By Sarah Papineau

I have seen many teachers move into their classrooms and find that the previous teacher left them the gift of 30 years of treasures in their closet. I have seen a new teacher marvel at mimeo copy worksheets gifted down from two teachers before her. I’ve heard another young teacher say that the teacher who had his room before him was a hoarder and left him with an immense amount of cleaning and sorting. The strange thing is that I can easily see why teachers tend to hang on to a lot of stuff over the course of their careers!

Consider that:

  • Teachers can be transferred to other grade levels (and back again).
  • Much of what teachers have in their room was purchased with their own money.
  • Few jobs in the public sector require that the teacher decorate a room large enough to fit 25+ students.
  • It is an unspoken expectation that room décor should change with the seasons.
  • Trends in teaching strategies tend to loop. Yesterday we taught cursive writing, then it wasn’t required, now it is back.
  • Some courses do not have specific curriculum or texts and the content is created by the educators.
  • The high cost of textbooks can also cause teachers to have to create many of the resources that they need to align their curriculum to ever-changing standards.
  • Educators don’t get to choose the most efficient furniture and storage options in their room. They get what they get.

There is no wonder that it is hard to let go of things in the classroom! Even so, there is merit to being purposeful in the things that you keep. So, how could you apply the four-week strategy to minimize clutter and organize your classroom?

Week 1: The rough start

Do some general cleaning in your classroom and sort out-of-place items into Keep, Give Away, Sell and I Have No Idea boxes or piles. Dust those spots that haven’t been hit since you first moved in to the room. Address your Keep box first to organize the items that you value and have a use for. Lastly, cram all of the remaining boxes into the closet until week two.

Week 2: The purge

Now is the time to sort through your I Have No Idea box and move those items to the appropriate Keep, Give Away, Sell boxes. I hope that this is easier to do now that you’ve had some time to commit to the idea of simplifying and reducing your stuff. With that done, find good places for your Keep items.

Being in a school building, there is a great chance that anything that is in your Give Away or Sell boxes can easily find a new home with another happy staff member. I guarantee that someone wants your old overhead projector and your half-used sheet of labels. Consider giving away unneeded/unwanted items to colleagues and offer to sell valuable items to them at 30 percent of the original purchase price.

Week 3: Get organized

Now that you’ve removed the obvious clutter of unused and unnecessary items, take another hard look at what is left. Ask yourself:

  • Is your space visually pleasing? Does it bring you peace? Is there anything that you could let go of to make it feel more so?
  • Is the layout of the room clear and purposeful? Are the items that you need to be able to teach in their optimal places?
  • Do you have too many “unitaskers” in your room? Is there another item that could do that job and others better?
  • Do your decorations appear orderly or chaotic? Could your décor also be functional? (Ex. Colorful pencils in a mug instead of plastic flowers)
  • Do you have a drawer and/or digital file where all of your vital paperwork is organized?

At school, I recommend that teachers keep their evaluations in paper form, positive notes/feedback from students, parents, and administrators, etc.

At home, I recommend that teachers file any journals they are keeping about issues or concerns in their school, a copy of their most recent resume, and copies of their employment application documents.

Feel free to ask the items in your room if they bring you joy. Let me know what they say.

Week 4: Letting go

Oh, the sentimental items. When one of the elementary teachers who I worked with retired, she filled two trucks and three cars with items from her classroom. To this day, I have no idea where she put it all when she got home.

I cannot imagine what you do with all of the sweet notes, pictures and meaningful stories that you receive each year. Even more unfathomable is what you do with 25 random Christmas gifts every year over the course of a 30-year career. That’s 750 coffee mugs, baskets, stuffed animals, candles, ornaments, figurines or singing trophy bass to find a place for. Your work life would have to seep into your home life, which makes it all the more important to have a method for letting go.

I encourage you to ask yourself the same questions that I’ve been asking myself about sentimental items:

  • Do you love the item and want to keep it?
  • Do you feel comfortable taking a photo of the item instead of keeping the actual item?
  • Am I honoring the item by keeping it in a box (should I display it, let go of it)?
  • Do I give myself permission to intentionally keep the item and have peace about it?

Best of luck if you decide to tackle the challenge of minimizing the amount of stuff in your work and home life. I wish you a wonderful spring full of new life, energy and simplicity!

Do you think others would like to hear about your efforts to simplify your space? Send your story and photos to editor@msta.org.