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Get Organized! Tips For Setting Up a Functional Classroom

This past August my district was blessed with almost two straight weeks of teacher work days before the first day of school. My calling this a blessing is likely controversial amongst my colleagues, but for me it was an opportunity to finally whip my classroom into shape once and for all. I don’t even want to calculate or admit how many hours I spend in this room each day. I will say that every hour spent here is completely jam packed full of action. We are busy – teachers and students alike. There are never enough hours in the day to fit it all in. To maximize productivity, I need my classroom running as efficiently as possible, like a tight ship. That means fine tuning the physical space to accommodate the mental space.

Whether you are setting up a classroom for the first time or reorganizing one you’ve “lived in” for years, please enjoy the photos of my classroom that follow and read on to discover tips and ideas for shaping up your room (most of which I stole from other teachers and/or Pinterest!) If you like my cactus/succulent theme you’ll want to check out this Teachers Pay Teachers bundle as that is where most of it came from! Or you may prefer this set of cactus themed classroom decor I made myself.

Making an Entrance

When students first enter your classroom in the morning, they are likely feeling a multitude of different emotions. They are probably tired (I know I am at 7:30 am), nervous, anxious, possibly sad or worried about things happening at home, hopefully excited for the day and looking forward to seeing their friends. You don’t always know where a student is coming from or what their home life is like. I’ve had students living in bargain hotels, showing up to school hungry and stressed to the limits. Walking into a cluttered, inefficient space is not what these students need first thing. That is why an organized entryway is so important.

Pictured above is the entrance to my classroom. It’s pretty (I like to think) but, more importantly, it’s functional. The bulletin board that I have clumsily painted to resemble a cactus reminds students of the four things they need to do when they arrive to school: sign in, notes and lunch money, unpack, read or work quietly.

Sign in – When students first enter the classroom, they sign in. Later, I use the sign in sheet to take attendance. I stole this sign in idea from another teacher at my school and I absolutely love it! My first year teaching I had a log type sign in sheet where students recorded their time of arrival next to their name. I found that many students forgot to sign in daily, several had trouble telling time and so were constantly asking me “what time is it?” so they could write down their arrival time, and it was an unnecessary waste of paper. The sign in pictured above is a piece of paper with all of my students’ names on it fitted into an 8″ by 10″ picture frame. When students arrive, they cross off their name using a dry erase marker. When the bell rings at 8:00, if a name is not crossed off, I mark that student absent. I erase the dry erase marker at the end of each day and, without wasting a single sheet of paper, it is ready to go for the next day. Insider secret: students love writing with dry erase markers so they seldom forget to sign in!

Notes and lunch money – Also pictured on the entry table is a folder for notes and lunch money that goes up to the office each morning. The box to the left contains snack sized zip lock bags with students names and lunch numbers. Students place any lunch money into these bags and then into the folder in the morning. Bags are sorted by the first letter of student’s first names for easy access. I sorted them by last name in previous years but this really seemed to confuse students. Lesson learned – kids still very much operate by first names only.

Important Dates and Info – Also included in this entry area is a dry erase board that I periodically update with important dates (report cards, tests, assemblies, field trips, etc.) and a lunch menu.

The “Home Sweet Classroom” poster can be downloaded for free here!

Accessible Supplies

A lack of supplies can really affect productivity. Having to constantly track down functioning pencils and dig scissors and glue sticks out of the back of cabinets for students is not the best use of your time. Hands popping up all over your classroom for things like “I don’t have an eraser,” or “I need a highlighter” is enough to drive any teacher crazy. Having these supplies on hand and in a place where they can be easily and independently accessed by students is key.

I keep supplies that are used daily in supply bins on each table. Spring for nice supply bins. They are a key element in running a smooth, organized classroom. I got mine in the laundry aisle at Walmart for around $3 a piece. Although three times the price, they are way sturdier than the dollar store variety and will last longer. These bins contain: colored pencils, markers, pencils, scissors, and glue sticks each in their own compartment. I spend some time on the first day of school teaching procedures for using the shared supplies and keeping the bins organized. I stress to students the importance of respecting these supplies and they tend to take it seriously.

The hand crank style pencil sharpener by my door is truly terrible and does very little to sharpen pencils. It mostly just chews them up into little bits of splintered wood. I used some PTO money a few years back to purchase this X-acto electric sharpener from Amazon and it is amazing. It has lasted me three years now and I even let students use it themselves AND sharpen colored pencils in it so that’s a true testament to its superiority. I can’t stand constantly being asked by students if they can sharpen their pencil so I just let them get up to do this freely when it is necessary. I know some teachers would never but honestly guys, doling out permission to use the pencil sharpener or, worse, having to personally sharpen each and every pencil because I’m afraid students will break the machine if given access just sucks the life right out of me. I just don’t have the time or the mental space. When I first opened my pencil sharpener for business, I did run into some problems. I found that students were getting up to sharpen already sharp pencils. You see, the pencil sharpener makes a slightly different sound when it is actually grinding away at a pencil and when it isn’t because the pencil is as sharp as it gets. I decided to create a, slightly satirical, sign to let students know when they could sharpen a pencil. The hand drawn prototype is pictured above but a final version (shown below) is available for free download here. The sign worked like a charm.

Supplies that are used less often are available on the back counter. These include: wet glue, pencil top erasers, highlighters, and dry erase markers/erasers. I also have scrap paper and notebook paper available in drawers that students can access independently.

A good rule of thumb: If it isn’t used on a daily basis, it should be hidden away behind the closed doors of cabinets or drawers. Daily use warrants a place out in plain sight like on shelves or counters but it should be organized in appropriate containers and easily accessible. You will also need a system in place for when and how to use these daily supplies that is clearly communicated to your students and consistently upheld.

Managing Behavior

I cannot harp enough on how important a solid behavior management system is for a productive classroom. For more tips on this please read my post 6 Lifesaving Tips for Managing Behavior in the Classroom. This system should be incorporated into the decor of your classroom as well. Expectations (formerly called rules) should be posted in plain sight and referred to often. The above mentioned blog post discusses, in detail, tips for coming up with these expectations and making them meaningful to your students. Mine are posted at the front of my room and include: use a quiet voice, raise my hand to share, listen and follow directions, respect people and belongings, and think before I act – in cute succulent themed bunting posters.

Pictured above to the right is my “Noise Meter.” The noise meter lets students know what volume their voice should be. I change it and refer to it regularly throughout the day and there are consistent consequences for ignoring the noise meter. It reads:

  • Silence – When: Tests, quizzes, lessons. Why: To listen, to think

  • Whisper – When: Independent work. Why: To ask a question, to help a neighbor, to borrow supplies

  • Quiet voices – When: Group work. Why: To help each other, to share ideas

I made the noise meter by printing off the three different volumes on separate sheets of paper. Then I glued them to piece of black poster board and trimmed it into a long rectangle. I use a clothes pin (disguised as a cactus) to change the noise meter. It has made a world of difference in my room!

What Are We Doing Today?

I hate this question. I hate, hate, hate this question. I hate it almost as much as “What do we do when we’re finished?” If you don’t want to be bogged down by the same question being asked over and over again all day long then make the information available to students at all times. There should be a place in your classroom where students can look to find the answer to those dreaded questions. In my room, I post they day’s agenda on my white board. I printed out our daily activities on card stock, laminated them, and glued magnets to the back. Every day I list the activities we are doing on the board. These include: Math Sense, Number Talk, Mini-Lesson, Practice, Review, Test, Quiz, Prizes, and a blank one to fill as needed.

To solve the “What do we do when we’re finished?” problem I dedicated an entire bulletin board to informing students of their choices. Students have three choices: unfinished work (this is top priority), read, or bonus work. The remainder of the bulletin board houses the bonus work. Bonus work is extra work students can choose to complete for prizes. The prize changes weekly and is posted at the top right of the bulletin board. I created folders for the bonus work by folding large sheets of construction paper in half and stapling them to the bulletin board. I suggest laminating first for increased durability. Attached to the front of each folder is a description of the activity in the folder with directions and example. These activities change periodically but some ideas include:

  • Coloring squared – I’ve already mentioned this amazing free resource in my post 4 Ways to Make Instruction Meaningful and Banish the I Don’t Care Attitude in Your Classroom but here they are again… the perfect bonus work. A great, fun way to practice math facts while uncovering a mystery picture. Please do check them out!

  • Extreme Dot-to-dots – Challenging, time consuming, and a good mental exercise, these keep students occupied and that’s a good thing! You can purchase books of these dot-to-dots from Mindware but they have quite a few freebies available for download as well!

  • Number of the Day – These are a great way to increase number sense! I also have a fraction of the day that I introduce after we cover fractions later in the year.

  • Math Puzzles – students match equation to answer to assemble a math puzzle. A great way to practice basic math facts.

  • Math Drawings – my students LOVE to draw but I wanted bonus work to be educational as well. Enter: math drawings. Students draw a picture to accompany a word problem.

  • Decimal Art – another math themed drawing activity to check out.

Class Library

Every classroom needs a library. I don’t even teach reading but my library takes up a good sized corner of my room. It’s no secret that reading improves critical thinking skills, vocabulary, and overall intelligence. Books should be available and reading should be encouraged in every classroom, even math classrooms.

Shelves are great for organizing books but if you run out of room, don’t be afraid to get creative with your storage. I found that mini milk crates from the dollar store perfectly fit a standard sized paperback. What’s more, they are easily stacked, moved, and rearranged. The more organized your class library is, the easier it will be for your students to find books that they actually want to read. It’s hard to tell in the above photos but my bookshelves are separated into categories with labels like: science books, biographies, search and find books, novels, etc. Floor cushions are also available for added comfort. Most of these I made myself by cutting out squares of a foam mattress topper and covering them with vinyl. I’m also currently using a pair of stadium seats I found at a yard sale, and – the class favorite – a kindergarten nap pad that I got for $10 at Target. In the past I have used dog beds (clean ones!) and outdoor chair cushions.

Other Classroom Hacks

This one is a game changer! The sooner you introduce hand signals in your classroom the better! Don’t suffer through one more day without them! One of my biggest pet peeves is when I ask my class an academic question and a hand shoots up. “Great!” I think “he looks really confident about this answer!” Only to be met with the response “Can I go to the bathroom?” These posters hanging in my room remind students of the various hand signals they can use when they need something. One finger up in the air means “Can I use the bathroom?” two fingers means “Can I get water?” and an entire hand in the air means you have a question, comment, or response. Some teachers use three fingers to mean “can I sharpen my pencil,” but as stated earlier the pencil sharpener is a free for all in my room.

Organize your stations in boxes. These Steralite boxes can be a little hard to find but are available on Amazon. I actually asked for these on my wedding registry. Sad, I know, but whatever. Forget shoe boxes, you need boxes that can hold paper! These contain directions and all necessary materials for math stations and are stored on a shelf in my room when not in use.

You need a designated place in your classroom for your students to turn in their work. In my room, that is this shelf on my back counter. It is separated by class: Math 1, Math 2, Math 3, and the bottom shelf is for turning in the bonus work mentioned earlier. To the right is a container for storing the folders that are used to send home student work each week as well as an extra supply bin for students working at my back table. A designated place for these things cuts down on unnecessary questions like “where do I turn this in” and ensures that work doesn’t get misplaced!

(The inspirational posters seen in the photos above and below are available for purchase on Teachers Pay Teachers)

The bulletin board on my back wall serves as a message and information center. Here you will find our daily schedule, a calendar, classroom birthdays, a chalk board that I update daily with our current special class, the grading scale, and assorted flyers about dates and events concerning students.

Have a place in your classroom to store and easily access the day’s materials. For me that is a cart beside my desk that I got at a yard sale for $5. The top shelf of the cart holds folders for each day of the week with all handouts/worksheets needed for that day. Other materials (like reference books and games) needed that week are also stored on the cart. Bonus hack – check out how cute my filing cabinet is covered in wrapping paper. Way better than the puke beige color underneath!

If you're feeling inspired and looking for a cute classroom theme, check out a few I've been working on:

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