Organization for Teachers: Part One, The Classroom

Today in the Sunday of Summer: The August Series, I am sharing a two-part article to help classroom teachers organize learning spaces and community, as well as personal data and tracking systems. I taught many grades over my career, all in elementary school. My experience helped me train and support many educators, from preservice student teachers to veteran teachers looking to refine their systems for a more inclusive and positive classroom. 

First, in Part One of Organization for Teachers, I will share my top tips for organizing the classroom. I have taught in large rooms with space for many small groups, tiny rooms with hardly enough space for a teacher desk, and everything in between. My systems stay the same, and simply adapt to the physical space available. I’ll share what has worked for me, and please comment and ask questions, I’m happy to help with any specific questions. Enjoy these top tips for the biggest areas to organize in your classroom!

Flexibility Within the Classroom

I am a big fan of making sure each classroom fits for each class. One year, I had many boys with diagnosed attention and/or anger disorders. That was the year we had a class pet, a small and tolerant bunny rabbit named Rockin’ Baby. When I could see that some of the boys were having a hard time, I would have them help me with the rabbit. They would have to sit calmly and still to hold the rabbit while I cleaned its cage, and in turn, they would get a nice chance to calm themselves and also be a leader in the class by caring for our animal. 

Another year, one child asked if he could sit on a yoga ball. I told him that as long as it didn’t cause a problem for anyone else, why not! By the end of the year, we had all sorts of chairs in our room! The kids were more comfortable, they were responsible for their chair and their space just like normal, and we had a great year!

During an open working time, an individual practice of the concepts taught, my students worked anywhere around the room. Again, as long as it doesn’t cause a problem for anyone else, it’s fine. Under desks, at small group tables, behind the recycle bin, in our class library, outside under the windows, as long they’re on task, it was all fine with me. 

One of the reasons that we could enjoy the flexibility of space, is due to the organizational systems and explicit teaching that goes into ensuring everyone works together to create a positive and productive learning environment. 

The Teacher Area

Start with your desk. Even though you won’t spend a lot of physical time there during the school day, it is important to have your space ready to process assessment data, plan lessons, communicate with parents, and have a general work area. You will save so much time by having all of the materials you need close on hand. 

Every classroom and teacher is different, so I’ll share what works for me and why I set up my Teacher Area this way. 

-I use a corner area, in a front corner of the room with good visibility of the doors and the entire classroom. You’re able to see who is coming in the classroom, as well as what is going on in all corners of your room. I didn’t get many chances to sit down during the day, but when I did,it was nice to be able to still have a good vantage point for safety and support.

-I set up my area with a desk, table, and shelves, in a U shape. Picture you’re sitting at your teacher desk; table to the left or right depending on the room set up, and shelves behind. 

-Your teacher area should have all of your planning material, computer, and gradebooks at the ready. The last thing you want to do when you finally sit and get some grading done, is to run around and find your materials! I always kept all of my grades in a program on the computer, but I kept daily and summative assessment data on clipboards for easy access during class.

-I like to have a good amount of room to grade papers, enter scores into the grading program, plan lessons with all of my materials, keep personal items close, etc. The shelves behind my desk held all of the teacher editions for all of our adoptions, along with additional resource materials. 

-The table/desk that connects the teacher desk and shelves is my To-Do Table. I can prep out materials for parent volunteers or instructional aides and leave them in a basket on that table. I can file upcoming curriculum materials that are already prepared. Anything that is in process can be set on that table and it all stays out of my main desk and grading area.
-Now, the Teacher Desk, aka Ground Zero. This is where your computer lives, your classroom phone, your personal supplies, and personal items (purse, toothbrush, deodorant, the essentials!) You will do a lot of grading, recording and processing data, and planning curriculum in this area, so it needs to work for you. Start with your computer, make sure you can see the door, the entire room, and the screen does not face the class. You don’t want to accidentally leave a confidential document up on the screen and have someone see that! You also want to have clear lines of vision, for safety, as well as confidentiality. 

Student Seating

There is no one right answer for the best way for children to be seated in your classroom. Whether it is flexible seating, table groups, or desks, whatever you choose needs to work for you and value the priorities in your classroom.
My first two years, I didn’t have a choice, the entire school used desks so that’s what I used. By my fourth year, the mess inside the children’s desks was driving me so crazy, I had to make a change. I chose to use table groups after observing in several teachers’ classrooms, it seemed that their classrooms flowed more smoothly and the kids kept their materials neater. Both of those are wins in my book, so yahoo table groups!

Here are some top tips that helped make table groups successful for me; 

-One bin in the middle of the table with room for pencils, glue sticks, each child’s colored pencils/small supply pouch, and journals. I also had the children stow their notebooks/binders in the bin.

-Each table group had a table captain (rotated each week), who would be in charge of helping everyone at the table get ready for transitions. We only transitioned when everyone had their supplies and materials properly put away, and had a tidy floor area. 

-In addition to the small bin at each table for high-use items and in-progress work, my students had cubbies. In one school, there was not wall space for a large unit, so my husband and I made wooden cubbies in section of 6 cubbies and could easily fit into a variety of room configurations. In another classroom, the children had hooks for backpacks and coats outside of the classroom, and cubbies inside the room. No matter the layout of the room, the expectation for bags, coats, and cubbies was the same. You should be able to find your stuff and I should be able to help you. Simple. I cannot help you find your missing treasures if you have food, scrap paper, or 42 library books in your cubby. Everyone has a different taste and tolerance for how they want to keep their house or room or cubby, and as long as it doesn’t interfere with anyone else, go for it!

My first year of teaching, I was helping one girl clean out her desk, and if I’m lying, I’m dying, mushrooms had sprouted in the back. She had shoved food back in her desk and then put wet clothes on top of it and piled papers on top of all of that. Mushrooms. We both learned a lesson that day, and I’m happy to report no mushrooms grew in any of my classrooms after that!

Classroom Layout

This varies so widely with grade level, space in the classroom, the personality of the class, and your personal preferences. Bottom line, the classroom has to work for you to be able to be comfortable and lead your students with positivity. Here are a few of my go-to tips about setting up your classroom;

-You have your Teacher Area, and that may serve as your go-to teaching zone during the day, or it may not and you’ll need to set up another small cart or table to access materials during your lessons. You may have a document camera, smart board, white board, or a variety of other high-tech and low-tech options. I like to have my materials and iPad laid out for the current lesson on my small cart that also held my document camera. In addition to those teaching materials, I like to keep a few items like; stickers, markers, etc… handy. I also keep my in-progress clipboards on that small cart during the day (more on that in Part Two!). Also, small tip, but a big one… make sure that you can see the clock from where ever you are teaching. Yes, you’ll most likely be wearing a watch and have a phone/iPad, but the clock is a good reminder for timing and flow during your lessons.

-A small group area with a circular, kidney bean, or other table conducive to working with small groups of children. I would keep my manipulatives and hands-on materials (base ten blocks, class set of white boards, fraction bars, etc…) stored behind my small group tables, if at all possible. I also keep a small caddy of markers, stickers, pencils, sharpies, back on the small group table as well. 

-A classroom library is lovely to have! It is great to have resources and rich literature ready for the children in the classroom. In one classroom, I had rows of shelves in the library. In another, the library area was a large corner shelving unit with enough room for chairs. The exact layout will vary for your age group and spatial configuration. Whatever the layout of your room is, make sure you have a classroom library. This brings in the social aspect of reading, provides a gathering place for students, and a literacy-rich environment to support your guided and direct reading curriculum. 

-When you’re setting up your classroom, one area to keep in mind is a quiet zone or decompression zone. This ‘area’ will most likely not be one set area, it will evolve and move as needed. Providing an area or system for children with special needs to be able to relax and be away from the sensory overload that can occur is helpful. I had one student who liked to work under my desk, it was dark and quieter there. Another student needed to run a lap around the soccer field outside my room in order to calm down. Keeping in mind this system or area as an option for children in your class will be helpful and valuable to all of you. 

Lining Up for Recess/Lunch/Specials

When you travel as a class in the school, you first have to line up in your classroom. You’ll want to think about the amount of room your class will take up in your room, and what is within reach when kiddos are waiting to head out to recess or lunch or music. Depending on the size of the class, I would have two lines instead of just one. With 35 fifth graders ahead or behind of my 5 foot tall self, I could not even see the front or back of the line. When I had a wider classroom, lining up in two lines worked well. When I was in more long and narrow classrooms, walking in one line was the only way.

Something important to consider is the flow of the line, how the kids line up. If kids are coming from all directions, here will be traffic jams and disagreements and then everyone is late for PE. I called it a ‘one way street.’ However the kids approached the line, they line up traveling in one direction. There’s also less incidents of cutting in line, the worst for elementary kiddos!

There are many different ways of having the kids line up, maybe you’re choosing by neat table groups, maybe you’re choosing by color of shoes, maybe it is by birthday. However you have the kids line up, once they’re in line, the expectation is to get ready to go. If they need to take items with them, like backpacks and jackets, they should already have those on. If the kids need to put away things before leaving for library, have them do so before they line up. This way the transition flows more smoothly. 

Explicitly modeling and teaching the kids how to line up and how to proceed as a class to your next destination is imperative. From getting out of their seat and pushing in the chair, to lining up on a ‘one-way street’ to quietly moving through the school, all of these things will take time to teach and reteach. Be patient, they’re little kids and just want to build relationships with their peers. So make it fun to walk down the hall together! Teach them sign language going down the hall, they’ll be busy making the signs and will forget to chat it up with their neighbor. Hold up flash cards, and have them show you the answer on their hands! Tap out a pattern with your fingers and have them copy it. All of these strategies help the kids stay focused and all of the other learning environments through the school stay uninterrupted. 

Being clear, firm, and respectful with your expectations will go a long way to making your classroom a fun and loving learning environment. In Part 2 of this series, we will discuss the systems to create an inclusive, positive community of learners who feel comfortable to try hard things and celebrated with their individual achievements. 

Have a great day, Teach!


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