Learn More

40 Hour Workweek

Classroom Management, Mindset & Motivation, Podcast Articles   |   Apr 14, 2024

A spring cleaning classroom guide: what if you didn’t need all that STUFF to teach well?

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

A spring cleaning classroom guide: what if you didn’t need all that STUFF to teach well?

By Angela Watson

I don’t like to have a lot of knicks and clutter in my home, but I had a very different approach to accumulating stuff in my classroom.

For my first six years as a teacher, I refused to throw anything out because I might need it one day. I remember washing every plastic container that came into my household; empty butter containers, detergent boxes, take-out packaging, and so on. I stuffed everything into an overflowing cabinet in my classroom just in case I needed it for organizing or for a project.

This habit was built on a scarcity mindset: I didn’t believe I had the resources I needed to teach, and therefore had to hold onto everything that crossed my path in order to be able to make do.

It wasn’t until I moved from Washington D.C. to Miami that I realized I had accumulated enough random materials to literally fill an entire U-Haul truck. It was embarrassing how much stuff I had accumulated, and I had to be honest with myself and realize I only used about a fifth of it on a regular basis. I started getting serious about my teacher hoarding tendencies.

I had to develop a mindset of abundance: the belief that I had everything I needed, and more was always going to be available to me exactly when I needed it. And I established that mindset by telling myself,

“I like to streamline and simplify how my classroom runs. I don’t keep things I don’t really need.  I could still teach well with a fraction of the materials I’ve accumulated. If there is something that I need later and don’t have, I trust that I will be able to find it again, or borrow it, or be able to do without it just fine.

The foundation of my classroom is my energy, enthusiasm, and know-how, not my stuff. I feel good about clearing away the things that drain my energy and enthusiasm by creating a cluttered, disorganized work space. I can let go of things I don’t need in order to make space for things I do.” 

I’m sharing that with you up front, because if you’re not in the mindset of abundance, it’s going to be impossible to clear away the clutter and get rid of things. You’ll tense up and feel a little panicky at the thought of letting your things go. So, practice having a mindset of abundance, and start slowly. The list below will help you figure out what to get rid of in your classroom.

Listen to the audio below,
or subscribe in your podcast app

Sponsored by Erikson Institute

10 things you can get rid of this spring in your classroom

1. Memos about upcoming meetings and events

You probably don’t need to keep these “just in case.” Copy the dates into your calendar, and throw the papers out.

2. Empty containers you’re not using

This goes double if they’re used margarine tubs, Pringles cans, laundry detergent bottles, and so on. Don’t try to justify holding on (like I did) by telling yourself, Oh, I can use these for center materials, or to hold math manipulatives, or office supplies. These are perfectly good containers!

If you’re not saving them for a very specific purpose (ie X lesson on X date), get rid of them! They will take over your cabinets and make you feel like a pack rat.

3. Your junk drawer

Don’t lie to yourself and pretend you’ll clean that drawer out one day. You’ve got much higher priorities, which is why it never gets done.

So, dump the whole thing in the trash. Seriously. Do a quick scan and save anything of value, and then dump it.

Immediately put useful things in the empty drawer so it’s full of stuff you love and actually use, and doesn’t become a magnet for junk again. When you’re tempted to stuff something random in the drawer next time, you will remember how difficult it was to throw everything out and it will make you think twice about letting junk accumulate again.

If something doesn’t have a useful place in your classroom, either create a place, or throw it out — no junk drawers!

4. Old textbooks, worksheets, and lesson materials left behind by previous teachers

The previous teacher was not doing you a favor by leaving you with a cabinet stuffed haphazardly with random materials—this was a little white lie they told themselves to avoid having to clean things out.

And if you hate the textbooks you HAVE to use, there’s no way you’re going to be using the previous class set from 1993. Anything more than 10 years old should get recycled immediately (or sent back to your district’s textbook depot) unless it’s in new condition and clearly of exceptional, timeless quality.

If you wouldn’t want YOUR students using it, why would you want other people’s students to use it? The materials served their purpose for many years, and it’s okay to decide it’s time to let them go.

5. Papers and info from prior class years

As a general rule, it’s smart to keep your student portfolios and documentation of parent communication for one full school year after the students have left your class, or perhaps two.

Choose a time frame that makes sense for your school’s policies, but don’t feel like you need to keep notes from parent conferences dating back to your first year of teaching.

6. Artwork and sweet notes from students

Okay, this is the most controversial recommendations for sure, but hear me out.

I taught at the elementary level, which means my students gave me handwritten and drawn items almost every day. So when they’d say, “I drew this for you, Mrs. Watson!” or “I made this for you!” I’d thank them profusely and display it on a small bulletin board by my desk for a few weeks.

Then I’d discreetly clean out the bulletin board to make room for more student artwork. Most of it went in the recycle bin, but I had one medium-sized plastic tub that I used to store the most precious mementos and lovely letters from students and their parents.

I got the tub in my third year of teaching when I realized my inability to throw away student artwork had become an untenable habit, and promised myself I would keep that tub and only that tub full of student notes forever.

So when I cleaned off the bulletin board and decided what to trash and what to keep, I had to ask myself, Is this worthy of being read 30 years from now? How does this compare in sentimental value to the other things in the tub? The size of the tub forced me to be selective.

I still have that tub to this day, but everything else got recycled.

You can even keep your collection digitally if you prefer: take a picture and save it in a special Dropbox or iPhone folder. But please — do not feel like it’s heartless to throw away things from your students. It’s often a necessity if you’re an elementary teacher.

7. Anything broken or missing pieces

Have a “missing pieces” tub in your room for students to put materials in when they find random items on the floor. If the missing pieces haven’t shown up by the end of the school year, you have to get rid of the item the piece belongs to.

Decks of cards which are missing twenty numbers, puzzles without the final corner piece, file folder games where the last two items don’t have the matching pieces — these things cannot stay.

If you’re not going to fix it, get rid of it. No one enjoys being surrounded by broken, incomplete things. You and your students deserve better than that.

8. Books that you’re not excited about students reading

I know it’s painful for any teacher to get rid of books, particularly those you’ve paid for out of your own pocket, but anything that you really don’t want your students reading should be gone.

That book from 1984 with stereotypical references to Native Americans? Recycle bin.

That book where the main character is basically a bully and you hate how your students imitate the character’s behavior after reading the book? Recycle bin.

Books that are missing pages, scribbled on, disgustingly grimy? Yep, time to recycle.

If there are books you no longer want in your class library but don’t think have detrimental content, let students take the books home and keep them.

Remember, you want your class library to be a beautiful, organized place full of relevant books that kids are excited to read, not a dumping ground for every text you’ve come across since 1977. It’s better to have a smaller, high-quality collection than a huge collection of things no one is reading.

9. Multiple copies of papers

I used to keep at least two copies of the teaching resources I really loved in case I lost one or the photocopier chewed it up. But 99% of the time, you only need one paper copy, and all those extras really add up.

You might not even need one paper copy if you teach older students and you’re assigning and collecting work digitally.

But this can also hold true if you’re giving mostly paper assignments.For example, I used to keep anonymous examples of handwritten student work as benchmarks and exemplars for future classes, but then I started scanning or taking photos of them and threw the hard copies away.

Don’t hold onto things you can keep digitally, easily find online, or get from a colleague if needed. Fear is not a valid reason to keep teaching resources: if you don’t do timed math fact quizzes anymore but are afraid to get rid of the giant stack, do it anyway, knowing that you can download them from the internet if you ever change your mind. If something is really important, it won’t be gone forever, because someone else in the world will have a copy of it.

10. Personal effects you don’t enjoy

If something doesn’t have a purpose in your room — it’s not genuinely useful, or it doesn’t make you happy to see it every day — get rid of it.

Your classroom is probably too small and prone to dust to have things that you don’t love taking up space. Toss out the “#1 teacher” picture frames cluttering your desk and the forty-five Lipton bags you somehow accumulated even though you don’t drink tea.

Surround yourself only with things you use and love.

Want a system for classroom spring cleaning and preparation for end-of-year close out?

A short cleaning spree is a great way to get some forward momentum in the battle against clutter.

But if you’re feeling overwhelmed by all your stuff and aren’t sure where to start, simply throwing things out as you come across them. When you open your file cabinet to grab something and you see that giant stack of outdated worksheets, grab it, and recycle it, then move on with your day. When you glance at your desk and realize you have too many knick-knacks, pick a few up and toss them out.

And if systems for decluttering, organizing, and productivity are your jam, I have a resource that can help this time of year. It’s a process you can use at the end of the school year to deconstruct your room in a single day, with editable end-of-year checklists that make shutting down your classroom easy and painless.

It’s my End-of-Year Checklist and Classroom Closeout Plan available in my store and on TPT. It includes a PDF and an audio MP3 version with a complete end-of-year game plan to help you:

  • Decide what to do each week this spring to prepare for the summer classroom shutdown
  • Follow 4 steps to deconstruct your entire room in JUST ONE DAY
  • Purge your classroom of clutter at the end of the year
  • Set yourself up now for success in the fall

The End-of-Year Checklist and Classroom Closeout Plan includes an editable end-of-year-checklist to plan all close-out tasks at a manageable pace (in Word Doc/Google Doc form) and an editable list of kid-friendly close-out tasks which you can delegate to students (also in Word Doc/Google Doc).

This system works for ANY grade level. No more rushing around like crazy during the last week of school — this year, things can be different.

Start cleaning out your room now so there’s less to put away at the end of the year, and use my classroom closeout plan to keep you on top of your tasks. You can do this!

The Truth for Teachers Podcast

Our weekly audio podcast is one of the top K-12 broadcasts in the world, featuring our writers collective and tons of practical, energizing ideas. Support our work by subscribing in your favorite podcast app–everything is free!

Explore all podcast episodes
Apple Podcasts Logo Spotify Podcasts Logo Google Play Podcasts Logo

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
Browse Articles by Angela

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion? Feel free to contribute!