Piles of paper, boxes of books, file cabinets filled to the brim with unit plans you may use again someday. Most teachers have at least a few of these hoarding hotspots in their classrooms – and maybe their basements at home. Janine Adams, a certified professional organizer in St. Louis, offers advice on controlling teachers’ most common clutter culprits:

Books Adams recommends teachers keep their personal and professional libraries separate and create categories to make it easier to find books and to put them away. For classroom libraries, it might also make sense to implement a simple system to track which titles are circulating and which never leave the shelves.

“If you have some things that just don’t capture the kids’ imaginations, those might be the ones to let go of, whereas the ones that are super-duper popular, the ones that get more dog-eared, may be the ones that merit replacing when they get worn out.”

Material for different grade levels/subjects/units Teachers who find themselves teaching a new grade level or curriculum are often reluctant to trash materials they can envision using again. Adams usually encourages people to let go of unused items and this “might need it someday” mentality. “But, with teachers, especially when funding is so low for supplies, I can imagine it’s really hard to let go of good stuff.”

Teachers should cast a critical eye toward what they are saving and storing at least once a year to make sure it’s still current. Another key organizing principle is to make materials you’re currently using the most accessible. “You don’t want to have everything integrated so you can’t put your hands on the stuff you need now.”

Paper Adams advises clients to digitize papers when possible and create a protocol that makes filing and finding documents intuitive. Sticking with the same protocol also allows teachers to create categories as soon as they name a file. With hard copies, the simpler the system, the better.

“People tend to let papers pile up rather than taking the time to file them and that turns into an overwhelming organizational project and frustration when you can’t find stuff in the pile.”

Start with a basic approach – like creating a separate folder for each student – and only create subcategories when you find you really need them.

Supplies and equipment Teachers should start by going through gear and other supplies to cull clutter. Once they figure out what they have, they can set up a system that makes sense for their students and space. Grouping like things together, storing them near where they’re used, maximizing vertical storage space whenever possible, and getting into the habit of putting things away daily is a solid start. Adams also likes labeling things, which makes systems easier to maintain, especially if students help keep the classroom organized.

“I tell my team members that if you can’t put a label on something, you haven’t sorted it well enough. And they are not allowed to use a category called miscellaneous.”

Containers and other organizers Teachers who’ve probably already spent some of their own money to buy books and supplies don’t need to invest even more buying expensive containers and other storage systems. Adams recommends dollar-store dishpans as an inexpensive alternative for organizing picture books. She also implements cardboard boxes as drawer dividers and facial tissue boxes as plastic bag storage systems to dispense bags one at a time. One of her current favorites is using 6-ounce glass yogurt jars to corral everything from cotton balls to small craft supplies.

“It’s fun to go to the Container Store and buy fancy, pretty organizers. But, around the home or in the classroom, you already have so many things you can repurpose for organizing.”

Most importantly, Adams advises clients to keep their organizational systems simple, which is especially good advice for teachers who want students to help control classroom clutter.

“I try to keep things just as easy as possible because the easier a system is, the more likely it will be successful,” Adams said. “I think we all tend to think a complicated system is better, but it doesn’t have to be hard to be good.”

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