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Teaching Secrets: Taming the Dragon of Classroom Chaos

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My classroom is not neat and tidy like some. It has that homey, lived-in, much-loved look. The tables are never quite in straight lines, the computer cords are twisted and tangled, and my teacher desk looks like a recycling center exploded on top of it.

When you are inherently disorganized, life’s simplest tasks can be overwhelming. I am a person who, left to my own devices, would simply suffocate under the piles of stuff that accumulate around me. Fortunately, I am not ashamed to admit this character flaw, and I search for tools and tricks that will help me exorcise the mighty dragon of classroom chaos—or at least force him to stay in his cave.

Over the years I have collected ideas from many teachers I have met in real and virtual spaces. While some of these strategies work well for them but not for me, others suit my teacher personality. I’ve managed to piece together enough tools to keep my classroom running fairly smoothly.

Here are my top 10 “stolen” organization secrets. They’re really only borrowed and you’re welcome to borrow any that might work for you.

1. Have specific places for students to turn in work. I use plastic stackable baskets with bold clear labels for each class period. This stops students from tossing a paper onto my desk and having it sucked into the black hole, never to be seen again.

2. Have a designated place for absent students to collect their work when they return to school. The last thing I do each day before leaving school is take care of work for absentees. I look at my attendance book and identify each student who was not present in each class period. I put exactly what we did that day—with any homework and handouts— in a basket marked both with ABSENT WORK and the particular class period. This puts the primary responsibility on the student, who knows my expectation that he or she will find the appropriate basket and act accordingly. It makes my life easier; if the question “What did I miss yesterday?” is asked, I point.

3. Have a NO NAME folder. Unless you teach in Lake Wobegon, your students will, on occasion, turn in work without their name. Certainly, my middle schoolers will! Later, when they note a missing assignment, you can ask: “Did you check the No Name folder?” I frequently hold up my red No Name folder with a declaration like, “Mr. No Name has an A in math! Do you?”

4. Use an online grading program. If your district does not use something like Pearson’s PowerSchool student information system (the one we use), fight to get it. Such systems make it possible to share grades and other information via the Internet with students and parents. This makes for fewer parent phone calls, fewer students asking questions about their grades, less time spent preparing lists of missing assignments, and best of all, no last-minute panic at report card time. Parents and students appreciate having instant access to what is missing and what is due. But do not get behind on grading. You expect students to turn work in on time; have the courtesy to assess and return that work promptly. And frankly, I find myself much more accountable when grades are posted for parents to view.

5. Have a board in the hall outside your classroom where you write what students need for class each period. This method of reminding students what to bring each day helps teach them to be organized. Students can be overwhelmed with different classes and different teachers. Thinking of everything they’ll need for the next hour during the four minutes between classes can be tough. A quick glance tells them whether they need their book, reminds them what homework is due, and helps them get it all together in a hurry.

6. Write the day's lesson for each class period on the board. This solves the perpetual “What are we doing today?” question as well as focuses you and your students on the task at hand. I can take a quick look at the list to know what is next in my lesson plan. Students who are leaving for an afternoon appointment can poke their head in during the morning break to see what they will miss. Also, write reminders for the week and other notes on the board so kids learn to look there for important information. Help them learn to be responsible and plan ahead. Help them begin to tame the dragon.

7. Expect students to come to class prepared. I do not allow them to leave the room to get calculators, pencils, etc. I loan pencils, paper, textbooks, etc., and they are all in a designated area of the classroom. I do not loan calculators, but can set the tone for this by repeating, "If you really wanted it, you would have brought it to class.” Time in the hall is wasted time, so I do not give students an excuse to leave. It becomes a non-issue as students learn to check the “What do I need for class?” board and realize I am not going to let them go wandering.

8. Keep seating charts handy. Put the charts on a lectern or other accessible location so you can take attendance in a split second as students are completing the class starter, a task written on the board to get their minds into gear. Mine also serve as rosters for fire drills, since I don’t have a portable grade book, and they are invaluable for substitute teachers. Our attendance is required to be posted online within the first 10 minutes of class, so I transfer it as soon as the bell rings.

9. Use email for parent contacts whenever possible. This saves time and makes it easy to keep a “paper” trail. Parents appreciate the ease of contact. Talk to parents early on—establish a positive relationship before there are problems. Send them a positive email about something you notice about their student. Those positives are like money in the bank when you do encounter a discipline problem later in the year. And, from an organizational point of view, these upbeat notes encourage the practice of communicating by email.

10. Let go of the things that don’t really matter. My first years in the classroom, I spent hours organizing my classroom-based library. When students returned books, I had to put the checkout cards back and re-shelve books in their appropriate location. A couple of years ago, I decided: Enough of that! Now students know my books are not organized. If they want a book, they will have to dig for it. It is almost like a treasure hunt. Books in order may matter to you, but for me, those are hours better spent on other things. Examine your own classroom for those details that you can bring yourself to let go.

Amid the chaos that is my classroom, a sharp observer will see these little islands of organization, floating in the clutter and disarray. My students and I spend our time together engaged in learning, and for the most part, things run smoothly. If you suffer as I do from chronic disorganization, I’m betting that your classroom could benefit from these helpful stolen ideas.

I keep wishing for a magic wand full of organizational fairy dust, but until then, these simple strategies will have to do.

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