Category Archives: Classroom Organization

How to Take a Sick Day without the Stress

If there’s one thing that proves how essential we are as teachers, it’s the fact that taking a sick day is almost like asking an orchestra to play without its conductor.

We are so busy that we barely have enough time to get our plans together for the days we’re there, never mind time to think about the days we’re not!

Luckily, we have some really great substitute teachers out there that are willing to step up. But, they still rely on your help to get the most out of the day for your students.

Here are some tips to help skip the stress (and the guilt) of taking sick days:

1. Keep a Sub Binder- Keep a sub binder on your desk with all the information that they will need, such as class lists, seating charts, emergency procedures, etc. You’ll feel better knowing it’s accessible to your sub. Plus, if you have a messy desk- ahem, organized chaos- you won’t need to worry about your sub going on a hunt for these essentials through the heaping piles. As long as the binder has a special spot, you won’t sweat the state of your desk.

2. Don’t feel guilty- you need to take care of yourself- Can I get an amen? If you’re not rested, you can’t do your job well. How many times have you been a “trooper” and “toughed it out”, only to take the next day off, anyhow? Or when you’re sick through the weekend instead because you didn’t want to stay home on Friday? It’s OK to take care of you.

3. Don’t compare– Don’t despair just because Donna and Dave have four thousand sick days saved up.  It’s not a competition to see who can come out on top at the end of the year- it’s more important that you come out healthy and happy. Classrooms can have more germs than doctors’ offices- they give you those sick days for a reason.

4. Choose sub plans that aren’t too short- If you give your students a short reading article that they can complete in fewer than fifteen minutes, then all that extra time may encourage rowdy behavior for your sub.

5. Buddy up with another co-worker- If you need to email someone for any reason during a sick day or need someone to help you with your sub, choose a reliable coworker who is willing to help you out in exchange for your services when they’re out!

6. Have at least one set of sub plans printed and ready to go before the students’ first day of school. Whether it’s this summer’s project or you’re headed over to TpT- go score some sub plans so that you don’t have to worry about scrambling. Have them ready to go so you can fully rest. And if you haven’t done this yet- better late than never!

7. Worried students won’t work hard while you’re out? – You can have a policy that you will grade one page of the assignment at random (but they won’t know which one). This saves you time and keeps the kiddos on their toes.

8.Prepare valuable sub plans– sub plans that incorporate literacy skills and practice for your discipline are valuable! My sub plans focus on science literacy (including graphing and analysis skills). You want to choose content that enforces these skills because you never know when you might have an emergency absence.

You can score some valuable sub plans today and be prepared. Science teachers get a free copy of my A Closer Look at Cancer sub plan by signing up for my newsletter here:

English teachers check out this video Edgar Allen Poe Sub Plan offered by Laura Randazzo. English and Social Studies teachers- Laura offers a free information text sub plan about the 10 Supreme Court Cases Every Student Should Know. 

Health and Phys Ed teachers should check out this great lesson about The Dangers of Energy Drinks by Mrs. S!

And finally, teachers of any subject, Mrs. S. offers Motivating Articles for any Middle or High School Class that appeal to teenage struggles- and Laura offers Billions in Change Video Sub Plan to raise awareness on global citizenship.


How to Take a Sick Day without the stress Blog Post Pin

Finally Filing!

In the spirit of back to school (and perhaps a healthy dose of OCD), I’m putting my filing cabinets to good use! I’ve seen so many snazzy filing cabinets on Pinterest (dressed up with decorative duct tape or pretty paper), and if you’ve a tremendous tower or two in your classroom, you might want to use them in a way that benefits your Classroom Organization.

filing cabinetHere is a basic Filing System for a 4 tier Filing Cabinet:
Top Drawer Files (Health and Safety)
IEPs and 504s
State Health Reports and Emergency Guidelines
Lists of Students with allergies/specialized diet

Middle Drawer 1 Files (Future Reference)
Textbook Numbers/Book Fines
Disciplinary Action (Parent logs, Detention/Cut Slips, etc.)
-1 folder per each class (not student)
Department and Faculty Meeting Paperwork
-File all handouts from meetings no matter how meaningless or unimportant they may seen. You will probably need to refer to that information at a later date.
-Tangible pieces of paper. For everything else, use Pinterest.

Middle Drawer 2 Files (All About You)
Teacher Evaluations
Mentor/Mentee paperwork (if applicable)
School District Contract

Lower Drawer Files
-Tests and quizzes that you want to be kept secret
Examples of Student Work
-Examples from previous years that you might want to use in the future
Last Year’s Lesson Plans/Unit Planner to Compare
If you have less than 4 drawers, feel free to combine!


Here’s what not to put in a filing cabinet:
Those should be cleanly displayed in the room. Extra syllabi should be located where students can easily access them. A clear exit strategy should be displayed for fire alarms. Laminated class rosters on lanyards would also be appropriate for evacuations as seen at left.

Okay, well, this is a very humble opinion at best. I’m not sure that I would defend this statement wholeheartedly. I personally like to have the handouts separate from my filing cabinets. I feel like there’s _teaching_ (handouts and activities) and then there’s…. the stuff that no one tells you about teaching (like the aforementioned suggestions for the filing cabinet drawers). I like to keep in separate. I keep my handouts, etc. in lovely hanging folder bins or binders.

Memos, flyers, messages, brochures, invitations, etc.
File them? Heck no! You’ll never see them again. I have a bulletin board method that I share in my Classroom Organization for Secondary Teachers Guide and Corresponding Materials.

Feel Goods (student artwork and cards that they’ve made just for you).
Do. Not. File.
Feel the love _every_ day!

Stay Science Classy,

Science Fair Journal Guide

Science fair journals, four words: THE STRUGGLE IS REAL!

Students tend to have a hard time organizing their science journal. I certainly, under no circumstances, am speaking for all the past, present and future students, but I do feel the following applies to the majority: 

Students engaged in a science fair do not know where to begin. Literally. They do not know! From choosing their topic, to what they can and can not do for their project (which varies per state), from how to execute the scientific method in real life (though they can recite and explain each step on paper).

I am not saying I blame them. I think if I were to put myself in their shoes, I might look something like this when trying to enter the world of the science fair: 

We’re heading to the science fair!

I gotta tell ya, I think that my first year teaching could have been a sitcom when it came to the science fair. SCIIIENNNCE FAIRRRR. Ooooh. I had visions. Let me tell you, I had dreams. We were gonna get down and nerdy! And then the fear of lawsuits that were translated into Science Fair Rules put my Science Fair Fantasies to a screeching hault. I had to shamefully tell students that the experiments we had both been so excited about were to be rejected if submitted because of those rules. Those constraining rules that made me, a science teacher, think “What the heck is the point of this science fair?!”, in a fit of frustration as I saw all the fun and anticipation slowly drain out of my student’s bodies. Sorry, Jake, you can not run barefoot to test whether or not running shoes actually slowed you down, I know that you are a star cross country runner and you were really looking forward to this, but I’m a new teacher and apparently very naive!

Needless to say, the second year I had those rules down. The adult in me was saying “Yes, of course we need these guidelines”. The sarcastic teenager inside of me might be adding the word “(limiting)” or “(lame)” between the words “these” and “guidelines”. And the scientist in me just died a little.

BUT… the science fair IS a great way for students to execute the scientific method
in a controlled fashion. And, we did have some really fun experiments! Sure, there’s always going to the junior in high school who wants to test how long flowers last in a vase, but we can’t all be masterminds! I say as long as they are doing the experiment and getting a feel for how important those control groups can be, then it’s all worth it.

Though, the paperwork can be agonizing.

Ahem. Back to the Science Fair Journals. The kids really do have trouble when it comes to recording their data. It’s almost as if they are out of their comfort zones because they are literally staring at a blank notebook not knowing where to begin. They have a hard time getting their topic. They have a hard time setting up their journal. However, once they get rolling, they get into the swing of things and they tend to gain confidence. The trick is getting them there. As time goes on, I have noticed a definitely increase in higher quality notebooks as I am better able to get them started on the right foot.

Here are some pointers if you are doing the science fair:
1. Don’t be that guy. Know the Rules. I’m from Massachusetts so this was particular helpful and this is where I get all the paperwork:

2. Give your students time to come up with their topic. One week is ideal, one day is not.

3. If you can help it, rule out students working with students who are not in your classroom UNLESS you have a common rubric and have time to compare grades with other teachers. The best idea is to keep them all in your class- no outside partners.

4. Use the documents I have attached to this post to help students choose topics and to help students understand what their Science Fair Journal is all about.

5. Have your students hand in their journals every 2-3 weeks just so that you can check to be sure they are making progress. You can cut a small corner to see where they last left off and highlight the date. I staggered the due dates since I had 3 classes doing the science fair. Try not to collect notebooks on a Friday. Students usually spend Sunday nights working on the science fair. But please, whatever you do, collect them. Ensure your students are constructing, designing, and DOING the experiment!

6. Ask the students who produced the best notebooks if you can hang on to them as a model to use for the next year’s class. More often than not, they won’t mind. But hang on to them, because you should always have them ready to give back in case they  need them.

Good luck in this upcoming science fair. Show that scientific method who’s boss! And check out the guides!

Science Fair Ideas
Science Fair Journal

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Ways to Save in the Classroom

As the new school year approaches, any random trip to Wal-Mart or Target for laundry detergent and trash bags end up turning into a “this-would-fit-nicely-in-my-classroom” trip.  It’s always good to buy some extra scissors, rulers, and of course things that disappear such as glue sticks, colored paper, colored pencils, sharpeners, etc. Some schools are better than others at supplying teachers, and some teachers have stronger preferences when it comes to brands.  Therefore, it’s usually the case that if you’re a teacher, you’re buying utensils right about now.

Here are some ways that I’ve saved money when it comes to stocking my classroom.

1) There are some documents that I reuse every year for “paper labs” or “lab stations”.  My first year teaching I bought 8×11.5 laminate sheets for these papers- which cost about $3 per sheet. What was I thinking? Now I buy 100 sheet protectors for about $14 bucks and they last me at least three years (depending on how ambitious you are).

2) Collateral, collateral, collateral.  I’ve heard of teachers using collateral every time that a student needed to borrow a pencil, but I didn’t try it until a few years ago. It has saved me at least 50 pencils since then. Kids give you keys, cell phones, ear buds, their wallets, and you get your pencil back! Just make sure you keep them in a safe place and DO NOT LOSE them, even for a second!

3) Don’t buy name brands. It’s OK to go on the cheap for colored pencils, tape, rulers, scissors, etc. For example my Target brand mini scissors were .49 each and have lasted 5+ years with no sign of slowing down! A huge roll of cheap tape at Ocean State Job Lot (New England based company) is .50 and two of them will last you all year. One thing I do splurge on is my markers…

… I love grading papers with these! But anyways, this is about SAVING money… so moving on…

I should also mention that when I can I buy at local businesses. There are plenty of small stores that have GREAT sales this time of year and carry many innovative products you might not know exist- all tailored for a teacher’s needs. In my neck of the woods I’d recommend Lakeshore Learning in Stoneham, MA or Children’s Learning World in Westfield, MA.

4) Search Youtube first, then ask.

Before you go buying DVD’s to use for educational content, search youtube. Maybe I’m politically incorrect in recommending this, but every little bit counts. Especially older documentaries and movies. You may have to do a bit of digging, but many good ones can be found! If you still end up fruitless, then ask your department chair. There is usually $$$ left over in the budget for supplies and $15-$30 isn’t going to break the bank.  Also, NETFLIX IS AMAZING! They have so much science content it is UNBELIEVABLE! Nova, Discover, National Geographic, Ted Talks, etc. They offer an instant streaming online plan for $7.99 a month, which you can use all year round and the price sure beats cable.

5) It Adds Up

Throughout the year I find myself doing labs that require trips to the grocery store. Liver, balloons, spinach leaves, coffee stirrers, cheesecloth, etc. You will find your fellow teachers in the same boat, and some of you are lucky enough to have a great consolidated department that do the same labs!  Ask your department head if it is possible to open an account at the local grocery store so that you don’t have to pay for it.  Every little bit helps!

Enjoy your upcoming school year!

Returning after Maternity Leave

I took a leave of absence for 14 weeks after my son was born on 9/22/11. All I have to say is, “wow”.

Coming back after New Years was incredibly difficult. In fact, had I known what I was in for, I probably would not have come back at all! BUT, now that the worst is over, I am so glad I did.

Returning to work after being out for so long was not easy. Especially in my case, because I was only a classroom teacher for barely 3 weeks before I gave birth.  I did not have much time to establish clear rules and guidelines, to familiarize the students with my expectations, and so on. When I returned I had to announce that the party was over.

It was interesting, because some students really took kindly to having me back. I think they appreciated the organization, because some kids need that to learn, but everyone loves a good time, right?  When I was gone biology was most likely the class they looked forward to. Not because they were inspired or awe struck by the subject, but because they did not have rules enforced. The first six weeks were very difficult for me. I had to constantly set boundaries and students were constantly crossing them, which meant that I was constantly disciplining.

The best thing I could have done was stand my ground. Basically, the same thing any experienced classroom teacher would do in the first few weeks, except amplified by what seems like 1,000%.  This was a HUGE learning experience for me-   turns out as a hardcore disciplinarian (I’m sure the kids had another word in mind…) you do end up respected. It just took a few weeks of kids to get things out of their system, let them fight you, and then finally give up when they realized the wall that is you is not going anywhere. Girls that seemed to hate my guts in the beginning turned out to seek me as their confidant at times, and even laugh at my jokes, though that took some time (for both myself to show my humorous side and my students to get to know me).

At the end of the year, I was showered with more gifts that I ever had been, and I was even told by numerous students that they really appreciated me after they got to know me. I appreciated hearing that. This is my 5th year teaching, and within those 5 years I’ve had one lay off and 2 children, therefore they haven not been the most consistent 5 years, so when I hear things like that I feel like I might be close to mastering the art of teaching- though I know there is always room for improvement no matter how long you have been teaching. So, though the midyear was a very rocky start, in the end things worked out for the best. I really enjoyed working with my students this year, I have learned a lot and I hope they did, as well.

A la Carte?

My first few years teaching I had a grand-sized classroom, I even had my very own prep room. I had an endless amount of drawers, all of which were mine, all mine (and how I took them for granted).  I had shelves, I had cabinets, I even had a large cabinet with my very own coat rack! I almost had too much room!

Then, I moved 90 miles away, I was hired at a new school about 2 days before school began, and I showed up the next day to set up my classroom, and hit a brick wall.

A cart????

Ya know that saying, you don’t know what you got till it’s gone?

I’ve been on  a cart for 2 years, and this will be my 3rd. I guess you could say in some ways I’m a slow learner. I am a very go-with-the-flow person, and *gasp* I don’t always plan ahead. I think because I had no idea what it would be like living on a cart going from room to room, because I could not imagine such a thing, I could not plan for it. The first year you would have thought it was my first year teaching! I’d show up to one classroom having left papers in the last classroom I was in. The kids could pick up on my disorganized disarray, and it was not for the better.  That is a major NO-NO. If you’re on a cart you have to think of it this way- you’re a guest in another person’s classroom. When leaving the classroom, you want it to look just how it did as when you first entered it. To take the ten seconds of your time to look around the room before you leave to make sure you have everything that is yours is not only courteous, but more importantly, it helps you to stay organized! The most important thing is to make sure you make a conscientious effort to leave everything on the cart. You do not have the time or mental capacity for frustration when realizing you left paperwork in the previous classroom and you have to go get it yourself, or most likely ask a student to do it for you.

You have to think of the cart like a mini classroom. Draw out the plans if you have to as if you were designing a room.  Your best friend? Paper organizers! I had a stacked paper organizer that I labeled in descending order “Period 1, Period 2” so on and so forth. This was for papers that were corrected and had to be passed back. Next to that I had a vertical organizer which I kept folders in, again labeled Period 1, Period 2, etc.  I noticed that clipboards with attendance sheets work just as well as the paper folders, depending on your budget. Behind the attendance/grading sheet would go any collected papers, and use the sheet to write down their grades. Again, once the grades were in, I’d move them to the stacked organizer. I also had a simple plastic container which contained overhead markers, pens, pencils, chalk, whiteboard markers, etc. And,  a final vertical paper organizer for the worksheets, labs, etc. that we would be doing for that day. Every couple of days I would remove the old papers, but you don’t want to do that right away in case of absences- so that particular vertical organizer should have at least 8 slots! On the bottom of my cart I had yet another paper organizer. This had white lined paper, computer paper, blank tables of contents, course syllabuses, etc. I found that this set-up was most effective, and really, it had everything you needed, you just had to keep on top of it.

The absolute worst thing about not having your very own classroom is that you miss out on all that multi-tasking time-management opportunities. When there was downtime, say if the kids were testing or doing some bookwork, I would always use this to tidy up my desk, organize papers, grade, etc. When you’re on a cart, you don’t have your own classroom to be able to do that in. Sure, you can spend any down time organizing your cart but you can only do that up to a certain point. I would often find myself disappointed because if I didn’t think to bring papers to grade with me. This usually ends up in spending more time after-school that you need for yourself, and takes away from after-school time that the kids need, or of course, you end up staying longer hours.

I welcome any further tips you have. I personally don’t think any teacher should be on a cart, but times are tough, and unfortunately not enough money is invested in education. Teachers are seemingly becoming a politician’s worst nightmare (which I find asinine considering I’ve seen ZERO politicians in my school observing, nor have any of them ever been teachers themselves- if that were the case I’m sure there would be some fresh, more accurate perspectives), and we end up crammed in schools busting at the seams where there is just not enough room. Perhaps some of you look at it in a more optimistic way, which I would also welcome you to share.