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August 23, 2021

How to Be a Minimalist Teacher

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School CultureSocial-emotional learning
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To lighten your load, strip your classroom and tasks down to the essentials.
Have you recovered from this past school year? Is binging Netflix still far more appealing than going back to the classroom? Sadly, many teachers have not yet recovered from the mind-bending rollercoaster of constant change, sickness, and heavy expectations induced by the pandemic. To think that we can start this year like the ones before is unrealistic. For some of us, this year won’t begin with the same hope, energy, and passion in our hearts, but instead a giant ball of stress in our bellies—there are just so many materials, structures, and plans to prepare. 
Teaching is not a minimalist profession. It is a “maximum-ist” one. But, taking a few tips and tools from minimalism could help us find a more calm way through.
Minimalism is all about decluttering the extra from our day-to-day lives in order to feel more at ease, balanced, and productive. Applying some approaches from minimalism to our teaching lives may be a way to peacefully tackle the start of this year with our students.

Prioritize One Exciting Item

In your first few days at school, even prior to students arriving, you will be thinking about all the things you have to set up while listening to a lot of new information, learning new staff members’ names, and practicing updated procedures. Pick one item from your long list of must-dos and make that your priority. Yes—only one item. The item you choose should stick out to you: It should get you excited about the tasks ahead! Ideally, your choice will have a direct and positive impact on your teaching. For example, if you enjoy decorating your classroom, choose just one area to focus on at first. The library or gathering space may be an ideal start since these areas are used often. Tune into the purpose of the space you choose; it can have a surprising impact on focus and learning.
Or, you might choose (as your "one item") to look through one of your many teacher guides. Again, choose one, and before you start flipping through the pages, ask yourself: “What do I need to know from this guide?” If you need to find suggestions for differentiation or pre-assessment ideas, then only look for those items as you scan through the book. Focusing only one area at a time will help solidify your tasks and will hopefully make you feel better about what’s to come. Yes, there will be other things to do, but prioritizing your one item will keep you on course.

Declutter Your To-Do List

Inevitably, the new school year will require a very long to-do list which could become a list of nightmares! Formatting the list, then, can help you focus on the priority you identified. Consider chunking out your main priority into smaller tasks, like suggested above with your classroom space. Those tasks could be color-coded or listed separately. The rest of your to-dos can be divided up across the coming days. This may help you see that it is possible to complete the essential tasks, allowing you to stay focused and feel productive, working effectively toward your one priority.

Set Up a Tidy Workspace

As you take steps to accomplish the task you have chosen, think about how you will set up your workspace for success. Be intentional about the physical things that surround you and be selective about keeping enough supplies on hand, but not too many. You can always visit the storage closet to get those extra markers, pencils, and sticky notes later.
You will also want to consider how you feel in your space. Remember, when you have just the basics, you have enough. We tend to enter into a scarcity mindset when we do not have all the extras within reach. But don’t worry, you will be fine with the essentials!
According to Darby Saxbe, an assistant psychology professor at University of Southern California, a cluttered workspace “can negatively impact mental well-being, particularly among women.” This is especially problematic considering that 76% of public school teachers are female
Sure, those extras in your workspace can offer a sense of comfort, but evaluate what it is you actually use over the course of a day or two. You might be surprised by how few items you frequently rely on. For example, in the course of a normal teaching day, I would only use my laptop, planner, a teacher guide or set of trade books, and a pen and pencil.

Achieve More With Less

When you begin your year with one clear priority, a strategy to manage your to-do list, and a decluttered space, you have created a path for success. Modeling this simplicity—and setting the same expectations for your students—can be your first steps in creating a culture of minimalism in your shared learning environment.

Related Resource

To find out more about establishing a minimalist culture and teaching practice, look for our new book, The Minimalist Teacher, in the ASCD bookstore.

Tamera Musiowsky-Borneman is an international education adviser, teacher coach, and classroom teacher who has taught and led in Singapore, New York City, and Edmonton, Canada. She is a past president of ASCD Emerging Leaders Alumni Affiliate (ELASCD). She values simplicity and clarity and has created a coaching model centered on the idea of coaching teachers in short, flexible, and focused chunks of time, with personalized content. Musiowsky-Borneman has contributed content to ASCD Inservice, ASCD Express, Illinois ASCD’s newsletter, EdWeek Teacher Blog, and Achieve the Core about student engagement, inclusion, agency, and ways to develop classroom and school culture.

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