Sordid to Sort-ed! Five Steps to a Total Teacher Desk Makeover

The following is a guest post by Maia Heyck-Merlin, author of The Together Teacher: Plan Ahead, Get Organized, and Save Time! The original post may be found at her blog.

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The summer is a good time to get your papers in order for next September.

Reclaim your desk! You can do it!

Kelly is an incredible middle school science teacher headed into her 13th year of teaching. That’s given her  over a decade to collect all sorts of science materials and handouts from various professional development conferences. Add that to her work as department chair and several school facility moves, and it’s easy to understand how her desk got into such a state of disarray.

Kelly and I recently spent an afternoon sorting the accumulation on her desk so she could reclaim her teacher workspace, easily find what she needed, and, best of all, feel less stressed when she glanced over at that corner of her classroom.

Sounds like a big job, and it was!  But with a little preparation, it’s also one that can be accomplished quickly. We got everything sorted in just over an hour—and had fun while doing it!

Steps to Reclaim Your Workspace (it can be your desk, table, office, easel or any other space!)

A. Prepare for the Sorting.

Gather up the following materials:

  1. Manila folders (recycled are fine)
  2. Sharpie markers
  3. Post-its (for labeling piles)
  4. Lysol wipes (or any handy cleaning materials)
  5. One or two plastic filing crates and hanging files
  6. Some fun music and / or good snacks (Kelly and I  had lots of peanut M&Ms on hand)
  7. Find access to a scanner (most school photocopiers will scan documents into to PDFs)

B. Sort your papers into piles on a table.

We found all kinds of goodies on Kelly’s desk. We used post-it notes to label Kelly’s papers, and we invented the categories as we needed them.

Here are the piles we formed, using post-its to label them as we went!  (with photographic evidence to prove it!)

  1. Recycle. This was at least 50% of the paper: outdated PD flyers, student work no longer needed, science supply catalogues, etc.
  2. Donate. These items went directly to the school library or students (things like old science magazines and journals went here).
  3. Action. This pile was reserved exclusively for stuff that she actually had to do something with, like the letter from a student’s parent asking for more homework, her retirement forms, and papers to grade.
  4. Reference. This is where we held onto the stuff she wanted to keep, like last year’s faculty orientation materials and exit tickets from a PD she led earlier in the year.
  5. Forms. This one’s self-explanatory: for papers she needed to use regularly (nursing referrals, tardy slips, etc.).
  6. Classroom decorations. Into this category went the science posters, awards, and student class pictures.
  7. Current projects. (resumes of science department teaching candidates,
  8. Student work. She was keeping unit tests and essays for portfolios.
  9. Student work she had to keep, like parent-signed tests.
  10. Scan.  This is where we put student exemplars she wanted to keep for future lessons and PD materials too hefty to store in paper.
  11. “Doodads.” For Kelly, this meant all her random pieces of science equipment, old cords, and other gadgets. You’ll know what it means for you. J

C. Sort into three Fs—Fingertips, Front and Center, and Far Away.

After we filled a recycling bin, dropped some forms at the office, loaded the “doodads” in a labeled shoebox on the shelf, and found a student psyched to have the old science magazines, we were left with the rest of the papers.

We categorized what was left into the 3 Fs:

  1. FINGERTIPS: Papers Kelly needed at her fingertips on a daily basis.
  2. FRONT AND CENTER: Papers Kelly needed to do something with, sooner rather than later.
  3. FAR AWAY: Papers Kelly needed to reference on occasion.

D. Maintain your sorted system.

A key ingredient for success is maintaining the system after you’ve gotten it all set up.  There’s no point in clearing your desk on Friday only to find it under a mound of papers and unidentifiable classroom junk by Monday afternoon!

Here’s how Kelly and I set up her game plan:

  1. Incoming papers to deal with go right into Action. Kelly sorts through this at the end of each school day.
  2. Student papers that need correcting head to Grade.
  3. And everything else  goes to File. Kelly committed to dealing with this stack once a week, ideally on Friday afternoons.

E. Keep the sorted spirit.   

Schools are often full of unnecessary paper, and we teachers are often the major collectors. So…

  1. Print judiciously.
  2. Recycle regularly.
  3. Say “No!” to unnecessary materials (No, great aunt Tammy, I do not want your 50 year collection of National Geographic).
  4. Ask students to help you with filing.
  5. Resist the urge to plunk papers on your desk. Use your new system!
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