Organizing Your Classroom Paper Clutter

By Leah Eslinger Shaw

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Piles (and piles, and piles…) of Papers


Whether you teach toddlers or high school students, chances are you have piles of papers somewhere in your room. If these piles grow as the year progresses or haunt your nightmares (like they do mine), it's worth putting some forethought into how to manage papers coming into and going out of your classroom. I promise--a little time spent here will save you hours in the long run!


Questions for Yourself

Ok, so maybe not out loud or in front of your colleagues, but here are some great one-way conversation starters as you embark on this project:


"What papers do I know will come in every day/week/month/quarter?"


      1. Homework? Parent communication logs? Administrative paperwork? Understanding this will help you to think about where and how to store these papers. For example, if parent communication logs get collected once per week, it might make sense to have a designated folder or bin next to student cubbies or take-home folders.


      1. Of course, you will have papers that do not fit neatly into any category. Make a spot for these too. Maybe a single file folder labeled ‘follow up’ or ‘to be filed’. Here’s the key, though--you MUST go through these papers. I recommend at a regular interval (once a week?) so nothing gets lost or forgotten.


“Do I need to store this paper for reference/records/future use or…not at all?”


    1. Think short term vs. long term storage and sort accordingly.

    2. The recycling bin is your VERY best friend for everything that gets answered with “not at all”.

    3. Follow up questions are, “Do I have a digital version? Can I make one?” Scan that worksheet, take a picture of an exemplar for future classes, or do something fancier if you’re tech-savvy. No need for duplicates!

“What papers can I anticipate going out?”


  1. Though this is similar to the first question, outgoing papers present a different challenge. For many of us, these are papers that are going to go to students or families. They need to be easily accessible and probably have a high turnover.

  2. Over the next few weeks think about how you can manage these items. Do you always seem to need certain supplies during small group learning, but spend a few minutes trying to locate them? Maybe a simple tray or two can keep these resources at your fingertips. Are you scrambling to find the weekly newsletter to parents on Friday afternoon? A labeled folder may be the ticket to maintaining your sanity.

What’s Your Type? A Paper-Pile-Personality Quiz

Understanding what type of unorganized person you are will help you understand how best to get organized for the long haul. Whenever I fight my nature to organize the way I think I’m ‘supposed to’ (or the way Pinterest guilts me into), I find that it is much less effective in the long run than developing a system that works for me.


Think about what you normally do with items that have no organizational structure. This will help guide how you become organized (right after reading this post!). Most people fit into two categories: central-location or multiple-pile people.


Do you have one or two GIGANTIC stacks of papers in your classroom and on your desk? Have you been known to flip through pages and pages of paperclipped sheets to find the worksheet you need? Do you feel a little overwhelmed at the prospect of tackling those piles as they grow yet somehow never seem to shrink throughout the school year? You are a central location person. Here are some tips to get started:


      1. Set aside 15 minutes a day for one week to sort through your existing pile(s) and transition to your new system. I know those precious minutes during planning or nap time are so valuable but remember this is a long-term investment. You will not regret the time you put in up front.


      1. Try a few organization stations throughout your classroom-maybe 2-3 to start. A rolling cart for papers-labeled by day of the week, subject, or morning/afternoon groups-will get you on a great path to taming that monstrous paper pile!


      1. A few boxes or crates with hanging files strategically placed around the room can be a game-changer!

Are there small paperclipped stacks all over the place in your classroom? The math resources are at the small group table, the lesson plans for the week are on your desk, the pre-cut items for your craft is by the easel, and the reading papers are…somewhere. Do you pride yourself on organizing things for the week ahead, but by Tuesday you just can’t seem to put your finger on what you need when you need it? You, my friend, are a multiple-pile person. Here are some tips for you to begin your organizational journey:


      1. Don’t fight your tendency to keep things in smaller piles or groups! Your brain probably appreciates more manageable stacks. Take stock of your current piles and think about how some of these things can be grouped together in your room.


      1. Try something with lots of compartments or dividers. Who says a construction paper organizer has to be used for construction paper?


      1. Magazine files and good-old-fashioned paper trays may also fit your needs. If you go this route, I recommend labeling each shelf or container.


Final Tips and Tricks


    1. Make a plan (and stick to it) to go through short-term storage like student papers and long-term storage like curricular materials. I recommend once per week and once per year, respectively. There’s no wrong way to do it, but this might be a good place to start.

    2. Keep it SIMPLE - you will not get everything right the first, second, or even third time. Once you get some amazing systems in place and your colleagues are stopping in their tracks to admire your beautifully organized classroom, your supervisor will probably change your position or you’ll move classrooms. Be prepared to be flexible so that your systems can match your ever-changing needs.

    3. Don’t forget about unconventional spots-hang a pocket chart on your white board or bulletin board for easy access to the items you’ll need in that spot. I’ve used something like this near my small group table, next to my desk, and near the interactive white board depending on what and where I’m teaching.

    4. Label everything. You will not remember what that magazine file, storage box, or folder contains. You just won’t.

    5. Once you have your labels, do not stray from them. That’s what a follow up or miscellaneous bin or folder is for. Now, repeat after me: “I will not abuse my Misc. Folder”.

Don’t spend another minute reading a conclusion to this post. Set a timer for 15 minutes and get started on taming your own paper piles! Let us know how it goes. :)


Since graduating from Juniata College in 2008, Leah has worked as a Learning Support Teacher, Life Skills Support Teacher, Instructional Coach, and is currently teaching 6th Grade ELA and Social Studies at Shippensburg Area Middle School. When not busy teaching or scouring Pinterest for teaching ideas, Leah enjoys reading, baking healthy treats, and practicing yoga. She currently resides in Greencastle, Pennsylvania with her husband and daughter.