Lack of organization puts teacher’s job on the line

Q:  I teach middle school science. Last year, I got written up for not meeting standards. I lost students’ papers and quizzes and didn’t return them within the required time frame. Grading is a problem for me, but sometimes it’s not my fault. Kids will either pretend they handed in work or will forget to put their names on something. No one’s ever going to give me the benefit of the doubt, though, because parents and kids have made too many complaints. I’m in danger of getting put on probation, which is one step before losing my job. I think I’m a good teacher otherwise, and I want to figure out this whole organization thing. I’ve tried having kids hand me papers directly so I can check off their names and put them somewhere safe right away. That hasn’t really done much to help me. I’m overwhelmed and honestly don’t know that I can turn this around. I’ve been this way for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been a teacher for more than a decade. Any suggestions?

A: As a school counselor, parents often ask me this question. They generally contact me when their kids are disorganized, discouraged, and shutting down. It sounds like you’re in that same low place. I’m going to give you some of the same advice I give them. Before I do that, however, your history raises a red flag. Have you ever been tested for ADHD? It might be worth mentioning your difficulties to a professional who can do an assessment.

In the meantime, you need some compensatory strategies. I’d start by identifying coaches and mentors in your building. Do you have a staff development specialist? A department chair? A supportive administrator? If there are teachers who seem to have this down, ask them whether they’d be willing to meet with you. Talk to them about their approach. What are they doing that you can emulate? Would they be willing to assess your current system and make suggestions? Would anyone be willing to check in with you at regular intervals to hold you accountable? If you’ve been written up, that support may already be in place.

You’re discouraged, but everyone is working on something. This is your thing. You haven’t mastered these executive functioning skills yet, but there’s no reason to stop trying. Here are some ideas that may help.

  • Get a good planner. More importantly, use it. Break down long-term goals into chunks. Create intermediate deadlines. Keep them realistic. If there are 30 papers to grade and you have three days, commit to reading 10 each day.
  • Understand your school’s turnaround requirements and note them in your planner. Stay on track to meet those deadlines. Avoidance will only add to your stress.
  • Identify your most productive pockets of time. Block those hours off as non-negotiable work time. Be consistent and don’t make exceptions.
  • Take advantage of found time. If you have ten minutes at the end of lunch, you may not be able to focus on grading, but you can update your calendar or organize stacks of assignments. This also may help you with task initiation. If everything is clear and organized when you have concentrated time to work, you’ll be able to hit the ground running.
  • Designate different areas for different purposes at both home and school. If you work well at your kitchen table, make that your regular workspace. Wherever you work, keep it uncluttered. You don’t want visual distractions. This is true for your classroom, too. Set aside time at the end of each day to straighten up. When your space is organized, with clear “in” and “out” boxes, you’ll be less likely to lose papers. Also, keep any necessary supplies easily accessible.
  • Choose something you can do every day that only takes five minutes but will help you stay organized. Maybe you write a daily checklist, or mentally assess how long you’ll need to wade through a set of quizzes. Use the strategy faithfully every day until it becomes a habit.
  • Be efficient. So many of us toggle between social media and work, when we’d be better off setting aside separate time for each. Put your phone away when it’s time to grade.
  • Make sure you’re getting adequate sleep and exercise. You’ll function better if you move your body and practice self-care. Do 20 jumping jacks if you have to, or just get a glass of water. That may lower your stress level, too, which will improve your concentration.
  • When grading, build in regular, short breaks and stick to them. You’ll have more staying power. But then get back to work.
  • Be positive and solution-oriented. Remind yourself of other difficult things you’ve accomplished. Instead of focusing on your deficits, ask yourself questions. “What do I need to do today to meet the next deadline? What would I advise someone else in my situation?”
  • Give yourself small rewards when you meet deadlines like turning in reports in a timely fashion.
  • Keep checking in with mentors, role models, supervisors, and anyone else who can offer practical advice. When they’re unavailable, ask yourself, “What would [my role model] do?” You might realize you know what to do and just need to mobilize.
  • Use technology to your advantage. Set reminders and deadlines and use online calendars. You can even set timers to alert you when it’s time to take a break or get to work.
  • See what works. Assume you’ll have to tweak your systems. If you thought you’d be productive at 5 a.m., but press snooze 15 times instead, change your designated work time.

These skills are tough to master, especially when you’re an adult with ingrained bad habits. It’s easy to get distracted by social media, a call from a friend, or laundry lists of household errands. Don’t be too hard on yourself, but make this a priority. You’ll feel less stressed and you may even save your job.

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers. 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at

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