Organizing for Successful Learning, Student Support and Teacher Sanity!

Summer brings teachers time to rest, reflect and plan for the coming school year. Many teachers find themselves bursting with new teaching ideas and new ways to organize the classroom. Rarely is there time to put into action all of the great ideas that come to us in summer, but with a little focus and planning, many of these goals and projects can be accomplished.

Here are some ideas to help you as you consider your next steps in organizing your classroom and teaching for fall.

  1. An honest needs assessment.

    Sit down, pour yourself a cup of coffee and think hard about what you really need to work on. Most language teachers would rather jump right into decorating the classroom with posters, realia and colorful borders than work on areas of classroom and learning management that really need improvement. If you tend to resist this step, you might ask a friend to join you for that cup of coffee!

    • Is your classroom overflowing with paper? Are you a teacher hoarder? Do you have dusty student work hanging from your ceiling? Can you find your desk?! Maybe it’s time for a purge. There are very few pieces of paper that are necessary in 2015. Keep digital copies and let go of the paper that you really don’t need. Use your phone to take photos of student work or other paperwork you want to remember but don’t necessarily need to touch anymore. (Post some of those photos of student work on your website!) Students are more comfortable in an environment that feels organized and looks neat. Get rid of books, supplies and materials that are no longer in use.

    • Do students know where to find things?Is it time to create target language labels so students learn new words and are able to find things? Do you need to organize a student supply area? Some teachers have found that providing supplies like pens/pencils helps create a supportive environment and puts an end to all of the negative routines surrounding students and missing pencils. Many teachers stock up on cheap pencils/pens and others take advantage of relatives who are happy to donate their logo pens, post-its, etc. Add a stapler, hole-punch and tape dispenser just for student use and you will have a center that solves many disruptive routines and supports independent problem solving.

    • Is time management your biggest enemy? Remember that effective teachers organize space and time to meet the needs of their students. How can you change routines so that time is not your enemy? Do you need a timer to manage student activity time? Do you need to find a good signal to bring students to attention? Do you need a tardy sign-in sheet on the door so that late students distract less from opening activities?

      Are you the late one? Can you change your morning routine at home so that you arrive a few minutes earlier with the goal of being ready and relaxed as students enter the classroom? And what about the hours you spending grading? Is it time to realize that not every assignment needs grading? Could you begin by looking at some assignments as feedback and not worry about grading/recording? Do you need to lobby your administration for a TA to help with simple tasks? What routines could be added to your daily schedule to help tame the time monster? Clean-up time? Have you considered giving your students a One-Minute Dance Party to celebrate good use of time? Do you waste a lot of time after school trying to plan lessons when you’re tired? Would a 20-minute walk break that routine?

      Teachers need time support at home as well. A supportive spouse/partner who is willing to take on more household chores during teacher crunch times is worth his/her weight in gold. Teachers give a lot at home and at work. What can you do to get more support from your family as you look for time management solutions?

  2. Organizing for sanity.

    A typical secondary language teacher interacts with 150 or more students and their parents, scores of colleagues and administrators and deals with all of the paperwork that comes with those relationships. How to manage the mess is one of the biggest challenges of our profession. The trick is often finding a system that works for you. Steal good ideas from everyone but continue to use only those that you find easy to maintain.

    • Pay attention to what doesn’t work and switch to something new. If you have a cool notebook or stacking tray to organize something and you never put anything in it (or conversely stuff everything into it!), it’s not working! Each teacher is different, and you need organization systems that work for you. Check out the classrooms of your colleagues for good ideas or look on Pinterest. Visit an office supply store and look for product solutions to organizing issues.

    • Organize by color. Use a yellow seating chart and a yellow folder for Per. 1, green for period 2, etc. Knowing what color to search for will save you eye strain when you are in the middle of teaching. You can also use color for each period of pick-me sticks that you use to call on students. If a green stick falls on the floor, you will know to put it in the Per. 2 container.

    • Organize information. Keep a notebook with an info sheet for each student (students can fill these out the first week of school). Use it to record problems and note when parent contact was made. Keep a notebook of all of the lessons/handouts used in each prep/level. Try post-its in your lesson plan book. They can easily be moved when you reorder your lesson or move part of it to another day. Create a file or notebook with all of the IEP’s you work on during the year.
    • Organize areas. Have a table or shelf for each class—French 2 students could find an agenda book, daily handouts and graded work on their table. Use routines that save time and increase independent actions. Start a class library where students can choose children’s books in the target language. In addition to supporting free reading time, this is also a great default activity when students finish work early. There are many great ideas out there for building a library without spending much money.

    • Organize realia and props. First, get rid of (or pass on to another teacher) realia and props you no longer use. Some teachers group props by theme in oversize plastic storage bags and hang them in a closet or corner of the room. Others use plastic storage boxes or recycle cardboard boxes from home.

  3. Prepare a classroom that supports language learning.

    This is the fun part for most of us! What can you do to encourage language acquisition and love of culture?

    • Let the walls help you teach. Create cheat sheets that help students engage in conversation. Post greetings, positive comments, popular idioms, verbs and more. Students will begin to work them into responses and written work. Teachers who are focused on strong comprehensible input use many of these, beginning with the interrogatives WHO, WHAT WHEN, WHERE, WHY, HOW in the target language. It’s best to provide English translations of your wall words so that students know exactly what they mean and don’t miss-guess.

    • Use cultural signs to teach and communicate: an exit sign in Chinese, a poster that inspires in the target language, French polite phrases, famous monuments, etc. Authentic signs and cultural icons will connect language and culture on a daily basis. Students can provide these as well. Make it a homework assignment!

    • Use student work to decorate. Plan a first week project that helps students get to know each other and can be posted on the wall. This makes preparations for Back-to-School Night very easy as well as personalized. When students immediately see that their work matters, they will have a positive attitude about the classroom and its upkeep. The COACH book Todo lo mío (Moi Même, Alles über mich and All About Me) has lesson ideas that will help meet these goals. See My T-Shirt and My Name.
  4. Prepare yourself!


    Summer memories! COACH Team members in Barcelona.
    Summer memories! COACH Team members in Barcelona.

    Summertime is for resting and recharging so make sure that you plan time for activities that renew you. Travel, visiting with friends, spending time with your family, sleeping in and puttering in your garden are exactly what you need so don’t spend your entire vacation working on your classroom. Take time to smell the roses and make yourself one New Year’s Resolution for Fall. Here are some examples of resolutions that other teachers have made.

    • Stay active: Promise yourself (one hour) of exercise a week when school starts. Take a yoga class, swim, go for a long walk with friends, or dance with your Wii.

    • Sleep. Promise yourself a healthy amount of sleep nightly. This is a tough one for teachers, especially if you have small children at home or love burning the midnight oil but it’s incredibly important to maintain your health and longevity. Shoot for seven hours even if you’re used to getting by with 4-6.

    • Eat well. Pack a healthy lunch and several snacks to keep you going. Drink lots of water (even if it does pull you toward the restroom!). Watch how much coffee and tea you drink and try to stay away from sodas. Sugar is always a temptation, but limiting sugar helps you maintain your weight and energy.

    • Laugh! Promise yourself time to laugh and vent in the lounge with other teachers. Teachers who constantly stay locked in their classrooms during breaks are not taking good care of themselves and they don’t benefit from the good humor and good ideas of other teachers.

    • Stay positive. When times get tough, take out that box of letters and thank you notes that your students have written you, or read inspiring quotes from other educators. Steer clear of the whiny crowd in the lounge and work with others to create some fun social activities that bond staff members. Write a thank you card to a staff member who has helped you. Promise to make one positive phone call per week. You will make an entire family happy!

Contributed by COACH Team member Cynthia Leathers

About the author…

Cynthia Leathers recently retired from 33 years of classroom teaching and is currently the Single Subject Credential Advisor/Coordinator for Languages Other Than English at CSULB. She is also the Director of the COACH Foreign Language Project. In addition to teaching education classes, Cynthia has taught Spanish, ESL, History and Language Arts.