Get Organized and Stay that Way

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It happens every year: you go to a few workshops or professional development events over the summer and you learn about so many exciting new ways to organize your classroom. Colorful charts, a rainbow of folders and communication notebooks, manipulatives and calendars… it’s all very exciting. You give up a lot of time and more than a little bit of money to get everything ready.

This is going to be the year you finally have a really great organization system for balancing communication, lesson planning, assessment, and more.

And by the third week in September, there’s a fine layer of dust on your colorful folders. The communication notebooks have been written in a few times. The students’ writing journals are still in their class period crates. To add insult to unorganized injury, every once in a while a student will ask, “When are we gonna use our journals again?”

What’s the problem? Why is so easy to “get” organized and so hard to “stay” organized? The answer is actually pretty simple: the resources that are supposedly designed with the teacher in mind are far from it. The work of being organized is often more work than teaching your students. It takes more time and energy to stick to a system that someone else created for you—no matter how exciting that system was at the time—than it does to teach.

An organization system sometimes creates more work than it alleviates, which is sad considering it was supposed to help you streamline your classroom so you can focus on your students.

What’s A Busy Teacher Supposed to Do?

They make it look so funny in the movies, don’t they? The teacher who blows in late to his own classroom in a whirlwind of papers and exhaustion, barking orders to his students to take their seats while he pats his pockets, looking for his chalk? Unfortunately, not only is that not an effective way to teach or send the message to students about how important their learning is, it’s also not a good way to keep your job.

Instead, let’s talk about the things that keep you from being organized in the first place, the things that make you crave those colorful charts and folders. Are you “overstuffing” your day or week with a hundred different activities or mini-lessons? Are you taking responsibility for all the workload instead of fostering responsibility and independence in your students? Are you trying to let someone else’s idea of an organized, efficient, well-run classroom fit your teaching style and personality?

Any (or all!) of the above can derail even the best organization style.

Where Do You Start?

The very first step in adopting an organization style—or even a product, like a calendar, system, or other concept that comes pre-designed—is to assess your needs. How do you know what “organized” looks like if you don’t know where your current system (or lack of) is falling short?

1. Communication – Are you communicating effectively with your students and their parents? If not, you’re not alone. In one study, 62% of the teachers surveyed said only about one-fourth of their students’ parents were actually involved in the classroom. But it’s a two-way street: how do you encourage busy parents to be a bigger part of their children’s learning if they don’t know what’s going on?

However, communicating effectively with parents and students can be a full-time job on its own; depending on what grade or subject you teacher, you might have a small number of students but teach all of the subjects, or you might have literally hundreds of students per day.

2. Grading – Ah, the old blue faux leather gradebook with its microscopic columns and rows, the book that you had to be sure to grab on the way out the door if there was a fire drill. The sure sign of a harried teacher was to see one of these gradebooks stuffed to the gills with paper-clipped stacks of ungraded papers wedged among the folded sections.

From personal experience, I can tell you why the wave of the future known as electronic gradebooks were slow to take off: administrators, plain and simple. And yes, I know that I’m completely finger-pointing. The first programs that came on the market were hard enough to navigate, but teachers were also required to keep a printed gradebook as official record. What was the point in doing it twice? The electronic gradebook did nothing for me except average the grades, which took far less time than having to enter grades into two different sources all year long.

Now, the opposite has become the norm, and digital has become the standard instead of the exception. But with e-gradebooks and cloud-based “access anywhere” record keeping, teachers can be expected to have their grades entered within minutes of completing an assignment—by students, parents, and even administrators.

3. Lesson Planning – Here it is, the big dog of teacher dilemmas, the struggle to end all struggles, the “Winter is coming” ominous part of being a teacher. Lesson planning can reduce even the most seasoned teacher to tears while causing the shiniest rookie to look at an archaic lesson planbook of 2-inch by 2-inch squares and ask, “How were you supposed to write everything in these little boxes?”

Twenty-first century lesson planning looks more like coordinating an Everest expedition than simply jotting down what you’ll teach in a week. There are standards to address, meaning every single lesson is supposed to line up with state or Common Core standards…and prove it.

Of course, different teachers will have different needs, but these are three of the major obstacles to classroom organization. And no matter how great your system looked in July (you know, when you were working and your classroom didn’t have actual students in it), even the best of them can crumble quickly if they’re not getting the job done.

So Here It Is… The Secret To Staying Organized

Ha, you thought I was actually going to bestow a secret imparted upon you like some mountaintop hermit! But seriously, the biggest problem with organization systems is this: it wasn’t made for you. It was made to be a one-size-fits-all approach that every teacher in the school can or must use, or it was made by an educational publisher to sell calendars, or some other reason that has absolutely nothing to do with actually asking teachers what they need.

It wasn’t about you. It was about the “system.”

If you’ve tried to “get organized” but can’t follow through with it, then that system wasn’t right for you. An organization method is supposed to make your life easier. It should make your lesson planning more useful and less stressful, make your grading system more purposeful, make your communication more inviting and less of a chore you do at your kitchen table at eleven pm.

Here’s a nugget of truth to tuck away in the back of your mind: if you have to sit down and “learn” an organizational system, it’s not going to help you. Attending a workshop, reading a manual, downloading an app and clogging up your device with icons you never touch are not helping you unless they meet a need that you have—as opposed to adopting technology just for the sake of being a 21st Century bells-and-whistles classroom—and can seamlessly incorporate into your daily life.

How To Stick With It

In order to truly adopt a more organized, less stressful approach for the long haul, it has to be something that you can tailor to your needs and your behavior. If you’re already doing a great job with communication, for example, then signing up for the latest parent notification app will just add another chore to your to-do list. However, if that’s an area where you find yourself falling short, look into platforms like Remind 101.

Speaking of tech, remember the long-standing adage about old dogs and new tricks. No, as educators, we have no excuse to ignore new advancements and technology, and we’d be doing our students a real disservice if we did. At the same time, you have to have some level of comfort before you can begin. Choosing to send parents a note or flyer is perfectly fine, but know that there are faster, easier methods that might actually make it to the parents instead of lining the bottom of your students’ backpacks.

If your gradebook isn’t as up-to-date as you or anyone else would like, there are tools and methods to help with that, too. Can you set up an input station in your classroom where students can take ownership of entering at least some of their grades? Is this cloud-based system your school adopted available on your phone for when you have some downtime? Find out your options before pulling your hair out.

No matter how you attempt to re-organize, remember that everything is a process. You didn’t learn to walk in a day, and you didn’t become the caring, dedicated teacher you are overnight. Completely changing your organization method and really making it stick is a process, too. Wash your hands of the things that only make your job harder, and remember that organization is first and foremost a gift you give yourself, not to someone else.

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