Organizing from the Outside In

Approximate reading time:3 minutes

(I’m attempting to braid together several strands of thought I’ve been spinning over the last week or so. Whether it turns out to be a strong and flexible rope or a tangled wad of fiber remains to be seen.)

About a week and a half ago I got to reunite with a good portion of the staff from my first year of teaching. Though I haven’t seen them for five years, the bonds we created then were strong enough that I could walk right in and strike up a conversation as if nothing had changed, though of course many things have. That camaraderie is a great credit to my former principal and building coach, and I have truly missed that. In the years since I’ve worked essentially alone as well as on less than fully integrated teams of varying sizes, and I craved the unity and safe familiarity of that first year.

I think I’ve found that again in my new district. Today and tomorrow I am attending “new teacher induction,” which sounded both intimidating and potentially zombiefyingly boring when I first heard about it. So far it has proven to be neither. When going over district expectations and the state teacher evaluation system, the superintendent himself led two and a half hours of interactive meaning-making rather than reading pages of information to us. (I’m doing this myself on the first day of class, by the way…I’ll post on that hopefully next week.) I’ve never been welcomed by a superintendent with more than a handshake and a “You’re hired!” (which is very important, don’t get me wrong!) That they appear to truly practice what they preach about building relationships and creating an environment of interaction and trust, especially in this era of, “SHOW ME THE DATA,” is highly reassuring.

I would be tempted to think this was just a dog-and-pony show for new hires if there weren’t so many people working there that I know personally who have attested to the positive atmosphere. I remember a moment in my interview with the building principal, when we came to the topic of creating a productive classroom environment. I asked, with some trepidation, if he meant establishing classroom routines, enforcing clear expectations, and just running a tight ship like many of my mentors had done–which I have struggled with a lot in my first two years of teaching. He said, “Oh no, I mean how are you going to build relationships with students and create a culture of trust?” And I thought, “Well, I know how to do that even if I can’t always keep my classroom organized.” (Evidently he must have thought so too because here I am!)

I’ve been reflecting on that conversation quite a bit as I’ve been preparing for this school year. My manic nesting drive has extended to the classroom, naturally, but I’ve checked myself a few times to reiterate my intentions. When I’m stressed I have a tendency to obsess over minutiae so I want to take a moment now when I’m calmer to remember that I’m not organizing for the sake of organizing or setting up procedures for the sake of creating an army of school robots and appearing “together”. I’m doing all of it to make my class less chaotic and unpredictable for students and less stressful for me. I’m going to be a harpy about numbering notebook pages and counting scissors in the group supply kits at the beginning of the year (and…as long as it takes…) because I don’t want students to waste time in class trying to find a certain page in their notebook or looking for scissors. I’m going to be bear about the interactive notebook format because it has been designed to foster inquiry and higher-level learning. Yes, I know I’m working with teenagers and that will probably be an uphill battle, but I think high schoolers are old enough to understand, if not always accept, the underlying rationale of staying organized in order to be more efficient.

The district expects “teachers and students [to] collaborate to build an environment and culture that fosters learning.” The established practices and evidence for this expectation start with building positive relationships and interactive community culture. Only then does it talk about what is usually thought of as “management”:

  • making sure students understand expectations and goals
  • helping students stay on task
  • minimizing class interruptions
  • managing seamless transitions
  • establishing classroom routines

One of my main goals this year is to run my classroom more smoothly than in previous years. I’d like to think that after two years of trial and error, I’ve got a better handle for what works for different classroom situations, my own personality and my teaching style. We’ll see how it goes because organization is an area I tend to struggle with in my own life. Once I finish setting up my classroom, I’ll try to post some photos…and update with a progress report once the year gets started. In my experience, establishing an orderly external environment creates a sense of safety and confidence that makes it easier to take internal risks of thought, creativity, and interaction.

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