5 Tips for Staying Organized During the Back-to-School Overwhelm

Here are 5 tips to help you stay organized during back-to-school chaos.

By Rachel Wilser

Your days of unlimited bathroom breaks and afternoon trips to your local coffee shop for iced lattes are waning. Pictures of classrooms ready for school to start are popping up in your social media newsfeeds.

But didn’t we just get out of school?!

Back-to-school season is like those beautiful pictures you see of the ocean—so smooth and serene on the surface, but underneath it’s choppy, busy, and chaotic.

How can you manage back-to-school season (and the whole year) so that you’re always a step ahead, instead of trying to always catch up? Try these five tips to stay organized and serene all year long.

Tip 1. Make a hub.

Here’s what I used to do: have a thought, write it on a Post-it note, stick it somewhere and hope that when I needed it I could find it again. I’m sure you’ll find it surprising that was NOT the best system.

Here’s what works better: setting a spot in your classroom that is your teacher hub. For me, the part of my classroom where I dropped things and hoped to find them again was my kidney table that I used for SGI. But I really noticed a change in my ability to stay organized when I focused even narrower: I started keeping a clipboard that I literally took everywhere with me (except the bathroom).

Walk the kids to music? Take the clipboard. Have lunch duty? Take the clipboard. Running down to the office to check your mailbox? Take the clipboard.

What’s on this clipboard? Glad you asked. Generally, my lesson plans for the week, a calendar that shows any meetings (staff, IEP, committee, parent, etc.), a class list/grade tracker, a sheet that shows who I’ve conferenced with that week and about what, data trackers, plus a blank page or two so that when other people stop you in the hall, or a parent catches you at dismissal you can write down what they’re asking you to do so you know it gets done.

Tip 2. Create a weekly routine.

Staying organized isn’t an accident, but one thing that’s kind of a bummer about it is that it can take some time. The good news is that the more you perfect your routine the quicker and more efficient you become at it, but you need a routine to get all the pieces organized.

Here’s what my routine looked like: on Sunday morning (or if we’re being honest, sometimes afternoon) I grabbed my supplies (laptop, calendar, colored pens) and made some coffee. I used a few digital templates that I created (for lesson plans, a week-at-a-glance, notetakers, etc.), and filled them in so that I could easily see when I had meetings, duty, and anything else that may have needed special attention that week (like testing during a data cycle).  I’m also old school, so I printed them and put them on my clipboard so I was ready for the week.

When I first started this routine, it probably took me over an hour—sometimes two—to get myself ready and organized for the week. However, as I got quicker, and more streamlined it took me significantly less time—closer to 30 minutes, or 45 if the week ahead was really busy.

Tip 3. Make a weekly highlight sheet.

For me, this was the top sheet on my clipboard hub. This was a place I could quickly glance at and see what was coming my way—did I have a staff meeting this Tuesday? Whose mom was I meeting with Wednesday morning?

I also included a section on my highlight sheet looking ahead to the next week, so that if I had some odd minutes left in my planning period, not enough to accomplish another school-related task, I knew what other small tasks I had coming and could work ahead (like calling to confirm reservations for the birthday dinner you’re planning for next week). 

Tip 4. Guard your planning time.

I’m sure this sounds easier said than done, and it was probably the hardest habit to build. Because sometimes spending your planning period catching up with your teacher besties feels good. But staying at school until 5:30p (or later!) never feels good.

If I didn’t have a meeting during my planning period, I would make efforts to use that time effectively. I usually had about 45-50 minutes of time. That’s enough time to grade a few assignments (in early elementary), get a good start on unit planning, or fill out your weekly lesson plan template.

It’s helpful to know what you’re going to attempt to do at the start of your planning, so that you don’t waste valuable planning time trying to figure out what to do.

Tip 5. Plan backwards.

How am I really supposed to know how long it will take me to give reading assessments to 26 second graders? How long do kindergarteners need to learn to subitize? How long should my fractions unit be in 4th grade? What steps do I need to guide the student council through to plan their next event?

Bigger planning questions are often best considered by looking backwards, rather than forwards. When you’re thinking about how to plan for a large task (or even a small one), it’s best to think backwards and consider the smaller milestones that will lead you to achieving the larger goal.

So, if you’re helping the student council plan a dance, maybe your smaller milestones are selecting a date, checking the budget, finding a venue, deciding the cost per ticket, selecting decorations, and advertising the dance.

While back to school season is looming large, it’s definitely still summer. Put those feet up, enjoy a good beverage, and know that you’re ready to conquer the coming school year with a new level of organization! 

Rachel Wilser has spent the better part of a decade in classrooms around the country — in private, public, charter, elementary, and middle school. Now, she chases twins and drinks coffee while planning her return to the classroom.