I wrote an article called Classroom clutter–what to keep and what to toss awhile back, in which I told the story of how for my first six years in the classroom, I refused to throw anything out because I might need it one day. I remember washing every plastic container that came into my household; empty butter containers, detergent boxes, take-out packaging, and so on. I stuffed everything into an overflowing cabinet in my classroom just in case I needed it for organizing or for a project.
This habit was built on a scarcity mindset: I didn’t believe I had the resources I needed to teach, and therefore had to hold onto everything that crossed my path in order to be able to make do.
It wasn’t until I moved from Washington D.C. to Miami that I realized I had accumulated enough random materials to literally fill an entire U-Haul truck. It was embarrassing how much stuff I had accumulated, and I had to be honest with myself and realize I only used about one-fifth of it on a regular basis. I started getting serious about my teacher hoarding tendencies.
I had to develop a mindset of abundance: the belief that I had everything I needed, and more was always going to be available to me exactly when I needed it. And I created that mindset by telling myself,
I like to streamline and simplify how my classroom runs. I don’t keep things I don’t really need. I could still teach well with a fraction of the materials I’ve accumulated. If there is something that I need later and don’t have, I trust that I will be able to find it again, or borrow it, or be able to do without it just fine.
The foundation of my classroom is my energy, enthusiasm, and know-how, not my stuff. I feel good about clearing away the things that drain my energy and enthusiasm by creating a cluttered, disorganized work space. I can let go of things I don’t need in order to make space for things I do.
I’m sharing that with you up front, because if you’re not in the mindset of abundance, it’s going to be impossible to clear away the clutter and get rid of things. You’ll tense up and feel a little panicky at the thought of letting your things go. So, practice having a mindset of abundance, and start slowly.
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This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 10-15 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead.
Consider getting rid of these 10 things:
1. Memos about upcoming meetings and events
You don’t need to keep these “just in case.” Copy the dates onto your calendar and throw the papers out.
2. Empty containers you’re not using
This goes double if they’re used margarine tubs, Pringles cans, laundry detergent bottles, and so on. There is no reason to feel guilty for tossing these in the recycle bin. Don’t try to justify holding on (like I did) by telling yourself, Oh, I can use these for center materials, or to hold math manipulatives, or office supplies. These are perfectly good containers!
If you’re not saving them for a very specific purpose (ie X lesson on X date), get rid of them! They will take over your cabinets and make you feel like a pack rat.
3. Your junk drawer
You know all the random loose paper clips, broken rubber bands, pennies, and toys you’ve confiscated from kids? Don’t lie to yourself and pretend you’ll clean that drawer out one day. You’ve got much higher priorities, which is why it never gets done. So dump the whole thing in the trash. Seriously. Do a quick scan and save anything of value, and then dump it. Immediately put useful things in the empty drawer so it’s full of stuff you love and actually use, and doesn’t become a magnet for junk again.
When you’re tempted to stuff something random in the drawer next time, you will remember how difficult it was to throw everything out and it will make you think twice about letting junk accumulate again. If something doesn’t have a useful place in your classroom, either create a place, or throw it out–no junk drawers!
4. Textbooks, worksheets, and lesson materials that were in the file cabinet when you moved into the classroom
The previous teacher was not doing you a favor by leaving you with a cabinet stuffed haphazardly with random materials–this was a little white lie she told herself to avoid having to clean things out. And if you hate the textbooks you have to use, there’s no way you’re going to be using the previous class set from 1993. Anything more than 10 years old should get recycled immediately unless it’s in new condition and clearly of exceptional, timeless quality.
Everything else COULD go in the hallway or teacher’s lounge for others to claim, but please don’t enable your packrat colleagues to stay stuck in their bad habits. A pile of resources in the teachers’ lounge marked “free” is irresistible to just about everyone, and you’re only encouraging your co-workers to accumulate more junk and possibly even use resources that are outdated and not best for kids.
If you wouldn’t want YOUR students using it, why would you want other people’s students to use it? The materials served their purpose for many years, and it’s okay to decide it’s time to let them go.
5. Papers and info from previous students
Keep your student portfolios and documentation of parent communication for one full school year after the students have left your class, then toss them out. So this year, you should be throwing out anything from the 2014-2015 school year. This is the second year those kids have been out of your class–you don’t need to cover yourself or keep documentation unless there’s a very special situation (and you know which kid you might want to hang onto the paperwork for.) Everyone else’s stuff? Recycle.
6. Artwork and sweet notes from students
When kids first gave me something, I’d display it on a small bulletin board for a few weeks, then discreetly clean it out to make room for more things. Most of it went in the recycle bin, but I had one medium-sized plastic tub that I used to store the most precious mementos and lovely letters from students and their parents. I got the tub in my third year of teaching when I realized my inability to throw away student artwork had become an untenable habit, and promised myself I would keep that tub (and only that tub) full of student notes forever.
So when I cleaned off the bulletin board and decided what to trash and what to keep, I had to ask myself, Is this worthy of being read 30 years from now? How does this compare in sentimental value to the other things in the tub?
The size of the tub forced me to be selective. I still have that tub to this day, but everything else got recycled. You can even keep your collection digitally if you prefer: take a picture and save it in a special Dropbox or iPhotos folder. But please–do not feel like it’s heartless to throw away things from your students. It’s a necessity.
7. Anything broken or missing pieces
Have a “missing pieces” tub in your room for students to put materials in when they find random items on the floor. If the missing pieces haven’t shown up by the end of the school year, you have to get rid of the item the piece belongs to. Decks of cards which are missing twenty numbers, puzzles without the final corner piece, file folder games where the last two items don’t have the matching pieces–these things cannot stay.
If you’re not going to fix it, get rid of it. No one enjoys being surrounded by broken, incomplete things. You and your students deserve better than that.
8. Books that you’re not excited about students reading
I know it’s painful for any teacher to get rid of books, particularly those you’ve paid for out of your own pocket, but anything that you really don’t want your students reading should be gone. That book from 1984 with stereotypical references to Native Americans? Recycle bin. That book where the main character is basically a bully and you hate how your students imitate him when they read it? Recycle bin. Books that are missing pages, scribbled on, disgustingly grimy…recycle.
If there’s a book you don’t want in your library but do think would be okay for students to keep, let them take the books home. Remember, you want your class library to be a beautiful, organized place full of relevant books that kids are excited to read, not a dumping ground for every text you’ve come across since 1977. It’s better to have a smaller, high quality collection than a huge collection of things no one is reading.
9. Multiple copies of papers.
I used to keep at least two copies of the teaching resources I really loved in case I lost one or the photocopier chewed it up. But 99% of the time, you only need one paper copy, and all those extras really add up. You might not even need one paper copy! For example, I used to keep anonymous examples of student work as benchmarks and exemplars for future classes, but then I started scanning or taking photos of them and threw the hard copies away.
Don’t hold onto to things you can keep digitally, easily find online, or get from a colleague if needed. Fear is not a valid reason to keep teaching resources: if you don’t do timed math fact quizzes anymore but are afraid to get rid of the giant stack, do it anyway, knowing that you can download them from the internet if you ever change your mind. If something is really important, it won’t be gone forever, because someone else in the world will have a copy of it.
10. Personal effects you don’t enjoy using or looking at
If something doesn’t have a purpose in your room–it’s genuinely useful, or it makes you happy to see it everyday–get rid of it. Your classroom is too small and full of dust already to have things that you don’t love taking up space. Toss out the “#1 teacher” picture frames cluttering your desk and the forty-five Lipton bags you somehow accumulated even though you don’t drink tea. Surround yourself only with things you use and love.
A short cleaning spree is a great way to start the school year and get some forward momentum in the battle against clutter. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed by all your stuff and aren’t sure where to start, simply throw unuseful things out as you come across them. When you open your file cabinet to grab something and you see that giant stack of outdated worksheets ,grab it and recycle it, then move on with your day. When you glance at your desk and realize you have too many knick knacks, pick a few up and toss them out.
You have to decide that you want to be surrounded by things you love. Things that are clean, and useful, or nice to look at. Things that genuinely help your students learn. And you have to decide that you don’t want those precious things to be obscured by all the other junk.
Learn to shift your approach from “Can I possibly use this someday?” to “How likely is it that I will NEED this one day in order to teach well? And if I really need this one day, will I be able to get it or something similar again?” That shift in questioning helped me let go of the compulsive need to hang onto everything.
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