The floor is littered with pencils, leaves, papers, jumpers, cushions and water bottles. Every group of desks is covered with disordered writing books, pencils, trays of textas, an assortment of scissors and a few glue sticks, water bottles, lucky gonks and novels. Perhaps, I think, they had to leave the classroom in a hurry, and couldn’t spare the two minutes it would take for every person to pick up five ‘pieces of something’ from the floor, and tidy their desks.
Tables are askew and chairs haven’t been put back beneath them, making for a tricky path to negotiate as I walk around the room. Perhaps, I think, they were running so late for lunch, the teacher didn’t have a spare ten seconds to request that students realign the desks and place the chairs back properly.
Shelving units for resources are crammed with half-empty magazine holders for books, as well as tissue boxes, maths resources spilling out of containers, robotics leads, piles of assorted work books, scattered A4 paper worksheets at various stages of completion (let’s not go there today!), and rubbish. Lots and lots of rubbish - screwed up paper, pieces of coloured paper, used tissues, plastic sandwich wrappers. Shelves are dusty and--frankly--filthy. As are the students’ desks. Pencil pots can be found on a random trolley next to the teachers desk, but they’re almost empty, and I can see about two dozen lead and coloured pencils scattered around the room - on the floor, crammed next to novels on the bookshelf, and lying next to other pots of resources. Scissors and glue sticks can’t be found next to the pencil pots, which would seem logical, and, actually, can’t be seen anywhere in the room, other than a few scattered on desks. I wonder how the students find the resources they need to do their work without having to ask the teacher for assistance to locate them.
The walls are randomly covered with laminated, pre-purchased or pre-made resources such as grammar hints, text type organisation posters, headings and understanding goals for an inquiry unit, spelling posters, unused Bump-It-Up resources, and also printed and laminated motivational posters. An entire section of wall about one-and-a-half by one-and-a half metres is set aside for a birthday chart. Another large part of the pin-up board near the cramped and littered floor space is covered with random well-being posters. There are no jointly created charts - no evidence at all of the co-constructed learning that is happening in maths, literacy, or inquiry. Large sections of wall are completely empty. Not one piece of student work is displayed, except for some ANZAC day ‘artwork’ on a worksheet. As there’s no rhyme or reason to placement, I wonder how students know where to look when they want to remember, read or use one of the wall posters.
I’m trying to stay positive, but I don’t know what to think at this point.
The teacher enters the room, and asks me to focus on student behaviours as I observe the lesson. Not surprisingly, the students are slow to transition to the floor, because they’re engrossed in finding cushions to sit on. They’re getting up to go to desks for a drink while the teacher is conducting the explicit teaching part of the lesson. They’re unable to find the tools they need to complete their task, interrupting the teacher to ask for help to find said resources. They’re slow to begin work as they rearrange desks or search for books, or complain to the teacher that they can’t find something. It’s utter chaos. There is no learning happening here. The environment is not conducive to teaching and learning.
I’m going to suggest that tidy and well-organised classrooms lead to students who are calm, independent and self-sufficient, and make classroom management easier. The classroom environment affects how children learn, and how you teach. Messy classrooms disrupt attention and learning (Barrett et al, 2013; Barrett et al, 2015; Plebanek and Sloutsky, 2017; Lemov, 2015), and will lead to off-task behaviour. Classrooms that are dirty and dusty aggravate asthma, increase allergies, and transmit illnesses (Daisey et al, 2003).
- Encourage students to leave an area as tidy as they found it, or better!
- Find a spot for everything. A shelf for pencil pots, glue sticks and scissors. An A4 box for scrap paper. A shelf for coloured paper in appropriate shaped open-topped boxes. Label every box and pot so everyone knows what belongs where. Keep all of these resources in one spot - not scattered throughout the room. Have students keep their exercise books and novels in their desks, if possible. Make sure students know where everything is and encourage them to retrieve resources without asking. You could ask two students to be responsible for keeping this area tidy, and change the ‘resource managers’ each term.
- As you walk around the classroom, pick up stray pencils, jumpers etc, and place them on the nearest desk. Students can find owners, or put these resources where they belong.
- Before every break, stop work two minutes earlier than the bell. Ask students to collect at least five ‘bits of something’ from the floor (and show you!), to tidy desks, and then stand behind their chairs. Do this at the end of the day, too. Do not get distracted. Watch them. Call out those who are shirking their duty. Commend the class on being such tidy, organised, ecologically-minded students - the best in the school, or your career, even! Attributive feedback pays dividends (Miller, Brickman, & Bolan, 1975). You’ll be surprised how willingly they do this after the first few times, when they realise they don’t head out to recess until everyone’s done their bit.
- At the end of every day, as you farewell the students, and before you begin your afternoon administration, ‘give the classroom five minutes’. This time is for you to tidy resources, put everything back where it belongs - random pencils, cords, worksheets, wayward novels and picture books - and throw away things that should be thrown away. If you find you’re often not sure what to do with things, purchase a large box or container, label it ‘ARCHIVE’ or ‘ODDS AND ENDS’ and throw anything you’re not sure about in there. Clear out the ‘ARCHIVE’ box at the end of the term. Most of it will end up in the bin.
- Don’t leave at the end of the day without cleaning your desk. Take your coffee mug back to the staffroom. Organise your paperwork into piles.
- Ask students to clean out desk tubs and bag lockers/ bag boxes every Friday afternoon. You’ll be amazed (and revolted!) by what they find. Eeeeyeuch! If you do this weekly, it should only take five minutes.
- Every Friday afternoon, without fail, grab your personal bottle of Spray ‘n’ Wipe and a cloth from the packet of 100 that you bought and that you keep in the top of your highest cupboard. Wipe down every surface. Your desk. The students’ desks. The shelves and countertops. This’ll take about ten minutes, so turn on some music, and have colleagues come to you for a Friday arvo chat, while you wipe. It’s incredibly therapeutic, and you’ll be greeted by a sparkling classroom on Monday morning!
- Once every term, wipe out the bag lockers/ bag boxes. Bleugh.
- Rethink cushions.
- Rethink drink bottles on desks. Encourage students to leave their drink bottles in their bags, and to get a drink at recess at lunch, or very quickly during transitions (but not while you’re teaching, or during independent practice or group work.) Students with health issues and a personal plan that lists the need to drink water constantly are excepted, of course.
- If you’re a naturally disorganised person, and don’t notice mess, you might need a friend-colleague to come into your classroom on a Friday afternoon, and spend two minutes popping anything they see as out of order on one of the desks for you to ‘file’, or they can put things straight into the ‘ARCHIVE’ box. They can do this while you’re wiping your surfaces!
- Finally, don’t be frightened to throw things away or reduce, reuse, recycle.
Try it. Just for a term. You’ll be surprised how much more learning gets done, how calm your classroom is, and how much happier you’ll be to see your students as engaged, independent and self-sufficient learners.