It’s my first year of teaching. I’m split between two classrooms in two completely different buildings. In one of my classrooms, there is no storage space. None. Mostly because it’s another teacher’s dominant classroom…if you can even call it that. It’s more like a computer lab. Don’t get me wrong, this teacher is genuinely kind and tries to make room for me. It’s just that he barely has enough room for his own stuff and I’m a nervous first year who doesn’t want to seem “needy.”
My dominant classroom has much more room. Too much room. I don’t have enough posters to cover the bare, white walls or enough supplies to cater to the needs of my students. Who needs a stapler, anyways? Although I have all this space, I truly have no idea how to create an organizational system for my classroom. When students turn in their syllabi and personal profiles the first week, I have no idea where to put them. I mostly leave assignments in piles stacked on file drawers or under my desk. Seeing the stacks pile up makes me feel overwhelmed which floods my brain with panic. You’ll never catch up, says my brain. Teaching will always feel like this.
“Can I get that paper back that I turned in like a month ago? I want to see how I can improve for my next paper.” asks Fred. A perfectly reasonable request from a perfectly reasonable kid. But it sends my brain into another panic as I search for an honest response that doesn’t make me look like a horrible teacher. You haven’t even started grading those papers. Where is that paper, anyways? Which stack has the Econ essays? Am I taking too long to respond? Does he know? At this point I’m about a month late in grading all my assignments. I think about grading all the time. But I spend most of my time outside the classroom working on lesson plans for 2 different preps: Econ and World History. Every waking moment seems dedicated to planning. How on Earth do people do this?
By September I was so far behind that I literally could not catch up until we got 5 days off in a row for Thanksgiving. Which is in November. The end of November. Even with all those days off, I could not finish all my stacks. Part of the problem was that I would carry student papers around in a reusable bag. They’d get wrinkled and damaged. History and Economics papers would get jumbled together. Kids would swear they’d turned in an assignment and although I didn’t think I had lost any papers, I couldn’t say it wasn’t possible. In short, it was a hot mess.
Another problem was that I collected literally everything the students wrote down except for lecture notes. I collected all warm ups, worksheets, activity notes, quick writes, text annotations-you name it, I collected it. Don’t get me wrong- informal assessments are good for monitoring student progress and understanding of the material. But over-assessing is a total rookie mistake that accounted for my stacks upon stacks of ungraded assignments.
And here’s the thing: my lack of organization negatively impacted my students. Fred’s request to see a graded paper so he could improve upon his next assignment is not just reasonable-it’s a good teaching practice. Students should see their graded or edited work before moving on to the next assignment. After all, how else can they improve?
I can’t say my grading organization improved much my second or third year. My second year I didn’t even have a formal desk in either of my classrooms. But this year, my fourth year, everything changed. I worked with teacher friends to trouble shoot things that frustrated me or made it harder to grade. I scoured Pinterest in search of the perfect classroom setup. I created solutions that gave students more autonomy in my classroom. Now, they find their own absent work, they have a designated area for supplies, they turn in their work to an organized box without me ever touching it.
The changes I’ve made this year are life changing. With the rare exception, I honestly do not take work home with me anymore. Some of this comes with experience and having lesson plans for all of the subjects I teach. (For new teachers, I do recommend you check out my Teachers Pay Teachers website. Letting others help is key.) Some of this comes from setting up grading time blocks for myself where I can be efficient in grading daily. Some of this comes from learning which assignments need to be graded and which ones do not. The rest I attribute to the new organizational stations and tools I’ve created around my classroom.
In my next post, I’ll go in depth on each aspect of my organizational system and show you pictures. Every part of my system was both cheap and easy to set up. Stay tuned.