Anyone who knows me knows how much I obsess over keeping things organized. I am by no means a Type A person, but organization is necessary for my sanity.
My third year teaching, I started a new job at a charter school that rented its space from a church. The church uses our classrooms on Wednesday nights and Sundays, so we have to break down our rooms twice a week. This wasn’t too much of a challenge my first year there as I was in a big room with lots of storage space. The next year, however, I moved to 2nd grade — and a smaller classroom with little storage.
Needless to say, I had to get pretty creative with my space in order to store everything I needed! One crucial thing – storage with WHEELS. I have to move things around constantly so having wheels is mandatory. I’m not really a huge fan of heavy lifting, so things need to ROLL. That’s pretty unique to my classroom, though – certainly static rooms don’t require that.
BUT, I have learned a thing or two about keeping things organized in a small classroom with little space for storage. I’ve actually had several teachers (as well as substitutes) comment on my organization or come to me for ideas. It can be really challenging to keep things neat and tidy when you’re tight on space, but I promise you — it can be done! You just have to get a little creative. And no – it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg! Keep reading, and I’ll share with you my 7 best tips for small classroom organization!
7 Tips for Classroom Organization
1. Come up with a filing system for all. the. papers.
If there’s one thing that teachers use more of than any other profession, it’s paper. Handouts, copies, homework, tests, things to grade, parent forms, PD notes, fliers…the paper stacks are never ending.
If you don’t come up with a solid system (or systems) for keeping your papers organized, you will never find that one student’s form they handed you last week that needs to be turned into the office TODAY. It’s gone. Getting the paper clutter under control is key.
I actually have several systems in my room for keeping papers organized. I have hanging file folders inside my black box (basically a mobile closet) where I keep all the copies I’ve made for the week. I also have a small two-drawer filing cabinet where I keep my master copies organized by topic, and my student cumulative folders. I also keep a file box which I use as my mailboxes where I sort handouts and graded papers to return to students. My math curriculum papers are divided by unit and put in binders. Lastly, I have a file organizer on my shelf with six folders – To Copy, To File, Math, Science, and then two for grading because I teach two classes. All the papers that don’t belong in one of the other places fit into one of these 6 folders.
2. Label all the things.
I would never find anything if I didn’t label everything. I label my drawers, my bins, my folders — everything. That way I don’t have to dig through ALL the drawers if I know I put that one thing in a drawer but don’t know which one.
Also, labeling just looks nicer. It’s visually pleasing. Sometimes you have a drawer that just doesn’t have any rhyme or reason to what’s in it — I get it! And I have labels for those too.
3. Get some quality storage items.
Most classrooms don’t come with a ton of built in classroom storage. If you’re lucky, you might have some cabinets, a closet, or shelves. But most likely, you will need more than that!
My room came with one wall of shelves. As an elementary teacher, I needed way more space than that to store all my stuff. I have 3 sets of 10-drawer rolling carts, a 3-tier rolling cart, 2 sets of both medium and large Sterilite drawers, a filing cabinet, and so many bins. Keep reading to see what I use each of these items for!
And by the way, you don’t have to take out a second mortgage on your house to afford these things! Trust me, I am as cheap as they come and always looking for deals. I’ll talk about where I got all of these items later in this post.
4. Less is more.
If you have a teeny tiny classroom like me, then you understand that there just isn’t room for a bunch of stuff. Sadly, that means that you may have to leave your lucky ficus at home. You will fare FAR better if everything that goes in your room has a purpose — or better yet, multi purposes.
Finding organization tools that can hold a variety of things (in an organized way — we’re not talkin’ about a junk drawer, here) will save your life. For example:
- Desk caddies can hold a variety of tools in one handy place! In mine, I keep pencils, dry erase markers, erasers, math toolboxes, colored pencils and crayons, and any manipulatives students may need at the time.
- Tiered carts and drawers can hold SO MUCH! The more tiers/drawers, the more they can hold. I use drawers for school supplies (one item type per drawer), manipulatives, and math centers. I have my class library organized on a 3-tier cart, but I’ve also used it as an art cart before.
- Filing cabinets can hold SO MUCH PAPER, and we all know that paper can get a little out of hand (see tip #1). You can dedicate one drawer to each subject you teach, or you can split it up by date taught or type of item you’re filing.
Thinking of ways you can consolidate several different items into ONE convenient place will change everything. And if you can’t find a place for it, ask yourself – is this REALLY necessary in my classroom? If it is, then obviously, keep it. But if not (or maybe if it isn’t necessary this year), it may be time to take it home or donate it.
5. Vertical space is your best friend.
Vertical space is EVERYTHING in a small space, because most rooms are lacking more horizontally than floor-to-ceiling. I am very fortunate because my room came with almost an entire wall of shelving already installed. You may not have that, and I get it. If installing shelves is an option, it may be worth the investment depending on your room. But, even if it isn’t, there are still many other ways you can make good use of the vertical space in your room!
First of all, you can buy shelving units for fairly cheap! I’ve seen them at home improvement stores in a variety of sizes. If it’s in your budget, I would highly suggest investing in one. Many of them come with wheels, too, so you can move it around easily if needed.
I’ve also talked about my tiered cart and my rolling drawers. These are a GREAT use of vertical space! They are fairly narrow but 10-drawers high. (The tiered cart has 3 tiers and is slightly wider). I can store SO MUCH STUFF in these!
If you have a closet or cabinets, utilize that space as best as you can by filling the shelves all the way to the top. You can buy stackable locker shelves to maximize the vertical space; instead of piling things on top of each other (causing an avalanche when you try to get something down), you can use the locker shelves to basically add another level between two existing shelves. These stacking shelves are typically super cheap, too!
6. If you don’t need it, donate it!
This may be a given, but it can be surprisingly hard as a teacher to let go of the extra school supplies laying around, or that math game you used once three years ago. My best advice here is to trust your instinct. You know your class, your schedule, and your needs. Maybe construction paper always ends up on your supply list but you still have stacks of construction paper sitting in a cabinet from previous years because you rarely use it in your class. Keep a few reams for those once-in-a-blue-moon construction paper activities, then find something else to do with the rest. Give it to a coworker who is always running out of construction paper, put it in the office for anyone to grab, or find a local organization that collects unwanted school supplies.
The point is, it’s so easy to hold on to extra supplies “just in case.” But if you’ve never used it before, you aren’t likely to start using it now. Keep just what you might need to get you through the year, and if you run out, put it on the supply list for next year!
And that math game you used once three years ago? Ask yourself WHY you only used it once in three years. Did something change with your curriculum? Did your schedule change and now you don’t have time? Did you simply just forget about it? Thinking about the WHY can help you decide if this is something you really should keep, or something you will likely never use again. If you can’t think of a good reason to keep it around, don’t.
At the very least, if your storage situation is better at home than at school, take it home for awhile and you can always bring it to school later if you do end up needing it.
7. Reach out for help, and watch for deals!
Like I mentioned earlier, it does not have to cost you a fortune to keep your space organized! Is having quality storage crucial? Yes! Can you get quality storage on a budget? Absolutely! Reach out to family and friends, shop thrift stores and garage sales, check Facebook marketplace, start a Donor’s Choose, work with local non-profits that support teachers…and if all else fails, Dollar Tree and the Target Dollar Spot are your best friends!
Here’s where I got all of the things (and how much I paid) I’ve detailed in this post:
- 2 rainbow 10-drawer carts: These are from Amazon, but I didn’t pay a dime for them as I received them through a Donor’s Choose.
- 1 black 10-drawer cart: I got this from a teacher at my school who was retiring. She was selling all her teaching stuff for basically whatever we wanted to pay. I got that cart and a few other things for $20. I probably paid around $7 for it.
- Teal 3-tier cart: This is also from Amazon and was part of the same Donor’s Choose package above.
- Large Sterilite Drawers: Okay, one of them isn’t Sterilite – it’s Iris. I got that one for free from my grandma when she moved into an assisted living home. The other one I purchased myself from Target I believe – about $10 or $15 (it was several years ago).
- Medium Sterilite Drawers: I purchased these from Target, also years ago. I think they are around $8-$10 each.
- 2-drawer filing cabinet: I got this for free from a local non-profit that collects items from schools, businesses, and individuals, and then donates them back to teachers.
- File box: I got this from Target. I think it was around $10. I also have a plastic one that I’m not currently using for around the same price.
- Bins and baskets: I have a million and two bins and most of them are from Dollar Tree. I find Dollar Tree bins to be pretty sturdy and you can’t beat the price! I have a few bins/baskets that I got at Walmart as well.
Need some more help with organizing your small classroom? I created this FREE guide to help you get started! (Don’t worry – it works for large classrooms, too!). Download now by clicking the link below: