Becoming a 'Together Teacher': Organizational Tips for Educators

In this chat, Maia Heyck-Merlin, author of the recently published The Together Teacher: Plan Ahead, Get Organized and Save Time!, offered advice on getting this school year off to a better, more orderly start.

Becoming a ‘Together Teacher': Organizational Tips for Educators

Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012, 7–8 p.m. ET
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Becoming a “Together Teacher": Organizational Tips for Educators(09/18/2012)


Bryan Toporek:
Good afternoon, folks, and welcome to today’s free live chat, Becoming a “Together Teacher": Organizational Tips for Educators. I’ve just opened the chat for questions, so please go ahead and start submitting yours below.

Tuesday September 18, 2012 12:14 Bryan Toporek

Bryan Toporek:
We’ll be back here at 7 p.m. Eastern with Maia Heyck-Merlin, the author of The Together Teacher: Plan Ahead, Get Organized and Save Time! We hope you can join us then.

Tuesday September 18, 2012 12:15 Bryan Toporek


Bryan Toporek:
Good evening, folks, and thanks again for joining us for today’s free live chat, Becoming a “Together Teacher": Organizational Tips for Educators.

We’ll be getting underway in just a few minutes. In the meantime, please keep submitting your questions below!

Tuesday September 18, 2012 6:59 Bryan Toporek

Bryan Toporek:
I’m now handing control of the chat over to the moderator for the evening, Anthony Rebora, the managing editor of the EdWeekTeacher channel. Take it away, Anthony!

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:01 Bryan Toporek

Anthony Rebora:
Welcome to our live chat with Maia Heyck-Merlin. Maia a former 5th grade teacher
and now the author of “The Together Teacher: Plan Ahead, Get Organized and Save Time!” Welcome, Maia! We look forward to your hearing your advice.

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:02 Anthony Rebora

Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Thanks, Anthony. I look forward to engaging!

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:02 Maia Heyck-Merlin

Anthony Rebora:
Let me start with the first question: What’s the most common organizational error
or oversight you see teachers making?

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:03 Anthony Rebora

Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Great question, Anthony. In my experience, the most common error is not having a plan for your “flexible” time, meaning the time you have choice, and how you will use it. Most teachers have a plan for their “stuff,” and even for their supplies, but rarely do we make a proactive plan for our time!

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:03 Maia Heyck-Merlin

Anthony Rebora:
Interesting. Let me back up a little. You clearly see having strong organizational skills as central to effective teaching? Why?

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:04 Anthony Rebora


Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Indeed, I do see strong “together” skills as instrumental to teaching success.

The main reasons are:
1. Meeting the needs of your students
2. Your credibility as an educator--with families and students--will you call back?
3. Your participation as a colleague--will you get your shared lesson plans in?
4. Your sanity! Teaching is so darn demanding that unless you have a plan for breaks, the work is relentless.

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:06 Maia Heyck-Merlin

Anthony Rebora:
Ok, let’s take this one from Barb on where an unorganized teacher should get started.

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:06 Anthony Rebora

[Comment From BarbBarb: ]
Do you have 5 or 8 best suggestions to help someone who is unorganized to get started?

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:06 Barb


Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Hi Barb, Thanks for kicking us off with the super question. I would just start with three ways:

1. Create a Weekly Worksheet. This tool will create a precise plan for how you will use before/after school time, preps, lunch (if you have it), etc. Free templates are available on my website at

2. Pause to plan. Take an hour each week to clean up the week behind you and look ahead to what is coming up.

3. Consolidate your calendars. Take all of the calendars that your school or district distributes, pick ONE calendar tool (such as Google or paper-based) and enter in all deadlines for the year.

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:08 Maia Heyck-Merlin

[Comment From Mr. WhiteMr. White: ]
How can I get better at only moving papers once when the come in during the school day?

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:09 Mr. White


Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Hi Mr. White! Oh, yes, the paper storm! I’ve observed super together teachers do a few things:

-have a clear collection point for their students to deliver the papers, such as a vertical file on your desk or table

-process those files at the end of the school day religiously and either 1) grade them or 2) take them home to grade

-distribute them back to students via student mailboxes (crates for secondary students, traditional mailboxes for younger kids)--or have a student helper distribute them!

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:11 Maia Heyck-Merlin

[Comment From RuthRuth: ]
Do you use any computer programs or technologies that you think help keep you organized?

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:13 Ruth


Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Ruth, I have seen teachers use a few different systems--and sometimes they mix and match systems.

1. Google (Calendar and Task feature)
2. Outlook (Calendar and Task feature)
3. Evernote (free and awesome!)
4. Other apps, such as Toodledo or Reminders

The trick here is to see what feels comfortable to you. If you are just getting into the habit of being “together,” I usually recommend you start off with paper systems and integrate technology later.

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:14 Maia Heyck-Merlin

[Comment From ElizabethElizabeth: ]
What steps can administrators take to create a supportive environment for their teachers to become more organized? Can PLCs play a role in this?

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:15 Elizabeth


Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Elizabeth, this is one of my favorite topics. Having been on both the teacher and administrator side of things, a few thoughts:

- Create a quiet work space for your teachers. There are often too many interruptions in a typical teacher’s lounge, people in and out, noise of copiers. For teachers to truly get work done at school, they need quiet!

- PLCs could supply healthy snacks in refrigerators for teachers.

- Administrators can ensure there is a clear, common calendar, and that email is minimized.

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:17 Maia Heyck-Merlin

Anthony Rebora:
Let me break in here to draw on something from your book. Many people (myself included) have mixed success with to-do lists, but you are an advocate. Why? What do most people do wrong in making lists, in your experience?

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:17 Anthony Rebora


Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Anthony, great question. I’m a huge fan of to-do lists (Upcoming To-Do List, per my book) because often times, there are things that don’t go on our calendars because they don’t have “hard” deadlines, such as “re-organize classroom library.” This to-do needs a place to live so it is not lost. Once a week, I advise teachers look at their Upcoming To-Do lists and then slot things into actual slots of time.

If your organize your to-do list correctly, it is what I call “strategic procrastination"--in the very best sense.

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:19 Maia Heyck-Merlin

[Comment From AliciaAlicia: ]
Do you think that teachers of different subjects/grades require different skills? Or is it all the same whether you’re teaching elementary or high school, math or English, etc?

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:20 Alicia


Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Alicia, as the daughter of an art teacher (and I got roped into organizing her supplies!), this is a super question.

In general, we all need the same baseline set of skills: prioritization, planning, efficiency, organization, and strong execution. . . . However. . .

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:21 Maia Heyck-Merlin


Maia Heyck-Merlin:
There are a few positions that I have seen require an EXTRA boost of organization, namely:

1. teachers who deal with supplies (art, science, PE, music)
2. mobile teachers who teach from carts!
3. special educators who have a huge amount of paperwork

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:21 Maia Heyck-Merlin

[Comment From LeviLevi: ]
What would be your #1 advice for a 1st year teacher?

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:21 Levi

Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Levi, I get asked this question a lot. Knowing just how hard the first year can be (I routinely worked 80+ hour weeks), I recommend you determine when you are NOT going to be working and hold that time sacred. Burn-out is very real.

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:22 Maia Heyck-Merlin

[Comment From RuthRuth: ]
Would you reccomend using a paper or electronic grading system?

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:23 Ruth

Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Ruth, I would first check what your district has laid out. Many have requirements these days that you must use. If there is nothing, I would definitely use an electronic system that is backed up in the cloud. If you wanted to keep it super simple, you could just download Excel templates.

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:24 Maia Heyck-Merlin

Anthony Rebora:
On the subject of technology, you suggest in your book that technology (particularly email) can make teachers feel even more overwhelmed. What’s your advice on handling the deluge of info teachers get these days?

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:25 Anthony Rebora

Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Anthony, email is particularly hard for teachers--because if we are doing our jobs well, we are not in front of our computers much during the day! What most of us end up doing is semi-checking all day long on our smartphones, but actually never doing anything about it--because our students are coming in the door! I recommend picking 2 - 3 times per day to check AND DEAL WITH your email, and then one longer time for anything that takes more than 2 minutes.

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:27 Maia Heyck-Merlin

[Comment From MargieMargie: ]
How can a teacher (who is semi-organized) help colleagues with their organizational challenges?

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:27 Margie

Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Margie, my workshop participants ask this a lot. Modeling obviously helps, and being willing to teach the skills in a flexible way. If you are in a teacher-leader role, having detailed grade level/department agendas and notes and clear shared calendars helps. In my experience, most people don’t want to be unorganized; they just don’t know how to get there.

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:29 Maia Heyck-Merlin

[Comment From RuthRuth: ]
How can teachers show their supervisors and administrators that they’re organized?

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:29 Ruth


Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Ruth, super question. There are a few ways to show your leaders you are organized:

1. commitment to meeting deadlines
2. proactive planning to achieve goals (such as making project plans for field trips)
3. leading organized meetings or committees

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:30 Maia Heyck-Merlin

[Comment From SmithSmith: ]
How do I keep track of the folders students are supposed to take home every night and bring back -- but so few of them do. It turns into a huge waste of time checking through everything and sending it back again and again.

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:30 Smith


Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Smith, some of this depends on the age of your students, but here is what I have seen work.

- Ensure the folder has two pockets labeled “Bring Back to School” and “Stay at Home.” We show a model of this in our CBS interview (posted on our blog at

- Number your students and ensure that number is on your folder. Have one student collect everything in a crate in the morning to check and see if eveyrthing is there.

- Train your students’ families on your system. We have a few great letters home to parent samples on our blog.

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:32 Maia Heyck-Merlin

[Comment From TracyTracy: ]
I’m trying to organize some of my paper (meeting notes, admin papers, record keeping) into binders this year. do you have some suggestions for me?

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:32 Tracy


Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Tracy, oh, yes--paper! Many of us are drowning in it. First things first:

1. Recycle anything you can. Be brutal. Spend a few hours just tossing stuff.

2. Determine what you absolutely have to keep that you don’t have a soft file of somewhere.

3. Invest in or use your school’s copier as a scanner and turn as much as you can to PDFs to save on your computer or in the cloud.

After that, with the very minimal amount of paper you have left, create binders or file folders (takes less time than hole-punching) with clear labels.

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:34 Maia Heyck-Merlin

Anthony Rebora:
I liked you ideas about the “thought catcher”. Can you explain what that is and why it’s important for teachers?

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:35 Anthony Rebora


Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Anthony, Thought Catchers are places to “catch your thoughts” for later. Too often, we scrawl field trip ideas, summer reading list brainstorms, and ideas for the next staff meeting on whatever piece of paper we have in front of us--or just leave it in our brains.

If we take the time to organize those thoughts in ways that we can easily refer back to later, it saves so much time. . .

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:36 Maia Heyck-Merlin

Maia Heyck-Merlin:
. . . meeting agendas created
. . . memos half-written
. . . parent communications started.

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:37 Maia Heyck-Merlin

Anthony Rebora:
So how do you organize those stray ideas? What’s the best framework for that?

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:38 Anthony Rebora


Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Anthony, the simplest way to organize your thoughts is to create Thought Catchers (free templates available at Thought Catchers are nothing more than boxes with:

- colleague names--to record brainstorms for colleagues
- team or department names--to record thoughts for meetings
- future ideas--to gather ideas for the future

Then, we are often pushed back to review the thoughts through a meeting with someone or a memo we have to write--and they are all in one place for us! This sure beats having the scraps of paper scattered around!

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:40 Maia Heyck-Merlin

[Comment From Mr. WhiteMr. White: ]
My closet looks great now, but in two months I’m sure I won’t even be able to get in it. Help!

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:40 Mr. White


Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Mr. White, I just helped a teacher with 13 years worth of supplies--so I get this!

1. Start by getting rid of anything you don’t need (I always say this!). Be BRUTAL!
2. Ensure you have clear labels for every portion of your closet.
3. Train a student to help you put things away.
4. Keep a box outside the closet of “things to reshelve” so you are not tempted to stuff things in

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:42 Maia Heyck-Merlin

Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Mr. White, we also have some good pictures of organized closets, etc. on our Pinterest boards!

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:42 Maia Heyck-Merlin

[Comment From LeviLevi: ]
You talk about organizing your time and your classroom, but what about your office (or lack thereof) at home? How would you address the home office? Is it the same organizational tools or is it different?

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:43 Levi

Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Levi, it depends on where you are doing your “teacher work.” If you are indeed taking some home (and most of us do!) and space is limited, I suggest creating a “teacher basket” that has duplicates of all your necessary pens for grading, staplers, hole punchers, etc. so you can move it around the house if needed.

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:44 Maia Heyck-Merlin

Anthony Rebora:
In your book you emphasize the importance of setting classroom routines. What are the keys to doing this?

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:45 Anthony Rebora


Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Anthony, so in the case of area of expertise, I’m not talking about student routines, but rather routines for YOU! Given the fast-paced and unpredictable nature of teachers’ lives, I recommend:

- picking time to batch process routine weekly items, e.g. when do you copy all papers, when do you grade, plan

- setting clear morning and afternoon routines for what you do when you arrive and depart each day

- picking one time per week to plan for the next week

We have a blog post going live next week that shows a photograph of a teacher’s posted morning/afternoon routines. She says it completely minimized stress and added efficiency.

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:47 Maia Heyck-Merlin

Anthony Rebora:
Just for reference Maia’s website is here:

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:48 Anthony Rebora

[Comment From BobBob: ]
I need suggestions for myself as a traveling teaching of five rooms one being a lab which I must maintain supplies, , , just keeping things flowing.

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:48 Bob


Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Bob, this is definitely a tough situation, and I hope you have cart--or some large tote bags or backpacks.

- Ensure you have a clear method of transport (see above!)
- Invest in duplicates of key items to stay stored in the various classrooms hidden away
-Have a student helper get you prepped to move around

I just interviewed a teacher in San Jose who teaches math from a cafeteria stage, and photos of her systems are posted on 9/21 (Friday) on our blog.

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:50 Maia Heyck-Merlin

[Comment From SandySandy: ]
Discipline is a crucial factor in staying organized. What advice do you have for teachers with a busy home life or who feel tired at the end of the day?

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:51 Sandy

Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Sandy, my husband is a teacher, and we have a young daughter (and another on the way!), so I completely understand. In general, I advise using your preps (if you have them) to get as much done at school as possible. If you do have to take work home, pick a short period at night when you will do it. Try to define the work in advance of getting home. My own husband is downstairs grading his planned set of English essays right now!

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:52 Maia Heyck-Merlin

[Comment From JenniJenni: ]
But how do you keep some space between work and home? At least a little...and it’s easy to forget stuff at home or school when you drag work back and forth.

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:53 Jenni

Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Jenni, I’m glad you asked. We all definitely need space between our demanding jobs and home lives. To ensure you don’t forget what you need in either place, we recommend having a very organized and dedicated “teacher bag.” If you check out our Pinterest boards (search Together Teacher), you will see a few methods for transport we featured last week. In our experience, the labeled accordion file is key!

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:54 Maia Heyck-Merlin

[Comment From RuthRuth: ]
What would you say an unorganized teacher looks like?

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:55 Ruth


Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Hi Ruth, we all have our own images (and nightmares!) of being unorganized. For many of us, it looks like . . .

- being late (gulp) never returning student work
- making copies at the last minute
- turning around to fumble at your desk for supplies in the middle of teaching
- having to rewrite last year’s lesson plans because you didn’t save yours to just improve
- having items fall on your head when you open the supply closet. . .

Whether it is stuff, time, or papers, there are many ways to be unorganized. Our book tries to hit on all aspects of organization, but you can implement one thing at a time!

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:57 Maia Heyck-Merlin

Anthony Rebora:
Maia, for a teacher who’s feeling overwhelmed and unorganized at this time of year, what approach do you advice. How should he or she start to think about these issues? Getting organized isn’t something you can do all at once, right?

Tuesday September 18, 2012 7:58 Anthony Rebora


Maia Heyck-Merlin:
Anthony, I’m glad you asked. I often say getting “together” is sort of like getting “healthy.” If you tried to go to the gym seven days per week, eliminate all fat, etc., you would never follow-through.

I recommend going bit-by-bit and tackling whichever aspect you need most first, whether it is paper management, classroom organization, email control, or time management, and then making a six month plan. The journey of “togetherness” can take over a year--and we all need tune-ups now and again. We have some samples in the conclusion of the book, and many teachers read one chapter per month as part of PD / self-study.

Tuesday September 18, 2012 8:00 Maia Heyck-Merlin


Anthony Rebora:
That’s all the time we have tonight folks. Thanks for joining us. I thought it was a great conversation--very helpful I hope. Thanks to Maia Heyck-Merlin for participating and providing such thoughtful answers (at such a fast clip). Please check out her work:

Also note that we’ll have a transcript of this chat available on our site.. Just go to Education Week Teacher: And please let you colleagues know. Good night.

Tuesday September 18, 2012 8:03 Anthony Rebora


Bryan Toporek:
Folks, thanks again for joining us this evening for our free live chat, Becoming a “Together Teacher": Organizational Tips for Educators. A special thanks to our featured guest Maia and our moderator Anthony for fielding so many questions throughout the hour.

We’ll have a transcript of today’s chat posted at this same link within the hour. Thanks, and have a great rest of the night!

Tuesday September 18, 2012 8:03 Bryan Toporek


Becoming a ‘Together Teacher': Organizational Tips for Educators

Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012, 7–8 p.m. ET

Having strong organizational abilities can be a key to thriving (and surviving) as a teacher. Unfortunately, education schools don’t typically teach such skills, and many teachers quickly find themselves buried under an avalanche of ungraded assignments, past-due paperwork, and crumpled-up to-do lists. In this chat, Maia Heyck-Merlin, author of the recently published The Together Teacher: Plan Ahead, Get Organized and Save Time!, offered advice on getting this school year off to a better, more orderly start. She took questions on building a solid organizational system to help you better manage both your classroom and your life. Some of the topics that were addressed included planning and scheduling, creating classroom routines, managing paperwork and email, building work-life balance, and reducing stress.

Maia Heyck-Merlin, a former 5th grade teacher, is the author of The Together Teacher: Plan Ahead, Get Organized and Save Time! She is also the founder of Brass Tracks, an education consulting practice that specializes in helping educators create stronger organizational systems.

Anthony Rebora, Education Week Teacher, moderated this chat.

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