Ep 87 How to tackle organization when you’re naturally disorganized

Imagine if teaching only involved the part where you’re interacting with students. Things would be much easier, right? But the reality is that there are so many facets of teaching that pull at us, and unless you’re hyper-organized, it can be easy to get overwhelmed by it all. I know that there are many of you that are FAR more organized than I am, but I really want to help out the rest of us that are too frazzled or absent-minded to be that way. Through a lot of trial and error, I’ve been able to keep my organization in check and at a manageable level, and I wanted to share some tips I’ve learned along the way. 

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As I mentioned in the introduction, I’m not a very organized person by nature. Now before you peace out because you don’t want to take advice from someone like me, remember that the people that are hyper-organized don’t understand why you can’t get it together. I do understand and have battled with this, and because I’ve pushed past it, I’m exactly the person you should take advice from!


So a lot of you really like planners, and I’ve seen so many people invest in those gorgeous Erin Condren planners. I personally LOVELOVELOVE to buy planners! I remember going to Michael’s and geeking out on the Happy Planner and all of the accessories that go with it. I bought washi tape, fun pens, cute little post-its, and everything else that you can use to pimp out your planner.


Here’s the thing: I LOVE to buy planners but I never, ever use them. I’ll try it for a month, and then I’ll stop using it. And I’ve invested literally hundreds of dollars over the years in planners that I never use.


In fact, my daughter laughs at me when I ooh and ahhh over planners and literally pulls me away. She says, “Mom, you’re not going to use it and you know it.” And I’ll say, “But look, it’s so pretty! If it’s THAT pretty I’ll use it!” To which she’ll reply, “When was the last time you used a planner for an entire year?”


And she has a point! The last time I successfully used a planner was in college some twenty years ago. So yeah, buying a planner is a waste. Plus, I have to actually remind myself to use it. Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of it?


But if you’re a die-hard planner person and can use it, then I highly encourage you to do so. Planners are such an effective tool for staying on top of things when there are so many balls in the air. I obviously won’t recommend one because I can’t stick to one, but I cast no judgment on how much or how little you spend on one.


So what do I use instead? Technology.


I’m an Mac and Apple nerd, and the fact that the devices sync with each other is really helpful. If I was an Android user, I’d probably use more Google Apps because I already use them a lot on my iPhone.


I make lists on the Notes app, use Reminders, and put all dates on the Calendar. I only use the native apps on my phone because I don’t find it necessary to pay for anything.


I used to not have a system in terms of planning. Every year I’d have to spend hours rebuilding what I did the previous year, and for whatever reason, I always want to change things up. Sound familiar?


So my first step towards solving this conundrum is I took a paper monthly calendar, went through the calendar in JupiterEd (which is the learning management system I’ve used for YEARS) and the assignments in Google Classroom from the previous years, and wrote down what I did and when. I needed a visual for what I had done before so that I could always come back to it. If you use a paper planbook, then you can do that too.


Next, I started to transition to creating notes in the Notes app with my schedule for the week or month. I’d put what I’d teach each day for each period, and it gave me the flexibility to adjust as needed.


I know some people who use Google Docs for this. The reason why I used the Notes app is because it didn’t require the internet to get my Notes, and unless I set my list as being able to edit offline, Google Docs requires internet. And while I usually have good service or Wifi, I don’t want to have to deal with it if I don’t. Also, in the Notes app I can create folders, while you have to make folders in Google Drive and then put the Google Docs in there.


There’s also Google Keep, which is just like the Notes app. If I didn’t have Notes, I’d be using Keep because it’s very intuitive and is a little bit easier to hyperlink to online files.


This year, I’m trying out something new by putting the agenda for each day on a Google Slide, and I have a set of slides for each quarter. I have a slide for each day with the periods listed since I have more than one prep. I used to put the Google Drive links with the resources I used in the speaker notes section of each slide, but honestly, I’ve kind of slacked off on that part. 


In any case, this method helps me stay organized, and ideally, I can just reuse these slides next year with new dates. I’m basically trying to make it so that I don’t have to do any planning next year unless I feel compelled to. I don’t want to slave away at planning anymore, especially if what I’m doing this year is effective. I mean, unless you hate what you did last year, you can just reuse everything with minor tweaks. That will save you a LOT of time while also keeping you organized! 


And another way to cut down on planning the next year is to take notes after a lesson that you know needs to be better next time. For example, if you need more or less time next year, write that down. If the activity didn’t help the kids learn what they needed to do, write that down so that you can find a replacement.


So there’s definitely work upfront, but it means that with each subsequent year, it’ll become easier and easier because you’ll have a system down.


The next part of being organized is your classroom. I have a unique advantage this year in that I don’t have my own room. It might seem like a nightmare, but traveling to different rooms means that I have to be very strategic in terms of what I take with me. I’ve opted out of getting a teacher cart and basically have a few bags. And I’ve been more organized than ever before!


So think about what it is that you really, truly need on your desk. I’m all for having photos of your family, friends, and pets. But do you really need all of the desktop organizational systems? How often do you reach for what’s in it? Can it have its own bin in a drawer so that you don’t have to look at it all of the time?


In terms of what’s on your desk, try to keep it to things that you find yourself reaching for frequently. This could be post-its, pens, pencils, tape, stapler, and a pencil sharpener. The more you stuff you pile on your desk, the less real estate you have to actually work!


If you can, take advantage of drawers in your desk, and if you don’t have any, you can buy one of those rolling drawer systems for supplies like rubber bands and white-board markers. But having a desk that is relatively clutter-free will help your sanity and level of organization.

Now let’s talk about bins. I know a lot of teachers with a TON of bins that are filled with stuff they never use anymore. What’s the point of that? The more stuff you have in your room the less room you have for teaching. You don’t need to cover every space with something, and in fact, too much clutter is also distracting for students.


So the more storage you give yourself in your room, the more likely you’re going to fill it with things that you don’t need anymore. In my End-of-the-year Sanity Saver course, I have an exercise where you pack up your stuff in preparation for summer cleaning. This is the perfect time to get rid of stuff that you know you won’t use because you haven’t


When I moved out my classroom, I got rid of a LOT of stuff and pared down everything to about five small boxes. And now that I’ve traveled and know what I truly need, I know that I’m going to get rid of even more stuff at the end of this year. But what if I get my own classroom again? I still know that I don’t need so much stuff to do a good job.


You also want to think about where you put things down. This could be student work, paperwork or forms you have to fill out, mail, supplies for kids to use, etc. Does the location of those items truly make sense? Are the bins for submitting work in an easily accessible place for students? Is your paperwork and mail pile somewhere where you won’t’ look at it? Do you have stacks of items that are randomly pushed the side of a table that will be dealt with eventually?


The reason why I ask this is that everything that one can set down somewhere needs to have a purposeful place. If you have random stacks of things or you just pile everything on your desk, you’ll become overwhelmed and never get to it. You’re going to find yourself behind on paperwork, losing student work, and having a lot of things just collecting dust.


So you need to come up with a system so that everything that gets set down has a home. And stick to using that home for only those things.


Now notice that I didn’t give you a system or suggestions on how to do this. This is because whatever system you use, you have to own it. I’ve read and heard about so many different ways to organize a classroom, but if it doesn’t work for me, I won’t use it. So you need to really know yourself and what makes sense for you and stick to it. If you want to try something out, then do it, and get feedback from your students as well as to how it’s working.


And let students help you! If you need assignments alphabetized for easy grading, having someone do that. If you need someone to check off who’s submitted an assignment so that you can hunt down the ones who haven’t, then do that. You have students that really want to help and feel important, and who are naturally organized, so tap into that. When they take ownership of the classroom, that gives you more mental bandwidth to focus on teaching.


Finally, I want to do a refresher on making use of your non-teaching time. I’ve talked about this several times before, but I think it’s important to reiterate a few things.


First, if you think you have no extra time, then for a week or two, write down exactly what you do every hour that you’re NOT physically teaching. This could be social media, eating, grading, planning, answering emails, etc. I know this seems tedious, but it’s really important to get a clear picture of where all of your time is going. And be honest with yourself – there should be no shame involved. You’re doing this so that you can increase the amount of free time you have outside of your duty day and spend more time taking care of yourself.


So take a good look at this and figure out where you’re wasting time. You might think that you’re working really hard after school, but instead, you’re chatting with your neighbor, playing words with friends, and scrolling on Instagram. Which is TOTALLY fine, but then we have to be honest with ourselves about why we feel like we don’t have enough time in the day.


Once you’ve figured out your time-wasters, you need to start actually scheduling what you’re going to do with the hours outside of teaching. If you have a one-hour planning period, decide what you’re going to do during that time on each day. And batch activities so that you’re not wasting time switching between them. So save your photocopying for one or two days and grading on another.

And stick to your schedule as much as possible. If you schedule the gym, go. If you schedule family time, don’t work. If you schedule grading, stay off of social media. It’s really hard to be committed to this, but you have to remember that the ultimate goal is to be more organized and have more free time.

I personally get to work about 15-20 minutes before school starts. This is the time when I answer emails in bulk. One of the benefits is that I can do this rather efficiently, plus my email ends up at the top of the recipient’s mailbox. Of course, if there’s an urgent or time-sensitive email I’ll answer it at other times, but sticking to a schedule makes it easier for me to be in one zone at a time.

I also make really good use of my planning period and our advisory. I try not to go on social media during that time unless I want to give a quick update on Instagram or my Teachers Need Teachers Facebook group, but otherwise, I work really hard to get things done.

You’re going to find a system that works for you, but just know that the only person who can give you back your time is you. If you waste time, then obviously you won’t have any left to do the things that really matter to you.

And the benefit of being purposeful with organization and your time is that when you finally have time for yourself, you can be truly present. I can’t take back the time I spent on my computer grading or planning when I should have been hanging out with my daughter. And now that she’s a teenager, she’d rather be with her friends.

But when she was 7, she wanted to play with me. She wanted to go on walks with me. But not, mommy was too busy, so let me put something on the TV so that she can be distracted instead of distracting me. I have a tremendous amount of guilt about this and really wish that I’d done things differently, which is why this topic is so darn important to me.

Now, maybe you don’t have a child, but you can think of this the same way with the time you spend making friends, spending time with the ones you have, dating, etc. Unless you’re truly purposeful about it, you can neglect a lot of important people in your life or miss opportunities for some really great memories.

And maybe you need a side hustle but you can’t find the time. Staying on top of organization this way will allow you to do that successfully without burning you out.

So I know I covered a lot today, and I hope you can walk away with at least one or two strategies to be more organized. I also have the transcript for this episode at teachersneedteachers.com/87 if you want to remember what I covered without listening to the episode again.

And remember that I’m still going to be releasing episodes, but they’re going to be ones I did in the past that you guys have found to be the most useful. But if you don’t want to miss my returning episode, be sure to hit that subscribe or follow button.

And as always, please share this with your colleagues and professional learning network. Share it on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook…and let other teachers know how much it’s helped you! Most podcast apps make it really easy to do that! Let’s work together to build a huge community of new teachers that are benefiting from the advice I share here!

Thanks again for hanging out with me today, and have a fabulous week.

2 comments on “Ep 87 How to tackle organization when you’re naturally disorganized
  1. mescal1ne8 says:

    This podcast is such a helpful resource for new and beginning teachers. While so much of the ideas Kim shares seem common sense, they aren’t things that I was taught at university when studying teaching and they’ve become so helpful to me now that I’ve learned them! In all honesty, I’ve learnt so much more practical tools and ideas from listening to this podcast than I did in several of my university units. Thank you Kim! ?????????

    1. Kim Lepre says:

      You’re so welcome! I’m glad this information is useful for you!

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