A Resource for First-Year Teachers to Create a Functional and Organized Classroom.
First-year teachers are so sweet, bright-eyed and innocent and filled with every good intention from a lifetime of waiting for this moment. The very moment that their education has been preparing them for. Their first day as a teacher with their very own classroom.
Organizing an entire classroom full of lesson materials, classroom supplies, furniture, toys, and decorations to fill an entire school year is a massive project. If not done correctly, a disorganized classroom will plague a teacher for the entire year. And, it can sink a first-year teacher in frustration and despair.
Our complete guide to organizing a classroom is packed full of really helpful tips to set up a new classroom and easily get through the school year.
Start with a Floor Plan
Beginning with a clean slate, start with the largest items first. Get measurements for your room and rough out a floor plan to decide where you want to place student desks, reading circles, and teacher storage.
A well-designed classroom facilitates flexibility. If you teach at the elementary level, then flexibility is more than necessary with all subjects being taught in the same room. If small groups or independent work are part of your teaching style, then zones are necessary to provide enough spaces for learning activities.
Some zones to consider for your classroom include:
Discovery Zone. Provide a fun and creative area filled with all of the items that spark curiosity like games, puzzles, fun books or magazines, manipulatives, arts and crafts supplies, and more.
News Zone. Dedicate a place where students can expect to find information on important announcements, assignments, and classroom rules. This zone can be a dedicated bulletin board at the front of the room or a free-standing sign at the entrance of the classroom.
Supplies Zone. Make a home for common classroom supplies like spare pencils, staplers, scotch tape, hand sanitizer, tissues, and tools.
Quiet Zone. Spending a whole day in a classroom filled with twenty or so other students can be a sensory overload. Not all students do well in stimulating environments. A quiet place to get a quick break can reduce a lot of the stress and anxiety from being overstimulated.
Teacher Zone. Don’t forget that the classroom is more than just your teaching space. It is your office too. Know your work style. If you will have students come to your desk regularly, put it in a central location. If you are a piler or tend to keep a messy desk, stick it in an inconspicuous corner.
Reading Zone. Create a classroom library with bookshelves and a seating area with an area rug and bean bags. This should be a flexible space for the students to sit in for storytime or to sit in and read independently.
Teaching Zone. Keep the area at the front of the classroom accessible with all of the supplies you might need during a lesson. Many teachers keep a well-stocked teaching podium or teaching cart at the front of the classroom.
Student Zone. Your classroom will come with 30 or so student desks that will have to go somewhere. These desks will function as your students' individual spots within the classroom. Choose the layout that works best for your teaching style. Desks can be arranged in traditional grids, clusters, or a combination of flexible seating options.
Learning-friendly classroom design is a popular topic in the education world. Many teachers, especially in their first year, are working with a non-existent budget and hand-me-down furniture from the school district.
Many school districts do recognize the benefits of flexible seating as part of learner-friendly classroom design. They just simply do not have a budget to buy new furniture for every classroom to match this trend. This leaves it up to the teacher to come up with a solution on their own.
Place some of your desks in a typical set of rows. Traditional classrooms have 30 student desks divided into five or six rows and a seating chart dictates where students sit. Flexible seating can boost student engagement by allowing them to sit where they want.
Place some of your desks in clusters. Some students love group work and thrive in the clustered desk format. Others feel stifled with other students facing them in a cluster. Provide the option for those students who prefer it, but also leave other options open as part of a flexible seating program.
Shorten the legs on a classroom table to coffee table height. An individual desk or around classroom table can be modified to be coffee table height and allow students to sit on the floor. Kitchen chair cushions can make it a little more comfortable.
Use a Futon and Fun Chairs. Create a living room space in your classroom with a futon, a couple of fun chairs, side tables, and a rug. Provide lap desks for students to allow them to work while they sit in a comfortable space.
Create a Group Table. If you like to work with students in small groups, set up a workstation with a semi-circular table that allows a space for students to gather around the teacher.
Creating a classroom layout that provides flexibility is the foundation for creating a functional classroom.
Organization Tips for Classrooms by Age
The grade level that you are teaching will dictate what types of activities and materials need to be organized. A kindergarten classroom will have things like toys and art supplies. Meanwhile, high school classrooms have a more minimal look overall less stuff.
Pair a brightly colored theme with a variety of well-organized learning stations to stimulate young minds and keep up with their chaotic pace.
As young children progress through elementary school, the amount of toys and play learning that occurs starts to decrease and transition to more structured learning activities. Create a supply station somewhere in the classroom where students can find all of the necessities that may be needed.
Students typically start changing classrooms by subject starting in middle school. Simply having fewer subjects contained in a single classroom will greatly improve the organization factor.
Most high school classrooms are pretty straightforward. A teaching zone, student desks, and a stock of textbooks cover most subjects. Science classrooms require a little more duty with double the stuff. Not only do science teachers have to manage the regular classroom stuff, but they have a large collection of lab equipment and supplies to organize as well.
Create a Classroom Schedule
For teachers who spend the entire day with the same students, a classroom schedule is really important. If your room changes by the period, then the school already dictates your schedule. By schedule, we mean blocks of time that will be dedicated to certain subjects or activities.
A schedule will provide the framework to organize your day in the classroom and make sure that you cover the material that is needed. Make sure to create a schedule that provides a consistent, easy-to-follow routine. As humans, we love consistency. Our brains do best when we have structure and consistency. A predictable schedule gives us the structure and consistency that we need and allows our brains to prepare to learn.
Start with a scheduling template that you like. The good thing about being a teacher is that others have been at this for a long time and most teachers are willing to share their goods. Look for a schedule template that has already been created by an experienced teacher and adapt it to your needs.
Get copies of school calendars. Block out the times when your students will be out of the classroom for things like recess, art class, or school assemblies. Use two different ways to identify these times to indicate if you will be available or unavailable. There are some things that teachers accompany their students to and other things that the teacher may have time to stay in the classroom and grade papers or do prep work.
Make a Separate Schedule for Early Dismissal Days. Early dismissal days occur often enough throughout the school year that they warrant their own schedule. You will be able to do all of the same activities, just with a little less time for each. Don’t forget to include copies of both your regular schedule and your Early Dismissal schedule in your substitute teacher materials.
Post it where your students can see it. Remember that the learning brain likes structure. Use a section of the whiteboard or a dedicated bulletin board to display the daily schedule that students can reference whenever they want to. It should be easy to read from their seats so go for something larger than an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper.
A class schedule provides a structure for all of the learning activities that occur on a given day. It includes both in-the-classroom and out-of-the-classroom activities so that students can know what to expect and when.
Organize Curriculum and Lesson Planning Materials
There are several levels of organization needed to keep lesson materials where you need them when you need them. Your school district will set forth expectations for how you will lesson plan, but most teachers are expected to (1) plan for the year, (2) plan for the unit, (3) plan by the day for the week, with varying levels of detail.
Lesson Plans for the School Year
Start with a school year calendar dedicated to lesson planning and map out what themes or topics will be covered during which months. We recommend keeping this handy in either a digital form or calendar book so that you can reference it when doing more detailed lesson plans as you dig into the content of the school year.
Lesson Plans for the Unit
In many school districts, this level of lesson planning is done on curriculum teams with your fellow teachers at the same grade level. Whether you are doing this as a group or individually, this is where you will choose specific learning activities to support the objectives of the unit. You will also make sure that all learning standards are being covered.
Lesson Plans for the Week
Buy a set of plastic drawers or bins so that you have enough to dedicate one drawer or bin for each day of the week. Dress them up with some fun scrapbook paper and use them to store lesson materials for each day in the drawers for easy retrieval.
Keep a different colored folder inside each drawer that is labeled with the subjects for that day. Plus, one extra folder for take-home materials. Announcements that come in from the office and need to go home to parents can go straight to this folder until it is time distributed to students.
Digital is really your best friend in terms of limiting the paper and clutter that takes up real estate in the classroom. But, digital isn’t always good for those who like to put good ole’ fashioned pen to paper. If you must keep paper copies, get it organized in a series of binders or file drawers so that you can find what you need throughout the school year.
Plan and Prepare for Teacher-Parent Communication
Some parents want to be involved in every detail of their child's education and others are comparatively very hands-off. As a teacher, you will deal with both. The best practice for teacher-parent communications is to provide the information and then allow parents to reach out by email if they need further details.
Getting organized with a few systems in place for communicating with parents will hopefully help relieve the anxieties of involved parents and prevent any tense conversations with parents that might come up during the school year.
Introduction to Parents. At the beginning of the school year, prepare a letter to parents that introduces yourself as the teacher and let them know how to expect communications from your classroom throughout the school year.
Survey the Parents. Also at the beginning of the school, send out a survey to the parents to find out what types of communication they would like and then adjust your communications based on that information.
Create a Communication Schedule. Decide how often you will send out communications to parents. Will you send weekly updates? Monthly? Only on an as-needed basis? Whatever schedule you choose, put it on your calendar as a required task so that you are not tempted to skip it when things get crazy.
Build Trust with Parents by Offering Involvement. Send home a fill-in-the-blank type of prompt for parents to tell you what they hope their child will get out of their time in your classroom. Many parents will not bother to fill this out. This is ok because those very hands-on parents will feel pacified that you are there for them and are listening to them.
Create a Monthly Classroom Newsletter. Keep parents informed of the happenings in your classroom by sending out a monthly classroom newsletter. Many parents really appreciate this information as their children are not always super communicative about what they did in school that day.
Decide how you will Communicate. Will you send home a folder with papers in it at the end of each week? Will you go digital and gather all of the parent's email addresses or use the school's network? Whatever you choose - pick one method and stick with it for the entire school year so that parents know exactly what to expect.
An open parent-teacher communication strategy is vital to providing the best educational experience for the students. Unfortunately, there are only so many hours in a day and this task often gets pushed aside in favor of lesson planning, copies, and grading.
Create Classroom Rules, a Syllabus & a Behavior System
Create a system for communicating expectations for behavior to your students and for managing those expectations. The first step for classroom order is managing student behavior. Reinforcing good behaviors and correcting poor behaviors is another job that the teacher is tasked with.
This can be one of the most difficult adjustments for first-year teachers. An unruly classroom is chaotic and stressful and can make any new teacher want to throw in the towel. More than any physical organization, it is important for teachers to take time to set up a system for behavior.
Create a Set of Classroom Rules. Students can only be expected to know how to behave if you, the teacher, identifies the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behavior in your classroom. Do not assume that students of a certain age have learned appropriate behaviors at home or from previous teachers. Physically create a list of classroom rules and post them in an obvious place in the classroom, like a behavior board.
Create a Syllabus for your Class. Some school districts require teachers to create a syllabus. Others may just strongly recommend it. A syllabus outlines all of the expectations for the class, including topics to be covered, grading policy, and classroom rules.
Create a Behavior System. Children do well if they have a visual reminder to keep track of their behavior. Some students are typically well-behaved and seldom have issues being chatty or getting out of their seats. Other children seem to have all the trouble in the world just sitting still. Create a system to keep track of behavior with positive and negative reinforcements. Consider using candy, stickers, or classroom perks to reward positive behavior.
Don’t forget to include a copy of your classroom rules, syllabus and explanation of your behavior system in your substitute materials. Post materials on a dedicated bulletin board in your classroom as a ‘behavior board.’ Send out copies of these plans to parents or make them available on a class website.
Organize Materials for Substitute Teachers
Prepare your classroom to be substitute teacher-friendly. Illnesses and surprise absences often do not present themselves with advanced notice so creating a system at the beginning of the school year that can be implemented on the fly will smooth out those disruptions.
Create a Sub Tub. There are certain materials that will always be applicable to a substitute teacher. It doesn’t matter what subjects you are covering. Create a home for these materials and keep them near your desk in an obvious place so that a last-minute substitute will have no problem finding them.
Prepare Stand-alone Lessons for Subs. Sometimes your absence is abrupt and there is no time to do a lesson plan for your substitute. Instead of leaving them with nothing, start out the school year with several stand-alone lessons that can be easily taught by a substitute.
Feedback Forms. If you would like the substitute teacher to leave feedback in specific areas, create a feedback form that provides the sub with writing prompts for feedback on your class.
Welcome, Letter or Podcast. Remember that if a sub is in your classroom, you won’t be there to give them any instruction. Create a welcome letter or record a podcast that the sub can listen to get all of the information that you might tell someone if you had five minutes to brief them before going into your class.
Reference Binder. Create a binder of common reference materials for substitute teachers. Some ideas of what to include are:
- Class Schedules
- Behavior & Discipline Policy
- Explanation of Incentive Programs
- Class Roster
- Student Information (i.e. medical alerts, behavior)
- Fluid Lesson Plans that can be adapted to any subject
Substitute Supplies. Provide a few essential supplies and a few nice-to-haves for your substitutes. Remember how much notice you gave the school? There is a good chance that your sub had even less notice that they would be coming in today. A small gesture of providing some snacks and fun office supplies is a nice way to say thank you.
You can always drop in more specific lesson plans as your absences occur, but prepping some essential substitute materials at the beginning of the year will make preparing for a substitute much less stressful. It is also a good idea for your students as a better-prepared substitute will be less disruptive to their learning.
Organization for Teachers on the Go
Some teachers don’t have the luxury of a dedicated classroom. Maybe they teach multiple subjects or grade levels and the district is not able to provide them with a dedicated classroom. If you fall into this category, or if you are a substitute teacher who is always on the go, there is a plan for you too!
Create a Traveling Cart. One of the best ideas for teachers who are always on the move is to create a cart that carries all of your supplies and can be easily moved from room to room as you change classes. A cart system is often paired with a bin system for lesson plan materials and a caddy of essential office supplies.
Lesson Planning Tubs. If you have a dedicated office to store materials in, but don’t like the idea of a rolling cart, opt for a tub system. Use one tub for each class and then simply go to your office between periods to switch out the tubs for your next class.
Create an Office in a Box. If you go digital and carry minimal supplies with you, an office in a box might be all that you need to move around with you. A small, easy-to-carry, plastic container with a lid is sufficient for an office in a box. You only need a home for all of your essential classroom supplies like pencils, pens, staplers and scotch tape. Choose a box large enough to hold standard size file folders so you can keep copies of worksheets and lesson plans in the box as well.
While organizing a dedicated classroom is the plight of most school teachers, not everyone is afforded the luxury of having a dedicated classroom. Moving between the teacher's lounge and a series of different classrooms can get messy if you are always leaving things behind. Teachers on the go should pick a system that works for them to manage their stuff throughout the school year.
Stock your Classroom with Essential Supplies
Some of the essential supplies used in your classroom are on the school supply list and will be provided by students on the first day of school. Things like tissues, dry erase markers and disinfectant wipes. Plan to receive a large influx of these supplies on the first day of school.
Dedicate Storage for Shared Supplies. Receiving 40 boxes of tissues on the first day of school that is meant to be used throughout the school year. This presents a pretty big storage problem. Most teachers will dedicate a cabinet or closet in their classroom to store these supplies.
Stock Extra Pencils, Glue, Crayons, etc. Even though students are expected to have their own supplies, there will always be students who don’t have a pencil or who have lost supplies. These minor nuisances can really stop your learning activities in their tracks. The most effective solution is to just keep a stash of loaners. Your supplies may quickly disappear though, so also come up with a system to make sure they are returned. Some teachers use an over-the-door shoe pocket organizer and ask that students trade their cell phones for the loaner supplies so that they will return them at the end of class.
Hook and Loop Fasteners, Command Strips, and Labels. Stock up on the essential tools of organization. Buy twice as many of these items as you think you will use. You can make impromptu hangers to mount whiteboard erasers to the wall or mount your classroom doorbell right where you need it.
Goo Gone or Adhesive Remover. Stickiness follows kids wherever they go, including your classroom. For icky stickies that require more than a towel to clean up, buy a bottle of Goo Gone or similar adhesive remover and keep it in the classroom. This product is great for removing sticker residue left behind from name tags, stickers, and other labels.
To make it through a school year, it takes the budget that the classroom is given by the school district, contributions from students' families from the supply list, and usually, a contribution from the teacher's own funds to stock a classroom. While these expenses are tax-deductible for teachers, they really add up fast when you are buying for an entire classroom of students. Planning ahead will help save your hard-earned money.
Organizing the Clutter in a Classroom
Once all of your learning zones have been outlined and all of the furniture has been placed, it is time to start bringing in all of the little stuff that clutters up the classroom. Books, toys, manipulatives, tablets, student supplies really add up. If not organized well, it just adds to clutter which creates a chaotic learning environment.
Create Home for Technology. Does your classroom have dedicated tablets? Will you have student computer stations? Technology devices are something that gets a lot of use in the classroom so having a plan early on to deal with it will save it from becoming a headache throughout the school year.
Create a System for Passwords. With as much technology as is involved in modern classrooms, students have a lot of passwords and logins to keep track of. Save yourself from spending time constantly retrieving student login information by creating a system for it at the beginning of the school year.
Create a System for Absent Work. Students will miss school a lot. With 20 or 30 students in a classroom, keeping up with who missed what work can become a big task. Create an absent work system with a wall file where you can stash extra copies of work each day. Students can retrieve their own absent work when they return.
Go Digital Whenever you Can. Use QR codes in the classroom that parents can scan with their phones to get information. Send out classroom newsletters via email or create a Facebook page for your class where you can post updates for parents and receive direct messages.
Use Interior Organizers. Say it again. Use Interior Organizers. Break up space in any large cabinets or bookshelves with a system of smaller organizers to group like items. Smaller interior organizers and labels will help you identify what is in each space so that you don’t have to unpack an entire cabinet every time you are ready to move on to a new unit.
Organize Your Papers. Are you a visual organizer? A wall file might make a better paper solution than a filing cabinet if you like to have everything out where you can see it. Do you prefer to have everything tucked away and out of sight? If so, you might prefer a filing cabinet. Somewhere in between? Try a bookshelf with color-coded binders to store your hard copies. Choose a method for your papers that works best with your style.
Having an organized classroom is really about creating a set of systems for the stuff that is used in the classroom. Keeping everything where it is needed and eliminating unnecessary items from the space. As a new teacher, you might find that your new colleagues are very eager to give you their clutter. With few exceptions, please don’t allow yourself to become the recipient of someone else’s clutter
Organize Classroom Decorations
How many bulletin boards are in your classroom? How often will you change them throughout the school year? Chances are that you will have different themes for different units throughout the school year.
Pick a Theme for your Classroom. Although sometimes it might look like it, classrooms should not be a hodgepodge of uncoordinated craft projects and student papers. For the cleanest look, pick a cohesive theme to tie your classroom together.
Create a Calendar of Themes. Create a calendar of the bulletin board and decor themes for your classroom and choose dates that you will need to spend time changing them out. Schedule this on your school year planner so that time is allocated when it comes time to make changes.
Create a System for Storing Decorations. Use a set of stackable plastic IRIS tubs to hold bulletin board decorations for each theme. Label boxes with the theme or month they belong in and store them away in an accessible cabinet so that you can retrieve the appropriate bins when it is time to redo a bulletin board.
Bulletin board pieces and decor items that are only needed occasionally can easily add to the clutter in your classroom. They make up a significant amount of the ‘stuff’ that you have to deal with and deserve their own solution to maintain order.
More Tools that are Really Useful for your Classroom
How do you choose between good clutter and bad clutter? Is that even a thing - good clutter? Yes and no, now let me explain. Clutter is just stuff. All of the things that go into your classroom to create a learning environment have the potential to be cluttered. Creating systems to deal with this stuff is what keeps it from becoming a nuisance.
Good clutter is useful items that belong in the classroom and need a solution to keep them organized. Bad clutter is all of the extra stuff that somehow finds its way into a classroom, but has no real purpose or value to learning. Keeping a classroom organized is a massive project that requires detailed attention to all of the clutter that is in the classroom.
Amazon Echo Dot or Similar Devices. Timers, random number generators, on-demand music, translation for ESL students, and weather updates are some of the really useful things that these devices can do for the classroom right now. The ability and usefulness of these devices in the classroom are anticipated to grow as they become a more mainstream device.
Blue Painters Tape. If you need to create a barrier or mark out a grid on the floor (or wall), blue painters tape is your best friend. It is easy to remove and leaves absolutely no residue. Keep a roll available in your teaching zone cart to be available on the fly during lessons.
String Lights. Good for quiet zones or for use in the entire classroom as they provide warmer calmer lighting. For days where students seem to be suffering from sensory overload, you can turn off the fluorescent lights and use the string lights instead.
Non-acetone Nail Polish Remover. Did you know this stuff removes permanent markers and cleans off whiteboard build up? With most classrooms using whiteboards these days, the board build-up is a real problem. A 99 cent bottle of non-acetone nail polish remover and a microfiber towel can clean it right up.
A Doorbell. A regular old desk bell is overplayed. Get a doorbell for your classroom and mount the ringer up at the front of the classroom in your teaching zone. This is a great tool to get your class's attention and sure bets yelling.
Wow, That was ALOT! Let’s Recap…
Preparing a classroom for the first day of school, especially for first-year teachers is a big task. One that requires a massive amount of organization. From creating a system and processes to physically organizing the contents of the classroom, it can take a whole summer to prep for that first year.
Make the most of your time by knowing what to focus on. Do take the time to create processes and write important documents like a list of classroom rules and an introduction letter for parents. Do budget some money for essential classroom supplies, but don’t go overboard. You don’t have to have everything in your first year. Plus, many teachers in your district might have hand-me-downs available.
With a little bit of organization, your first year as a teacher can be a success. From mastering lesson planning to classroom behavior, these resources will help you get organized for the new school year.
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