Twenty years ago, I walked into my first classroom and found, "The rookie classroom set-up." Four walls, one window, two chalkboards flanked by bulletin boards, a rolling chair, a file cabinet, the oldest teacher's desk in the building, and 30 mismatched desks and chairs for my students. They newest guy always got the oldest furniture on campus. I didn't care though! This classroom was mine!
I sat and looked across this blank template of a classroom for a few minutes. How would I design this room for great learning! I moved all the desks in little groups of six. Then I rearranged them into groups of four. Another move into pairs, then back to fours. I shoved the teacher's desk into a corner and threw the file cabinet against the wall. I actually could throw it because it was empty! What would I fill it with???
Within 20 minutes, my new teammates stopped by and introduced themselves. Each one looked across the room design, measuring my efforts. I didn't notice any negative judgments. Hooray! Each of of these good folk also handed me some kind of paper.
"Here is a great opening activity for the first day!"
"Have the parent fill this out."
"Make sure they do this before they leave open house."
"Keep this for the end of the first day."
"Use this if they get restless."
"They can color this for a mental break."
"Here is my first month's packet for math."
"This quiz will tell you what the kids remember from last year's grammar."
And on and on and on...
I had no clue what I would need, so I diligently made a copy of each item I was given and began filing them away...just in case I might need it some day. I found stuff for my file cabinet! My team was extremely generous. They continued to gift me with priceless resources that a rookie teacher just might need one day. Indeed, I used some of the stuff I was given. I also made a copy of everything and filed it away.
I also quickly learned that the best papers to keep were the things I created; lesson plan ideas, resources, things to read, and templates. Not worksheets.
Each year, I used a few things I was given, but I found myself using the idea of the resource to create something better for my class. Of course with each activity I created, I was sure to make an extra copy to go into the file cabinet.
Six years later, it was time to grow so I moved to a new school. I started packing things up and grabbed a box for the resources in my file cabinet. I spent hours going through each file, thinking that I needed to cull the mass of paper. I probably trashed less than 5% of it. I remember thinking, "I might use this one day." Realistically, I probably only used 20% of the those things more than once. I probably used less than half of it at all. Nevertheless, I couldn't trash it!
After another couple of years, I was fortunate enough to follow my fifth graders to middle school as their assistant principal. Again, I fingered through this invaluable collection of greatness. Only this time, it didn't seem so great. Instead of saying to myself, "I might use this some day," I found myself saying, "I did this different and better year after year."
Instead of seeing it as invaluable, I saw much of it as outdated, or more so, in need of improvement. A giant pile of paper that I once considered necessary, was now turning into trash, yet it was still difficult to part with! The funny thing was that I only used a fraction of it! Most of it was kept because, "I might use this one day."
As I packed up the rest of my classroom, I thought to myself, "I should go see if another teacher wants any of this." But really, if it wasn't good enough for my students, it wasn't good enough for any. I was actually a little bit proud of myself for using a few of these items, but for the most part, creating even better learning activities for my students. I scoured through the reams of paper one last time, trying to find something worth keeping. In the end, I kept three file folders of paper. Then with much courage, I shoved the rest of it into the recycling bin and walked away.
That night, I couldn't help but wonder if I made a mistake. I didn't. It didn't take long to realize that I would have benefited from a different mindset from the very beginning. Through every lesson, like most teachers, I reflected on ways the learning could have been improved. What could have gone better? With that in mind, I should have known that keeping a piece of paper in need of refinement was not necessary.
Since then, I wave witnessed many teachers with the same file cabinet. Seemingly full of great learning yet most teachers used ideas from their file cabinet to create something better for their students. Most of those teachers, like me, made an extra copy to file away too!