We have good intentions. Yet somehow, we get to the end of the school year and find ourselves stuffing supplies into overcrowded cabinets. We throw out a bunch of stuff that we meant to use but forgot existed. Now is a good time to start spring cleaning with intentionality. You will know what you have to work with, provide your students with possibilities, and create an environment where learning and creating are priorities. Here’s hoping for an easier last day of school that doesn’t require holding your breath while closing a closet door.
Rebecca Kardas is a middle school art teacher. After twenty years in her art room, she thinks it might be time to prioritize sorting through her piles of materials. This became especially apparent when a substitute custodian threw away trash bags of recycled materials meant for student creations.
Truthfully, sometimes it is hard to tell what is trash and what is material for artmaking. The art room often becomes the dumping ground for everyone else in the building also engaged in spring cleaning. It can be overwhelming to begin this process.
Here are five considerations for spring cleaning in the art room to help keep you focused.
1. Know what you have.
When there is too much stuff in the art room, we don’t know what we have. We may order an item we already have plenty of because we didn’t know it was in a box in the back of the cabinet. Anyone that has gone grocery shopping before looking in their pantry knows this is how you end up with too many cans of black beans.
Elementary art teacher, Casie Fanning, takes stock of what she has throughout the year. “I do a supply check during the fall, winter, and my big clean/look-through supply order before summer break.” Establish a location to post a shopping list of supplies that need to be replaced or replenished. Include reminders like, “Do not order any more googly eyes no matter how much you think you want them.”
It is about raising your awareness now to make better choices in the future. Martha Carroll, an elementary art teacher, admits the necessity of this as she fills the trash and recycling cans. “Seeing the amount of waste that I’ve hoarded and then ultimately dumped helps me make better decisions about saving stuff in the future.”
This process is not about purchasing an untold number of matching color-coded bins. If you have the budget, drive, or aesthetic, by all means, color-coded bins are calling your name. But you can also start with the containers and spaces you already have and label them consistently. By knowing what you have, you can determine storage solutions later. If you establish a cabinet for printmaking supplies and that cabinet is full, it is time to think about what you need to get rid of instead of pondering where else in the room to hide more printmaking materials.
2. Make a big impact with small amounts of time.
Martha Carroll has learned a lot from the book Decluttering at the Speed of Life. This resource has helped her look closely at her home and school surroundings to take incremental steps towards less cluttered spaces. Make a plan to dedicate small bits of time to clean one space in the art room at a time. If you wait for a teacher workday when there is already a to-do list a mile long, you can easily feel overwhelmed. Cleaning and sorting one drawer, one shelf, or one box can help you declutter without the crushing emotional weight of decisions all at once.
Casie Fanning recognizes, “We all have days where we don’t feel like doing anything, especially organizing, and that is OKAY! Take advantage of the days when you feel motivated, have extra energy, and use those days to organize. Take it one thing at a time and set small goals.”
There are small tasks students can take on to support a clutter-free classroom. Elementary art teacher Caitlyn Thompson periodically has her students test markers. They look for those markers that still work and those that need to move on to become liquid watercolor, recycled, or thrown in the trash bin.
3. Decide what to accept now to prevent clutter later.
How did the room get like this in the first place? Often, it is the thoughtful donations from others that get out of control. Is it guilt that drives us to accept everything we are offered? Or is it the thought that we may have a use for this particular random recycled object one day ten years from now? Whatever the case, our art rooms can become clutter layered on top of clutter.
Martha Carroll’s golden rule for accepting donations into her classroom is, “If I can’t use it right now and I can’t think of a way I’d use it in the future, I kindly refuse the offer.” If you accept the item, you have to have a place to store it. If there isn’t room, find something else that has to go to make room. Immediately remove the items you won’t use, so you don’t get a pile of bags that takes over a corner of your classroom.
4. Share your treasures with others.
It is our nature to see the endless possibilities in items and not throw things away (although sometimes that feels good too). There are undoubtedly items in your room that could find a new home with someone else. Casie Fanning puts a table outside of her classroom labeled “FREE.” That way, the staff in her building have a chance to take what they want or need. Casie reflects that she works with a strong art department with an ongoing group text thread. She shares, “We constantly text the group chat to borrow or give away supplies.” There may be a new teacher in your district who would love your collection of plastic eggs that mysteriously appeared in your classroom. (True story—I still have them!)
But when these avenues still don’t find a new home for your unwanted supplies, rely on your community connections. Is there an after-school program or arts organization that could use your collected materials? What about your students? In little paper bags, pack up small amounts of materials that you are looking to unload. Market them to students as creativity kits they can take home and use to create their next masterpiece.
Martha Carroll warns against unintentionally burdening other art teachers with our stuff. “If someone else might love it and use it now, I reach out to those specific people and offer what I have to share.” However, a mystery box of what you deem treasures may perpetuate the vicious cycle for someone else.
5. Consider your past self, present self, and future self.
Each art teacher’s art room is unique. Some teachers thrive, surrounded by things that would overwhelm others. Research points to the powerful calming benefits of an organized space for teaching and learning. Martha Carroll is forward-thinking about the benefits of her cleaning practices now. “Spring cleaning is important in the art room so that I can start a new year with room to breathe. I know exactly what I have to work with and am free of the anxiety of another job. What a gift this will be for ‘beginning of the school year Martha.'”
Casie Fanning shared a similar sentiment. She is grateful for “past Casie’s diligence which supports present Casie’s ability to succeed during stressful times.” Both of these educators encourage talking in the third person, expressing gratitude to themselves for their hard work, and focusing on keeping an organized art room. The current Rebecca Kardas feels frustrated by the need to sort through the clutter accumulated over the past twenty years. Now is the right time to establish routines that support an organized classroom studio. The future you will appreciate your work today.
Spring cleaning does not have to be a burden of time, emotions, and difficult decisions. By taking small steps and setting goals, we can be aware of what we already have for our students’ creative exploration and make plans for the future. Make room for new possibilities by organizing, donating, or even refusing those items that are holding us back. Let us aspire to end the school year by focusing on the delightful and magical things that happened within our classroom.
What is one small space you can organize tomorrow to begin the process of decluttering?
Who are three people you can offer up your unwanted supplies to instead of throwing them away?
What one material do you have an overabundance of that you can work into an upcoming lesson?
Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.