By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Steve Dillon, Tammy Duggan
Want a declutter makeover?
Piles of paper and binders form a barricade on Steve Dillon’s desk. He ran out of surface space, so he shoves miscellaneous stuff into storage boxes and crams the boxes under his desk. A garbage can is seldom used because he hates throwing things away.
“I have no room for anything. I don’t know where anything is,” admits the Maywood Middle School seventh-grade teacher. “I have no system whatsoever. I need help.”
His storage closet is packed with supplies — including a bucket of cow’s eyeballs — and there’s a skeleton, literally, in his closet. Dillon fears he could be featured on TV’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive.”
How did it happen?
Like many CTA members, Dillon accumulates paperwork from his principal, the district office and staff trainings. When teachers retire, he grabs supplies they leave behind. There are “unclaimed” items taken from students as well as student gifts. Being president of the Corning Elementary Teachers Association (Tehama County) and Shasta Cascade Service Center Council chair brings more paperwork. And with lessons to plan and a family at home, it’s tough finding time to stay organized — even though Dillon sometimes spends hours trying to find things.
It’s a hazard of the profession, says Tammy Duggan, author of The Uncluttered Teacher. She calls Dillon’s situation “typical.” Teachers hold on to stuff, she says, because curriculum is constantly changing, and they think they may need it again one day.
Duggan is a second-grade teacher at Sierra Avenue Elementary School in Thermalito, Butte County, and a Thermalito Teachers Association member. She also owns a personal organizing business.
We asked her to give Dillon some help. Armed with garbage bags, storage bins from the Dollar Tree Store, and plenty of can-do spirit, Duggan marches into Dillon’s classroom for a mini-makeover.
“We’ll start small,” says Duggan. “Just getting started can be overwhelming, so starting small is key.” On a scale of 1 to 10, she calls Dillon an 8 in terms of clutter.
Uncluttering Steve Dillon
“Are you ready to let go?” asks Duggan.
“Yes,” says Dillon, he’s psychologically prepared to depart with items. But he’s nervous at the prospect of a stranger helping him go through his belongings, which is normal, says Duggan.
Being psychologically ready is a big step, she tells him, congratulating him on his willingness to change.
She asks him what he would like to accomplish as his main objective.
“I want to be more organized and have a system I can maintain,” says Dillon, who wants to concentrate on his desk area.
The first step is Sorting
“You have to know what you have, so you can make decisions about what to keep and what to let go,” says Duggan. Drawers are emptied, and desk and counter space is cleared, with items placed on tables, separated into categories such as office supplies (pens, paperclips, etc.), teaching materials, student supplies, personal items, CTA materials, professional development handouts, and miscellaneous. There is a “giveaway” table. All of the items had been mixed together in drawers and cupboards.
Dillon is delighted to find a screwdriver that’s been missing for years. “I thought I had loaned it to a teacher who forgot to give it back, and I’ve been looking at my colleagues thinking, 'Are you the one?’ Now I feel bad.”
Some items are immediately tossed, such as phone books from 2007, calendars from 2009, floppy disks and candy that has melted and re-solidified. Buried deep is a booklet titled “Seven Habits Organizer.”
“There’s years of denial in this mess,” says Dillon. “Years.”
After sorting, it’s time to Scale down
Dillon must decide what he needs right now, as opposed to what he needed years ago or may need in the distant future. He doesn’t need a thousand pencils in his drawer, and he decides some can be put in bins placed in storage cabinets. The same is true of pads of paper, scissors, staplers, etc., because only one at a time is necessary.
The garbage can begins to fill. He throws out a bird chirper that no longer chirps, toys confiscated from students, remote controls to machines long since departed, old catalogs and other items he has no use for. While at first he agonized over every item, he now tosses things into the trash with abandon.
“You are seeing a guy who is making decisions and moving on!” cheers Duggan from the sidelines.
Next, it’s time to Systemize what’s left
Drawers are cleaned and items put back into place in an organized way, so they are easy to find. Items are packed in bins and placed in cupboards for future use.
Countertops gleam. The wood veneer on top of his desk is visible. After six hours, his classroom is transformed. The principal drops by on his way home to offer congratulations.
“I was definitely surprised,” says Dillon. “I probably wouldn’t attempt this on my own because there was so much stuff to take out and put back. I feel really good. I’m really happy about this.”
Now, you just have to Stay uncluttered
The secret to staying organized is to stay on top of clutter, says Duggan.
She advises Dillon to schedule a regular time to put belongings away while things are still manageable, and to check cupboards before ordering more supplies.
“Do not assume that because you went through this process once, no paper will ever be out of place again. Life goes on.”
Want a ‘declutter’ makeover? Here’s how!
Send a photo of your drawer, desk, closet or workspace to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll provide Duggan’s book, a $25 gift card for supplies, and time with Duggan (online or over the phone) to three CTA members. We’ll report the "declutter" results in the December/January issue.
The Uncluttered Teacher includes tips for collecting homework, creating a filing system, managing emails, substitute plans and classroom preparation. It can be purchased at theunclutteredteacher.
Follow along as Steve and Tammy spend six hours tackling his science lab.