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Creating Mental Space through Classroom Organization

Megan Rubbelke
Megan Rubbelke

GUEST BLOG POST: Get ready for several blog posts coming your way in the next couple of weeks. I am kicking things off with a blog post perfect for prepping for back to school time this fall. The author, Megan Rubbelke, will be a 4th year secondary math teacher this fall in one of the most beautiful towns in Minnesota – Grand Marais on the shores of Lake Superior & just miles from Canada. Megan was my student teacher and was way more organized than most teachers I know before she even started teaching. She spoke on this topic at our state conference this year and teachers were gushing about all her great ideas. I asked her to share them with you. Megan is a young math leader. Make sure you follow her on Twitter! Happy summer everyone! – Sara VDW – Now from Megan….

Last year I found myself unofficially mentoring a young and overwhelmed first year teacher. It’s hard not to get overwhelmed as a teacher, regardless of your tenure. We had taken the “usual” steps to support this teacher (observing/being observed, sharing materials, joint lesson planning, etc), but teaching is a huge job. This teacher was hesitant to reach out for support so, when they walked into my classroom I was shocked. They stood in the doorway and just looked around my classroom. Our conversation went like this:

Me: “HHHHIIIIIII!!!!!!!!!!”

Them: “Hi?”

Me: “What are you looking at?”

Them: “Your room. It’s really organized. I need to be more organized.”

Me (about to get on my soapbox): “Organization is the one thing that keeps me sane. I seriously think it’s one of the biggest things that makes me a good teacher.”

Them: “Yeah, I’m not organized at all. Can you come look at my room and help me organize it?”

Me: 

Internally!
Externally!

This conversation became a catalyst for a 3 day process of organizing this teacher’s classroom. We were able to physically overhaul the room and consequently give the teacher a mental reset. Organization has always been important to me and I’ve found that smart and thoughtful organization contributes to the ease of an effective classroom. When others started recognizing this I realized that organization is a LEARNABLE skill. 

DISCLAIMER: This post is NOT about organizing your classroom to be Instagram or Pinterest perfect. 

Organization is about implementing systems, both instructional and non-instructional, to create physical and mental space in your practice. It is about creating time in your day. If you clicked on this blog post, you probably already recognize the need for time and space in your day as a teacher, but if you’re still unconvinced, here’s my elevator pitch:

I am a better and happier teacher because of my organizational systems. The cumulative sum of saving 1 minute here or 30 seconds there let’s me be present with my students and curate meaningful math experiences. Because of my organizational systems I am able to greet students in the hallways during passing time without feeling anxious about my next class. I am able to reflect on my lessons and write positive notes home. I am able to spend more time on the important aspects of being a teacher (not the countless other duties “as assigned”) and still find the time to take care of my physical and mental health (probably 70-80% of the time, but I’m working on it). I estimate that my organizational routines have created (at the very minimum) 20 minutes everyday which adds up to HOURS of time over the school year. All teachers work hard, but not all teachers work hard at the right things. Organizational systems give teachers time to work hard at the right things.

STEP 1: SHOW THEM WHO YOU ARE

Before we talk about saving time, it’s important to acknowledge the amount of time we actually spend in our classrooms. I’m still trying to find the elusive “work-life balance” and I’m getting better at it, but the bottom line is that from September through May I live the majority of my life at school. My home at school is my classroom. When anyone walks into my classroom I want them to know who I am and what I believe as both a person (Megan) and a teacher (Ms. Rubbelke). 

Let’s rewind to working with the unorganized first year teacher. The first thing I said when I walked into their classroom was: “This doesn’t look like your room, yet. I have no idea what you like and what’s important to you. You need to have things in your room that make you smile and give students an opportunity to ask questions about you.” I explained that you need to feel good in your space. This can’t happen if the space doesn’t look and feel like “you.” I asked this teacher to go home and bring back some things that made them happy or things they would be willing to share with their students. The next day they brought some artwork they created. I HAD NO IDEA THIS TEACHER CREATED ART. This instantly sparked a conversation between us, so I knew it would spark conversation with students. 

AFTER
BEFORE

I typically only “decorate” two places in my room: the door and my desk area. These decorations are usually never mathematical. There are always pictures of my family. I put up maps collected from my travels. I display quotes and images from current events that speak to me. This year I’m excited to show my love of the US Women’s National Soccer Team and social justice artwork. When decorating I ask myself a few questions: Do I love it? Does it reflect my values, beliefs and priorities? Is it communicating an idea that isn’t present in my classroom, yet? If I answer “yes” to these questions, I find a home for it in my classroom.

Examples of things I post on my door:

STEP 2: HELP STUDENTS HELP THEMSELVES

Teachers are asked 400+ questions a day and half of them are probably unnecessary. I think of these questions as “bathroom questions.” One of my biggest pet peeves is when a person asks: “Where is the bathroom?” Buildings and public spaces are *usually* designed with human needs in mind. If people would stop and take 30 seconds to observe their space, they would figure out where the bathrooms are BEFORE they even finished asking their question. We can design our classrooms with student needs in mind to reduce the unnecessary/”bathroom” questions and ultimately save the teacher time it takes to answer them. These questions fall into two categories:

  • Location: Where do I get ____________ ?
  • Start of Class: What do I need today?

Take a mental tally of how many times a student has asked you these questions. Now, estimate how long it takes you to answer that question. Do the math and figure out how much time you have spent just on these 2 questions alone. You can get this time back through some simple routines and visual clues in your classroom..

Where do I get ____________ ?

Reducing the number of times a student asks for the location of something is easy: LABEL EVERYTHING. Students will still ask where the gluesticks are, but I no longer have to answer them. I simply point in the general direction and they will find the labelled location. Or even better, another student will say “they’re in the box labeled glue sticks.” This is half of the battle. The other half is to teach students to take care of their own needs

I’ve started doing interactive notebooks (INBs) which require glue sticks and markers everyday. Markers and glue sticks dry out. I do not want to spend time checking each desk to make sure there are supplies or ferrying supplies back and forth. This would be me “working hard” at the wrong things. In my room students have the permission to get up and replace their supplies as needed. For the first month or so students will still ask if they can have another glue stick, but my response is simple: “Take care of it yourself. You know where they are. If you need something, just go get it.” 

I am always shocked about the constant asking of permission to meet basic needs in a classroom. I understand why we need hall passes for the bathroom and water fountain, but I fear that we are teaching kids that they need someone else’s permission to take care of themselves (yes, I know I am extrapolating). Even so, we can create a safe space for kids to practice this. Many kids want to take care of their needs themselves and labeling in my classrooms gives them the opportunity to do that.

As you start planning your classroom, consider the labeling or grouping the following areas in your room:

  • Supply Corner (markers, colored pencils, rulers, glue sticks, scissors, etc)
  • Lost & Found
  • Grooming (lotion, hand sanitizer, kleenexes)
  • Technology (calculators, Ipads, styli) 
  • Handouts (I just put all of my extra copies in a bin for each class)
  • Turn in spot/Inbox

What do I need today?

The first 5 minutes of class are the most critical. It is also when most of the “bathroom” questions are asked: What do I need today? What was our homework? Is it due today? What are we doing today? And my absolute *insert sarcasm font* favorite question: Are we doing anything important today? 

INTERNALLY
EXTERNALLY

Instead of getting annoyed at these questions I have realized that students ask them because they want to be prepared. Again, I want to help students help themselves. One of Sara’s mathematical goals is: “Students will see it before I show them. Students will say it before I tell them.” I would add: “Students will answer their (housekeeping) questions before they ask me” where housekeeping = anything about “doing” school that is not directly related to math content. Housekeeping questions are usually asked at the beginning of class. To help students answer their questions before they ask me, I use the same slide at the beginning of every class:

STEP 3: SAVE YOUR SH*T

This quote has been making its way around my social media feeds. I consider the teacher version to be: “Don’t teach the same year 35 times and call it a career.” If we want to continue growing we need to reflect and change. This only happens if there is a system in place for us to do so.

When I started teaching I knew that I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel every year. I needed a way to save my lessons so I would have a bank of material to pull from. I tried storing everything digitally, but it didn’t work with my style. I couldn’t find a system of reflection I liked (first I tried keeping a google doc for each unit, then I tried typing the notes at the end of my slides, neither worked) and I wanted to physically have the materials as I lesson planned the next year. Eventually, I settled on using Dropbox (similar to Google Drive) and curriculum binders to organize each class.

I have a binder for every unit I teach and keep them on a shelf behind my desk. These binders did not start off pretty. I scavenged mismatched binders leftover from our SPED department and labeled them with masking tape. During my 3rd year of teaching I invested in heavy duty matching binders and asked a friend to design the labels.

YEAR 1
YEAR 3

Within the binders I store my materials for every lesson. Each lesson is paperclipped together with a copy of the slides (I take notes on them before class and write reminders to myself) and one copy of every thing that goes with that lesson (INB pages, glue ins, activities, homework).

The most important part about this system is my reflection. Reflection is a loaded word. We all know we should do it, but it seems like an impossible task. We never find the time to reflect because we think it has to be comprehensive and groundbreaking. It doesn’t have to be any of those things. Let’s stop putting that pressure on ourselves. Reflections need to be informal, efficient and done in a way so we actually use them.

My reflections are written on post its and stored with the lessons in my unit binders. Post its are small and manageable. I’m forced to boil my thoughts down to the essentials. I take note of the activities I definitely want to repeat and the things I want to change (hopefully with an idea of how I could change it for the next year, but not always). I try to include how my students and I felt during the lesson. Then, when I teach the lesson the next year, I remember the “vibe” of that day and can make changes. This system isn’t fancy, but it actually helps me use my reflections to improve my lessons.

Bottom line: keep trying different systems until you find the one that works for you.

STEP 4: SO WHAT? NOW WHAT?

Organizing can be overwhelming. I promise that it is worth the time and effort. Here are some tangible ways to get started:

1. Make a list of the SPACES you want in your classroom.

Once you know how you want to use your classroom, it is easier to create those spaces. Think about what students are during in a typical classroom and what they will need. Think about where you are moving throughout your room. When you get back in your classroom you can group your supplies by these spaces as you set up your space. I have the following spaces in my room:

  • Supply Corner: for all student supplies
  • My Cart: Storage for instructional activities and handouts
I keep one tote for each class. All activities are either in envelopes or kept together by rubber-bands.
  • Play Table
  • Teacher Supplies: in a filing cabinet with 4 categories: office, art/holiday, paper, craft
  • Handouts: I keep bins of my extra copies for each class. I also tape no-name papers over the filing cabinets
  • Command Center: This is at the entrance to my room by the blue cart. Students will also find calculators, Ipads, lost & found, and grooming supplies here

Everything in your classroom needs a home. I asked the first year teacher about their thoughts before and after we organized their room. This is what they said:

2. Identify your DESK ESSENTIALS

We don’t use half of the stuff that is crammed in our desks. Figure out what your essentials are and find a different home for everything else. All of the “extras” that used to be in my desk are stored in filing cabinets nearby. My desk is organized in a few categories:

  • Break in Case of Emergency: Cough drops, band aids, medicine, movies and snacks
  • Office: Binder clips, paperclips, scissors, markers. That’s it. That’s the drawer.
  • Files: Standards, CEUs, Licensure information, PLC, Substitute information, Staff meetings, Qcomp and a feel good folder (saved notes/mementos from students and colleagues to help me on tough days)
  • Student: extra calculator batteries, playing cards/games for advisory, fidgets

3. LET IT GO.

If I walked into your room and pointed at a cabinet, would you be able to tell me everything that was in there? If not, you have some work to do. Whether you are a first year teacher or have been in your room for 10 years, classrooms have a way of accumulating stuff. When I first moved into my classroom, I spent the first week taking EVERYTHING out of the cabinets, shelves and desks. I found worksheets from the 60’s, tons of broken equipment and (gasp!) transparencies. I immediately asked the maintenance staff for a trash can and ended up filling a 50 gallon can (TWICE!) with all of the “old teacher junk.” If you are hesitant about this, I give you permission to throw things away. You do not need to hold on to materials you will never use. Organization takes maintenance everyday and every year. I consider myself to have a pretty minimal and organized classroom, but I still need to “cleanse” it every year. Last week I was in my room to start going through my stuff and found tons of things I no longer need (see picture below).

I plan on setting up a “free garage sale” during workshop week for other teachers to grab stuff they can use. I’ll have the new teachers come first and then open it up to the rest of the school.

As we prepare for another school year, let’s help ourselves and our students by reflecting on how we can improve our organizational systems to create a more effective classroom. Share your best organization routines or ask a question in the comments below!

Sara VanDerWerf
 

I am Sara Van Der Werf, a 24-year mathematics teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools. I have taught math in grades 7-12 as well as spent several years leading mathematics at the district office. I currently teach Advanced Algebra at South High School and I'm also the current President of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics (MCTM). I am passionate about encouraging and connecting with mathematics teachers. I'd love to connect via twitter.  Join the community.  Tweet me @saravdwerf.

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