D is for disorganized desks

(Tues., May 12):  D  is for disorganized desks.

My home office desk as it looks right now
My home office desk as it looks right now

Every school year, I would start with a clean classroom and vow to keep it that way. And I would – for awhile. As the school year got underway, at the beginning I was able to keep track of everything and find a place for every piece of paper that landed on my desk. I made files for my paperwork and kept them in a large drawer in my desk or in crates.
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But eventually, papers would land on my desk that I couldn’t do anything with right away. I allowed a small pile to accumulate, but no problem – I’d go through it and find a place for everything soon, or throw it away if I no longer needed it.
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Unfortunately, that pile began to grow, because I couldn’t find a home for every piece of paper and I was reluctant to throw anything away, in case I needed it again. I made binders to put templates, graphic organizers, packets from workshops, etc., to have a handy set of “tools” ready to use in my classroom.
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But the life of a teacher is exhausting. Even if I could go through the pile(s) accumulating on my desk and dispose of everything in them, life soon became too overwhelming. I always had something more important to do – grade papers, work on lesson plans, make copies or laminate something, read and answer emails, even just organize my classroom. After spending a busy day there each day, I usually took a half hour or more straightening it up afterward – locating and putting away dry erase markers or smart board pens, putting away books and other supplies the kids left lying around, gathering up all the papers I had gotten from students that day, etc. The jobs were endless. I am not naturally organized, so I’m not the type to always put things back right away as soon as I am done using them – the ADD brain just doesn’t work like that. Although I made an effort to stay organized and consistent, any system I devised eventually broke down.
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And the piles on my desk grew. (Because by this time there was more than one pile, each new pile being justified at first.) Sometimes, when I did go through them, I’d find things I’d either forgotten about or long since given up ever finding again.
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Some of my students would notice my messy desk – always girls who had a knack and desire to help the teacher and clean up – and offer to organize it for me. They’d offer to stay in at recess to work on it. Of course, that meant giving up my lunch hour and staying in my classroom while they were in there, but I usually let them do it. If there were several of them, I’d assign them different tasks – one could organize the books, another could take down a bulletin board, while the remainder would go through everything on my desk and “organize” – or at least straighten – it.
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It was impossible for 4th and 5th grade girls to actually reduce all those piles, since they had no idea what to do with all those papers – but they would occasionally ask me what to do with something. At least they drew my attention to them. They were really good at putting away things like scissors, tape, paper clips, etc. – things that they could generally figure out what to do with, or sometimes things that I had bins for, like markers or kids’ scissors that ended up on my desk.
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When they were finished, they beamed with pride as I praised their great work. It was nice of them but sometimes I couldn’t find things afterward, because they’d put them where they thought they should go, not where I usually put them!

When I was a kid, school desks looked like this. They had a lid and you put everything inside. If you couldn't close the lid all the way, your desk was too messy!
When I was a kid, school desks looked sort of like this. They had a lid and you put everything inside. If you couldn’t close the lid all the way, your desk was too messy!

Meanwhile, I wasn’t the only messy one – some students had messy desks too. Sometimes it was surprising which students kept a neat desk and which ones didn’t. Sometimes a kid that daydreamed or fooled around in class had a very neat desk. I instituted a monthly or semi-monthly Friday afternoon activity of cleaning out their desks.

All the students would take everything out of their desks, sort it, take it home, throw it

School desks nowadays are like this. This one is very neat!
School desks nowadays are like this. This one is very neat!

away, hand it in – as appropriate. The kids with neat desks would help the ones who had hopelessly large amounts of crumpled papers, pencil stubs, eraser shavings, and a variety of items that they didn’t know how to keep neat. Then the neat students were in their “element” – helping disorganized classmates get organized! They sometimes would take on a sort of teacher-like role, admonishing their messy peers about putting papers away and handing in overdue homework.
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I’ve seen teachers who use days like St. Patrick’s Day to have special elves or leprechauns come to the classroom after the students have gone home to inspect their desks and leave notes of praise to those who had the neatest desks. I especially enjoyed giving one of these notes to a kid who generally didn’t have a neat desk, but happened to have cleaned it out earlier that day! How proud that kid would be the next day, getting a note of praise which entitled him or her to some small prize!
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I often counsel students on keeping their desks and folders organized, and handing in homework they’d forgotten all about. Sometimes I find things in their folders that they thought they had lost and had to do over because they had told the teacher they’d lost the first copy. Yet I secretly sympathize with these kids, because I see myself in them. It’s funny how I develop a special place in my heart for these messy, disorganized kids. I get it. I’m the same way!

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