To Neaten a Ne’er-do-Well

Are you one of those primary teachers whose classroom is immaculate, whose paperwork is always 100% up to date and who is generally on top of everything?

Well go away, this isn’t for you. This post is for those whose classrooms look more like Lidl than Ikea. What follows is a meandering introduction and some tips for those who, like me, feel a sickening guilt about the daily war against your own absent-minded actions, as you slowly and surely barricade yourself into your book corner. Read on, you orrible orrible lot, and learn how even you can get on top of things. Heck on high golly jeeps, if I can do it you can.

Here is a confession. I am brazenly untidy. I recognise this as a deficiency in myself, and I won’t hide behind my fecklessness by pretending it is some inborn trait. If this is helplessness it is learned helplessness, but as with many learned deficiencies, they are as rigid and unshakeable as if they were innate. But they can be alleviated with effort.

Truth told, when we got burgled a few years ago and the police forensic officer did a sweep of my flat, the officer in my room proclaimed that “They really had done a job in here, what was taken?” Looking down with shame, I had to confess that mine was the only room that wasn’t touched by the marauding teenagers on their spree, and that even despite them kicking their way through the other rooms, mine was still the one room that looked like it had been barrel-bombed.

I am not a failure. I get things done and I pass as a functioning human, which is important. In an odd sort of self-justificatory logic familiar to the hoarder, the obsessive and the scruff alike, there is a method in the madness. My room in school may look like a bomb-blast in Rymans by the meticulous high standards of many other primary teachers, who occupy the other end of the tidy spectrum, but ask me where my prized purple pens are and I can hone in on them and isolate them to a square inch, even below a flurry of unmarked science tests.

But reader, I write to you not as a proud lout but as a slowly-reforming scruffbag.

I tend towards the impulsive leaving of mugs in all the places – neighbours’ classrooms, window sills, middle of desks, beside bean bags – but this is becoming less and less frequent. I am fighting my habits. Some would call these habits filthy, slovenly and immature. I consider them to be a symptom of my butterfly mind, flitting hither and thither between tasks and impulsions. But unlike the butterfly, I am not the final product – I am getting back in my chrysalis, hoping to be reborn as a Red Admiral rather than something easily confused for a soiled moth.

I am getting there and you can too. Tips.

Opaque Containers

Whilst we are told we live in the age of transparency, opacity is the real virtue. The great thing about opaque containers is that the inside can be as messy as you like,  because to the casual onlooker, it is only the outside that matters. 2015-16 is the year of the opaque container. (See also, lids).

Emails to Self

Closely linked to the need to be tidy is the allied need to be organised. In my new post, I juggle a stupendous number of tasks and projects. Whilst my workload has gone up, I find it far easier to juggle different competing responsibilities and complete them to a high standard than if I am needing to focus on one big task all the time. Whilst it reeks of emotional despondency, I write myself an email at the end of each working day, listing precisely what I need to do when I get in in the morning. This has a very strong effect of ‘switching me off’ from the working day too (although I am still checking my email out of automatic habit throughout evenings and weekends).

Jonny JOblist


I become cluttered very easily because once things are no longer at the forefront of my mind, they become invisible. So when I am eating biscuits, for example, I can see the biscuits. When I go to mark a Geography book suddenly, these biscuits become invisible, until the point two days later when a child might remark, “Sir why are their jammy dodgers in your pencil case.” I am needing to become far more rigid with my starting and stopping of activities (such as with the need to email myself to ‘sign off’. When I finish marking, rather than running off for caffeine, or to restick a display, or un-smush my plush toys’ faces, I am starting to immediately replace my books onto their proper place. I have recognised that what I call procrastination, most others call abandonment. The number of orphaned mugs is a humanitarian crisis that I am needing to solve.


Photographs of Perfection

My wonderful colleague Lily, who I am mentoring this year for her training year has initiated a system with our class which works equally well for me. We bought some beautiful black and white baskets to store desk stationery, and on the first day of term, it was Instagram-worthy. A scene of beauty our classroom was. A term of fiddling, prodding, picking and unthreading as well as the bluntening of pencils, scattering of shavings and flicking of glue lids has meant that now…it ain’t so great. Lily took a photo of a perfectly tidy desk, as a visual reminder of perfection and then forbade children from leaving the classroom until reality resembled the photo. Simple, clear, effective and it forced the perpetrators to take responsibility for their own space. I am now doing a similar thing in my office, for myself.

There we go everybody. I am by no means a fixed product, but no longer am I damaged goods either. Efficiency breeds efficiency, and the more I am getting on top of stuff, the less I have to get on top of… Gradually, I am getting a grip over myself and in doing so, I am finding it far easier to complete my work to a high standard in less time.

So to my slovenly brothers and sisters I say this – you can change. If I can you can.


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