amount of stuff that I find out of place as the year comes to a close. I am definitely looking for a better system for next year.

I too have problems with "clutter!" I have been doing the same as you & have been trying to tackle this issue a bit at a time! During our after school AR pizza/movie party, I cleaned out an entire filing cabinet drawer! I know that doesn't sound like much, but it gave me a sense of accomplishment! :)

An entire filing drawer sounds like plenty! Some days I can't even get through a single supplies basket. It does feel satisfying to get even little bits of mess under control. Thanks for sharing your success! ~ Alycia

Thank you so much for writing this! I am feeling exactly the same way. I am going to keep following your progress. You have inspired me to take before and after pictures!

I have been working on a major clean out and give away since last summer. I had accumulated 10 years of things and have slowly but surely been giving away the things I no longer use and throwing away the things that were no longer of use. Good luck and keep working, it takes a while but it is definitely worth it in the end.

I am so happy to hear from a fellow teacher that puts students first. I too have been reading on Pinterest and following bloggers who seem to have everything under control, organized, and in colored alphabetical order.
I have taken pictures of my classroom and also found those overlooked piles that I had gotten used to seeing. I am willing to work on these things but not to the extent others do.
Call me a pack rat or hoarder, I can handel it. I sometimes feel like a slob but I know where things are and I am one of the few who usually does not have to go buy something because I have it already.
Thanks for sharing. I feel better knowing I am not alone.

Happy cleaning!

I'm defintely going to use this idea of tackling one spot at a time. It helps to break it down into little jobs so that it's not so overwhelming come fall.

Truth #3 is ME!

It's so nice to know I'm not the only one who doesn't have that perfect looking classroom. My goal is to organize too! Now I'm inspired!

I had to laugh so hard at your "truth 3" photo because I have the EXACT same boxes. . . Bridge building and the black and white FOSS kits, plus other random stuff that needs decluttered. Good luck!

I highly recommend the book Spaces and Places as you begin your cleaning adventure. I love the inspiration it gives as you tackle what may seem like an impossible task!


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