This post was joyfully co-written with Christina Nosek. You can learn more about Christina by visiting her blog, The Teacher Triathlete. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristinaNosek .

It’s the end of the school year.

We’re  trying to make use of every last moment.  We’re busy with assessments, field trips, field days, programs, report cards, last minute meetings, and much more. We’re feeling blue about saying goodbye to this year’s kids, but also excited about the much needed break we are about to embark upon.  By the time the last day comes, we’re exhausted mentally, emotionally, and physically. So, it can feel tempting to pile up this year’s clutter, stick it in a closet or cupboard, turn the key, and drive away.

But the temptation to stash the stacks of stuff is a dangerous one to indulge. Why? Because those same darned baskets, boxes, and piles (no matter how cleverly hidden) will still be there when we return to school in the fall.  Worse yet, although we might come back with a rested body, a renewed spirit, and a head full of fresh ideas, this year’s accumulation of clutter will still be there, meeting us at the door becoming an immediate energy drain and distraction before we even have the chance to greet our new group of incoming students.

You know the stuff we’re talking about:  The dried up old paint boxes, the partially used notebooks, the stacks of leftover worksheets, the mismatched containers, the binders of outdated curriculum, the cutesy decorations for every season and every reason plastered all over the walls, the baskets of broken crayons, the mostly used glue sticks… this stuff is everywhere!  It’s squirreled away in our cupboards, hidden on top of our shelves, overtaking our countertop space, hidden discretely behind bookcases, tucked in the far reaches of our desk drawers, nestled under the back table, or just hanging out in plain sight.

The longer we’ve taught, the more at risk we may be to succumb to the  stashes of stuff that sneakily creep up on us over time.  For some of us, after all, it’s not just nine months worth of stuff, it’s 3 or 7 or 12 or 26 times that (just multiply by the number of years you’ve been teaching).  Yikes!

We’ve kept this stuff for a variety of well-intentioned reasons:

  • A student gave it to us.
  • A colleague gave it to us.
  • Budgets are tight.
  • Someone else may need it someday.
  • It’s cute or decorative.
  • And, the most popular reason of all-  We may need it one day.

As well intentioned as our plans may be, all this stuff can start to create a sense of overwhelm.  It can also prevent us from making room for what really matters.  With a large amount of unneeded or rarely needed stuff taking up space, it truly makes it harder for us to organize what we do have and actually need. Not only does it make it harder to find our actual needed materials, but also it makes it much more difficult to become or remain organized.   As our spaces tend to feel tinier and more congested every year (probably because they are), both our vision and our productivity is impinged upon.  The ultimate result may be not only be clutter in our space, but also it clutter in our minds.

Plenty of research indicates that all of the clutter, excessive decorations, and masses of stuff everywhere are having a negative effect on student learning.  Take a look at this study, where Anna Fisher, lead author and associate professor of psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, warns that “a classroom’s visual environment can affect how much children learn,”  with more heavily decorated and visually distracting environments leading to smaller learning gains in children.

Luckily, there is a better way.  A much better way…

Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 9.02.21 PM

It starts with a classroom clean sweep!

What is a classroom clean sweep? It’s a promise to ourselves and our students to let go of the clutter and chaos in our classrooms, intentionally making more space for movement, collaboration, new ideas, and a fresh energy in the fall.

Sound scary?  It doesn’t have to be.  Below we offer a few tips to get you started.  Perhaps try starting with just one or two for now, and do more as you see and feel the positive change!

A Few Tips to Get Started

  • Look everywhere. Yes,  in every nook and cranny. The cupboards, the closets, shelves, the surfaces, and the classroom walls. You might try using the lens of The 5 Essential Questions for a Clean Sweep.
  • Let it go. Making a clean sweep is more than just “straightening up” a bit. A clean sweep means actually letting go of stuff.  Which, by the way, takes a bit of courage. But you can do it. You can actually live a better life without so much stuff weighing you down. There are two ways to let go.  
    • Throw it away. Toss or recycle anything that isn’t fully functioning, visually appealing, and likely to contribute to inspired learning.
    • Give it away. For those of us who have a difficult time throwing things away, comfort can be found in filling some boxes with stuff to give away. Just one rule to remember:  If it’s crap, it’s crap.  Nobody wants crap.
  • Consolidate. Consider using or creating community storage areas. Maybe you don’t need to keep all of this extra stuff for yourself.  Is there an area in the school where common supplies are stored or could be pooled and shared?
  • Unfile.  In today’s digital age, there is truly no need to keep a collection of paper files or even large, clunky filing cabinets for that matter!  
    • Toss or recycle old files that you haven’t referred to in the last two years. Remember, this is the digital age. Access to information is no longer limited to what we can cram into our file cabinets. With a few keywords and google search, you can probably find a new and improved version of most things you’re holding onto in those worn-out manilla folders.
    • Try digitizing the paper files that you really do care about. Why not consider scanning files you know you’ll need and organizing them in Google Drive.  Check out this Digital File Organization Cheat Sheet to get started.
  • Ask the kids.  Give your students a voice. Ask them to identify the stuff they found helpful this school year; charts, materials, tools, seating, etc.  If something isn’t mentioned by your students, ask yourself if it truly deserves to stay.
  • Phone a friend. We all know people who are naturally good at clean sweep behaviors. These are the people that don’t need to make clean sweeping a periodic event because they’ve made it a lifestyle.  Connect with one of these super sweepers and pick their brains a bit. Chances are, they might even offer to help you out once they hear what you’re doing.  Some people LOVE doing this stuff! On the other hand, maybe you have a colleague who needs a clean sweep as much as you do. Partner up. Encourage each other.
  • Focus. Make the most of the time you commit to your clean sweep project. Whether you decide to spend a single afternoon, a full day, or the two hours you have every morning next week when the kids are at soccer practice. It’s important to stay focused and not let the process drag on and on.
  • Work quickly. Don’t over think this. If you do, it can start to take on a life of its own.  This does not need to be a never ending process. When in doubt, let it go. What you really want to keep in your precious and limited classroom space is only the stuff that you TRULY love and REGULARLY use. If you have trouble moving along at a lively pace, maybe you’ll decide to set a timer for each area (20 minutes for the back counter, 45 minutes for the desk drawers).  You’ll also increase your efficiency if you try to only handle each item once before making a decision.
  • Take before and after pictures. We can think no better way to recognize and celebrate this work than by taking before and after pictures. And while you’re at it, why not take a photo of all of the clutter you are so bravely letting go.
Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 9.03.16 PM

We don’t have to have specific plans as we begin our clean sweeps. We simply need to dig in and do some letting go.  Letting go, of course, is the tricky part. But it almost always leads to the fun and easy part of making room for new possibilities. When you embrace a clean sweep, who knows, what you’ll discover:

  • An appealing alternative work station for students?
  • A more accessible space for math manipulatives?
  • A couple of empty shelves to organize a writing center?
  • Room to expand your classroom library?
  • A set of tubs for organizing shared materials?
  • A blank slate of possibility for next year?

Right now, you have the power to set the wheels in motion for next year to be the best year yet.  A clean sweep this summer will leave you ready to truly reimagine your classroom in the fall.  All kinds of possibility and inspiration await.  You  just need to make a little space for it.  So, grab some trash bags and boxes, roll up your sleeves, and start to create that blank slate of possibility.

Oh, and we’d love it if you’d share your before and after pictures of your clean sweep projects. Whether it’s a shelf that goes from overflowing to bare, a cluttered drawer transformed, or an entirely reorganized storage system, a picture speaks a thousand words.  You can share your photos or other clean sweep tips with the world on Twitter at #ReImagineEd

Consider making this the year of the clean sweep – not just for your own peace of mind, but for your future students as well.

It’s time to do some letting go.  

Kari & Christina