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July 11, 2022
Vol. 79
No. 9

Clearing "Waste" from Classrooms

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Identifying the inessential tasks, initiatives, and physical clutter that consume energy and time is critical to improving educators’ well-being.
School CultureLeadership
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Reflecting on our work as educators can elicit some complex emotions. We might first think of the creativity and spontaneity we feel when teaching excited learners, the fulfillment we get from collegial relationships, or the smiles we see on students’ faces in lightbulb moments. But those thoughts are often paired with others that feel heavy and stressful, like the frustration of having to complete redundant forms for compliance or the dread of attending a steady flow of often irrelevant meetings. Sadly, the physical and professional clutter that wastes our time and saps our energy tends to leave us feeling taxed and tired.  
A culture that demands educators constantly accrue more tasks and jump through more hoops contributes to educator fatigue and, over time, burnout. In other words, teachers’ lives become cluttered with too much stuff. “Clutter makes it difficult to navigate [the world] and to get done what you need to in order to live comfortably within it” (Whitbourne, 2017), yet the current culture in schools does little to help educators pare down their workloads. The messages we receive from the larger society are equally clear: More is better, whether that refers to more money, more belongings, or more accomplishments. Being busy means being important. This drive and desire to be “the best'' is damaging us more than we realize

Reducing physical, time, and intellectual waste from teachers’ lines of vision allows them to focus on the students in front of them.

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For educators to feel passionate about their careers—and excited to stay in the profession—their well-being must be a priority. They cannot improve their well-being simply through hot baths and deep breathing. Instead, they need a “do better with less” mindset. That means they can be comfortable teaching without, for example, Instagram-perfect coffee shop set-ups or elaborate bulletin board displays in their classrooms. They can focus on deeper connections with their students when they clear away “waste,” which we define as the unnecessary items, tasks, and ideas that take up time and space in our learning environments. As educators, we must understand how waste is produced both in our professional lives and within the education system as a whole. This waste appears in many forms, but let’s consider three pertinent types. 

1. Physical Waste

Schoolbuildings are often packed with excess furniture, supplies, and books. Our shelves, cupboards, offices, and even hallways are filled with such detritus. “Physical waste” refers to items that are not needed for immediate use or potentially, ever, and yet still occupy valuable space in our classrooms. Having adequate resources to meet the learning needs and objectives of our students is important, but many of us can attest to seeing (or having) shelves of out-of-date textbooks gathering dust or cupboards of miscellaneous art supplies that haven’t been inventoried in years. Whether we inherit materials we are reluctant to throw out (someone could use this someday, right?) or we endlessly collect them ourselves, we are more than likely surrounded by physical waste in our schools. 
When our spaces are full of stuff, whether it’s useful or not, we can feel mentally cluttered and stressed. Our productivity and efficiency may also decrease as our minds process the mess around us (Miles, 2019). The examples below illustrate actionable tips for decluttering, reducing stress, and finding calm in our spaces.  

Figure 1. Tips for Decluttering Waste in Your Physical Space

Scenario: You walk into your classroom at your new school. The school year starts next week. A quick peek into the cupboards reveals folders of old assessments, posters, and materials left by the previous teacher. There is no room to add anything else. You close the cupboards quickly. You haven't had a chance yet to wrap your head around all the new units you will be teaching, let alone what materials will be useful.

Take it unit by unit.

Allocate short chunks of decluttering time per week.

Digitize resources.

Sorting through these materials may not be the top priority at the beginning of the year. You don't need to tackle all of this right now. At the start or end of each unit, you can look through the associated materials and evaluate whether these materials meet the priorities of the unit of work. Thoughtfully dispose of any items that will not meet the purpose. You can schedule short chunks of time each week (10-20 minutes) for decluttering. This will help the task feel more achievable and it can also help you determine what is essential for the next teaching unit. After decluttering, you might consider digitizing any valuable resources that could supplement your teaching.

2. Time Waste

Time is a constant constraint for educators. Teachers work with administrators, parents, specialists, and students every day. With so many stakeholders, it can be difficult to make decisions about how to allocate what little time we have. “Time waste” refers to the cumulative time we spend on tasks that are not aligned with essential teaching practices and priorities and that extend beyond our contracted work hours. Committing to necessary tasks such as forming relationships, teaching, grading, and attending or organizing meetings, while still maintaining some semblance of a personal life, can be overwhelming for many educators. We need to reconceptualize time itself in order to make changes that will sustain the work we value. Figure 2 provides an example of how to accomplish this.  

Figure 2. Tips for Decluttering Your Calendar and Prioritizing Your Time

Scenario: You have volunteered to support the school’s peer-mentoring program. You are passionate about this work, and you see a need for it within the student body. However, the meetings and check-ins generally occur during lunch breaks. You are left with fewer opportunities to catch up on prep work and interact with colleagues, and you often have to wait to eat lunch until after school. You want to see the program succeed, but also want to ensure that your time and workload are manageable.

Block your personal time as a nonnegotiable.

Color code your time blocks to track time use.

Scheduling school priorities and personal priorities are equally as important. To sustain your energy and passion for your role, you need to schedule your lunchtime as your own time. If your lunchtime is being compromised by extra meetings, it is important to have a critical conversation with those who choose to schedule meetings at this time. Explain that letting your mind relax during your break will ensure that you have energy for the remainder of the day. Otherwise, having lunch meetings every day could lead you to burn out and feel resentment. Use a calendar app on your phone or computer to keep better track of your daily schedule. If you use a color-coding system to show how and where you spend your time, you will see the tasks or meetings that are taking up most of your day. For example, you may code the high priority items green, mid-level priorities orange, and low priorities yellow. Just by glancing at your calendar, you will know if you need to reallocate your time to more meaningful work.

3. Intellectual Waste

Educators make up to 1,500 decisions each day (Goldberg & Houser, 2017), and apply thought and reflection in their planning, assessment, reporting, and practice. But if this intellectual labor isn’t consistently utilized to meet our goals and priorities, it quickly becomes wasted. “Intellectual waste” refers to applying intellectual labor to tasks or initiatives that we do not, or cannot, follow up on consistently or that are not matched with the school’s long-term plans, mission, or values.
Often this can happen when schools adopt new initiatives with rapid-fire speed. Each new program requires training and planning. When they arrive in quick succession, we are wasting teachers’ attention and effort. And all too often, once teachers have experienced this scenario a few times, they become hesitant to go through it again, developing a culture of resistance to change and innovation. In some cases, it’s best to just drop or cut back on new initiatives. The following example, however, suggests ways to preserve momentum on an instructional idea or program that you feel is truly valuable.  

Figure 3. Tips for Decluttering Your Intellectual Waste to Open Mental Capacity

Scenario: You and your team have been selected to visit a neighboring school that has an excellent writing program. You have an engaging day at this school and are buzzing about the possibilities for your own school. Your team works together to create a plan, build resources, and develop a session to share with your fellow teachers. However, your colleagues don’t have the benefit of seeing the program in action, and without a direct mandate from the administration about the implementation of this initiative, everyone is reluctant to adopt something new. Your team is disappointed and without a groundswell of support, your ideas and plans fizzle out to nothing. You implement a few changes in your own classrooms, but that’s as far as the program goes.

Build your self-efficacy.

Shape new initiatives to meet your current context.

When introducing new initiatives, you can to develop your own confidence and self-efficacy and then cultivate trust with your colleagues. Experiencing an initial success with one initiative, or the integration of multiple initiatives, through collaboration develops both self-efficacy and collective efficacy. This process can cultivate support for new programs and lower the likelihood that they result in wasted energy. Perhaps your colleagues aren’t quite ready for a complete overhaul. You can pick out one or two engaging elements to get everyone started. Or you can invite colleagues to your rooms, to feel that spark of interest you had when visiting the neighboring school.

Taking Control of Clutter

When we reimagine our learning environments and decisions, we can save ourselves from the trap of adding more, and instead, benefit from removing more. We can take control of the waste that surrounds us to reduce stress, open mental space, and remind ourselves of the purpose that drove us to became educators. Reducing physical, time, and intellectual waste from teachers’ lines of vision allows them to focus on the students in front of them. With renewed insight into how we can take care of our educators and students by clearing clutter and making smarter decisions, we have the capability to save ourselves from an educational wasteland.  
References

Goldberg, G. & Houser, R. (2017, July 19). Battling decision fatigue. Edutopia.  

Miles, L. (2019). Less stuff: Simple zero-waste steps to a joyful and clutter-free life. Hardie Grant Books. 

Whitbourne, S. K. (2017, May 13). 5 reasons why clutter disrupts mental health. Psychology Today.

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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