Spring Cleaning: Reflecting to Clear the Clutter


Isn’t there something about Spring that drives us to streamline? Take a deep breath – out with the old and in with the new! We made it through winter, the sun is shining, the plants and animals around us are alive and flourishing. Our cells even “declutter” old, stagnant cells. This is one of the things that’s so incredible about biology – the systems that resonate on multiple levels – from how our cells function up to entire biospheres. Spring cleaning improves efficiency biologically, it’s in line with our natural systems!

This is a great time of year to do some spring cleaning of our space in the classroom, of course, but also of our habits and curriculum. Decluttering usually involves a 2-step approach: What should I keep? What should I get rid of? After decluttering, we may notice space for something new. I like to use a Google Doc labeled simply with the year that I can pull up during my planning time.

Step 1: What Should I Get Rid Of?

I use 2 questions when while sorting material things – if there’s not a yes to one, it goes: Is it functional? Is it beautiful?

We can apply this to education as well, but different qualifiers for the “keep” pile: Does it result in student growth on the learning targets I’ve set? Does it improve my capacity as a dynamic educator? If there’s not a clear “yes” to one of these questions, time to trash it.

Are there unhealthy habits clogging up your productivity and wellness? Maybe staying up until 11pm on the computer has become a habit, and you’re recognizing you’ve felt tired. Maybe rushing out the door without breakfast has become the norm, and you’re finding your patience is short.

What about any negative thought patterns? How do you start the day – what’s the story when you’re on the way into the classroom? Do you want to hold onto that personal narrative – is it empowering, energizing, positive? How might walking in thinking “I love each of my students!” or “My kindness and curiosity make a difference” influence the way you interact with those around you? Sometimes we inadvertently walk around with negative messages and can feel the tension…”I don’t have enough time.”, “(Students) won’t stop talking”, etc. How can I rephrase that into a more empowering positive? “I have a lot of important things to do and I have the autonomy to prioritize – what’s most important?”, “My students care a lot about their social connections – how can I utilize that in my plans?” This doesn’t mean we can’t have boundaries and expectations, we should, it just helps us walk in with a feeling of personal empowerment and collaboration as opposed to resorting to impulsive control methods driven by our amygdala.

In channeling our focus toward positive outcomes with others or in our own thinking – questions to find more clarity or direct conversation toward problem solving can help generate productive momentum. “What can we do about that?”, “What is that getting in the way of?”, “How should we approach this with (person)?” The dialogue over shortcomings is a professional must – it’s part of the messy work. Educational pruning. The peers (students and staff) I respect most on a professional level are those willing to engage in dialogue about how we can do better. How we engage in that dialogue makes a big difference in whether or not it influences our ability to better meet our collective goals, or takes the wind out of our sails.

Of course, we also need to reflect on our draining classroom practices. Maybe you’re spending a lot of time on transitions quieting the class down, you’ve run a project that most students didn’t find engaging, you’re spending a lot of time and energy focusing on getting one very disruptive student to comply, have a very high attention-need student, or spending a great deal of time and effort using a tool in the classroom.

Write it all down. 

Step 2: What Should I Keep?


What worked well this year in improving my students’ skills and understanding? –> Useful project, scaffolding, and/or teaching strategies to note.

How do I know? –> Useful assessment practices to note.


Which students did I best connect with? How did I do that?

Professional Growth:

What were learning experiences that resulted in changes in my classroom practice?

When did I find myself challenging my assumptions?

Personal Wellness:

What got me through some difficult times this year?

When did I feel the best?

Write it all down, above the “toss” pile items in step 1. 

Step 3: What Should I Bring In?

Now we can look at what to get rid of. Sometimes it’s as simple as deciding not to run a project the same way, but to revise it. Or, deciding to email community partners and potential panelists sooner in the project planning process.

This is a great opportunity in reflection to strategize with other adults you respect, or students you have time to talk with.

For instance, with classroom practices – I like to eliminate waste and also get clear on what I need to stay firm on. Doing this gives me more comfort and reassurance being flexible with things that aren’t on the list. We can’t do everything perfectly – but we can do what we intend to close to that. Focus standards, formative assessment commitments, and classroom norms that are essential to safety (physical and emotional) should be on the stay firm list.

Write the strategies down and bring them out during your planning, and periodically throughout the implementation of the new systems/strategies to revise as needed. I like to set up a table with any of the “toss” items I can’t really toss, but have to re-frame and re-strategize on. For instance, with a high-attention need student, I recognize there are extra roles I can give – maybe this student (if one emerges next year) could help redirect the class when needed during transitions?

After Spring Cleaning, we need to make sure there’s time to package and store for the fall – after reflection is the best time for planning.

A reminder: It’s messy, and it’s not a linear process. We’ll stretch toward our values and back to student interests, weave into focused skills and wind into graphic organizers. We’ll look at the calendar and brace ourselves, and have to prune and move around. We’ll take in new data and re-focus. Meet with one student and then with 60. This will continue through our planning, and the year, and the career.

This is messy, dynamic work. This is learning.


Building Projects #1: What do you stand for?

I’ve encountered many different opinions about where to start in project based learning curriculum and classroom design. Many times, the advice is to start with the standards and/or learning objectives (which yes are very important and we’ll get to those!),  student goals/interests (these are so important too…I assure you these are essential as well!), or current events (which are also up there in the get to these soon!). I’d like to say that the best place to start is one of these three… but that’s not where I start so I’m not going to urge you to do that.

I start with my own values. I’m not suggesting that we start with our own interests – so I’m not suggesting that I think “I love running, so I should design a project about running”. We shouldn’t design a project that is supposed to pull us and our students through for weeks off of a teacher’s interest. I’m talking about core values – the big ones. Values are bigger than interests and bigger than beliefs.

High quality teachers make a profound difference for high quality student outcomes. Teachers matter, and how teachers teach matters. An engaged and motivated teacher is more willing to engage in continued professional learning (see page 19, “General Trends” for more information on teacher motivation to engage in PD) as they progress through their career, as it appeals to their sense of intrinsic rewards, and enables teachers to embed their existing belief system into their teaching practice in a positive way. A motivated, engaged teacher is (or becomes, with the experience and education they are motivated to pursue) a high quality teacher.

I do want to note that a motivated, engaged teacher can become the opposite if they feel they aren’t able to succeed  – that is teacher self-efficacy matters too. Teachers who are learning new methodology (such as PBL), working with a shift in student population, or are new to the profession need special support and encouraging guidance from administrators and peers.  Professional mentors matter. That’s another blog post.

An exercise to try is to write down 10 values that are most important to you (or circling from a list like this one). Then cross off 4. Then 3 more, and you’re left with your top 3. It’s also a great exercise to do with students, and can be a team builder when building community in your classroom. To really get into it, listen to Most Nights (above) before this exercise.

I personally almost always start from one of the following values:

  • Social Justice
  • Environmental Sustainability
  • Wellness

Core values aren’t subject specific. They are simple and meaningful to you as an important human being on Earth. Revisiting my own core values each time I design, revise or launch a project provides a direct link between my core values and the effectiveness of my teaching, and that’s motivating.

What do you stand for?

C. (2005, November 1). Teacher quality and student achievement: Research review. (This document was prepared by Policy Studies Associates (PSA). PSA, based in Washington, D.C, is a research and evaluation consulting firm specializing in education and youth development. Its clients include federal, state, and local government agencies, foundations, and other organizations.)

Schieb, L. J., & Karabenick, S. A. (2011). Teacher Motivation and Professional Development: A Guide to Resources. Math and Science Partnership – Motivation Assessment Program, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.