K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

the front of the classroom

Becky Smith answers questions regarding the day's test. (More about the illustration)

Tour the classroom!

  • Watch a slideshow with photographs of the classroom
  • See a map of the classroom


As you read this article, here are some questions for new teachers to consider and for mentors to discuss with new teachers.

Questions for new teachers

  1. What space limitations do you face in your classroom? Are there any veterans with similar challenges you could consult for ideas on how to overcome these limitations?
  2. Becky uses a number of organizational systems (bins, binders, rubber stamp systems, filing systems). What organizational challenges are you currently facing? Would any of her ideas work in your classroom context?
  3. As you begin to learn what your resource and organizational needs are throughout the year, to whom should you communicate these needs?
  4. Becky describes how she organizes labs. What special circumstances come up in your teaching context that take some organizational planning? Who can you consult for ideas?

Questions for mentors

  1. Becky gives four tips to new teachers for setting up their classrooms. How can you facilitate these steps (for example, perhaps introducing a new teacher to a veteran with similar space limitations). What might you add to this list?
  2. Becky’s organizational strategies might be intimidating or overwhelming to a new teacher. How can you reassure a new teacher that these systems develop gradually?
  3. Becky describes a “stamping” system for quick homework grading. What other grading strategies could you share with new teachers?
  4. Becky gives a few tips regarding purchases for instructional materials. How can you help a new teacher anticipate purchase needs appropriate for his or her context?
  5. Becky clearly has put a lot of thought into organizational systems that will support her particular classroom needs. How can you tell if a new teacher is struggling with classroom organization? What observation data could you gather to help a new teacher consider addressing organizational issues?

Learn more

Related pages

  • All about life: A primary curriculum based around life and environmental science draws on children's natural curiosity to teach reading, math, and more.
  • Managing a classroom with brain food: Tina Maples' eighth-grade language arts students are serious about their work they do. When students work on projects they care about — what Maples calls "brain food" — they manage the classroom themselves.
  • A room for students: A learning environment where students feel that they belong is the key to success for this eighth-grade language arts teacher. A classroom profile.

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For years, the arrangement of Becky Smith’s high school biology classroom was dictated by stationary lab tables. Although the tables were replaced a few years ago, she has to keep the new tables in a fixed arrangement to cover raised electrical outlets that would be a tripping hazard. Fixed counters and the needs of her labs limit her options even further. But the classroom has its good points as well, such as the three large windows that Becky says are her favorite feature of the classroom and that she decorates with hanging plants. After eleven years of working and teaching in this space at Orange High School in Hillsborough, she has developed a successful system for organizing instruction and work within her classroom.

Making use of available space

Becky describes the arrangement of her high school science classroom as “traditional.” The front of the room is dominated by a long stationary lab counter with a sink, a fish tank, overhead, white board, and Becky’s personal work area. The counter is useful for storage and for setting out teaching supplies, but it limits her options in arranging the room.

In the back of the room, a similar counter runs the length of the back wall with two sinks, drawer and shelf storage underneath, and wall-mounted cabinets with glass doors overhead. Becky has extended this space with desks and tables rounding one corner for more counter space. On days when students are working on labs or cooperative learning activities, she uses this large counter space to store plastic tubs with necessary materials organized inside. After she has given instructions to students at the beginning of class, they are able to quickly retrieve materials to begin work. She calls these empty tubs in a variety of sizes her “major organizational tip.” She primarily uses mesh plastic tubs from the dollar store, but also tin foil mini-loaf pans and small wash tubs.

The seventeen lab tables are arranged in three long rows with a center aisle, and students work at them individually or in groups of two or three. Becky sometimes feels frustrated with this arrangement and would like to move student tables together to facilitate more cooperative learning opportunities. However, the electrical outlets under these tables are a tripping hazard. Recently, she has considered getting traffic cones to place over the outlets so that she can experiment with different arrangements.

Becky recommends that new teachers take these steps when setting up their classrooms:

  • Consider the physical space. Understand the possibilities and limitations inherent in your classroom space; arrange furniture to insure good traffic flow. Remember that bottlenecks of students can cause problems.
  • Watch and learn from the ideas and strategies of other teachers.
  • Attend conventions and workshops.
  • Subscribe to professional magazines.

Getting organized: the teacher’s personal space

Becky Smith has been teaching high school science since 1977, including not only biology, in which she has a master’s degree, but also chemistry and physical science. With all of this experience, she is the chair of her science department, a job that requires not only extra responsibility but also extra storage. To keep track of both her teaching materials and professional materials, she has created an expanded personal desk area for storage and organization of her resource materials, plans, and departmental and student information. A bookcase, her desk, and a trapezoid table line up to form one side of her personal space. A window forms a second side and five filing cabinets topped by a small bookcase form a third side. Her computer on a rolling cart forms part of the fourth side with an open area left for access.

She calls two metal file racks, one devoted to AP Biology and the other to regular and honors biology, one of her “best expenditures.” When Becky begins a new unit, she pulls the folder containing the handouts, labs, and activities for that unit from her filing cabinet. Master copies are placed in a notebook and copies for students are in file folders in the appropriate file rack. This notebook also includes attendance sheets so that she can easily check as students enter the classroom at the beginning of the period.

An empty plastic dish tub sits on her desk as a bin for turning in papers. At the end of the day, she sorts papers by class period and binds each with a large binder clip — she used to spill papers stored in file folders. A second plastic dish tub serves as a file holder for alphabetically filed departmental information.

Resource books and materials fill the bookcase next to her desk. A plastic drawer unit full of rubber stamps sits on one shelf. As she records completed homework in her grade book at the beginning of class, she stamps students’ papers. If the work isn’t completed to her satisfaction, she gives “half-stamps” and records half-credit in her gradebook. She finds this system works well in motivating students to complete homework and in keeping a record on students’ homework as to whether it’s been seen. She also uses the stamps to identify different versions of tests.

Filing cabinets behind her desk are filled with curricular materials. She files units by subject (biology, chemistry, physical science) in chronological order according to when she typically teaches it during the year. Two drawers hold departmental information (filed alphabetically), and the other eighteen drawers are full of plans and materials!

Becky has the following suggestions to new teachers trying to organize their classroom and personal space:

  • New teachers “probably have a lot of good stuff in the room that they haven’t found yet.” Becky recommends spending time exploring your new room and cleaning out the drawers and the cabinets. If you don’t see an immediate use for items that you find, give them to someone else or talk to your department chair about possible uses.
  • Keep a list of items that you run out of or that you buy for school use during the year. Bring this list with you to any department meetings held to determine purchase orders. Becky keeps a box on top of her filing cabinets where she keeps ideas of items to purchase. She reminds new teachers to be patient as they trust experienced teachers deciding what to buy in their first year.
  • Think of ways to recycle or reuse items from home in your classroom (such as plant trays for seedlings, string, and seeds for life science classes) or use donated items when possible.

Organizing labs

Becky teaches a total of 138 students each day in Biology, Honors Biology, and AP Biology. With this many students, and the possibility of preparing for three different labs in one day, it is important for Becky to have specific organizational systems in place. In addition to using tubs and counter space to keep lab materials, Becky has removed the shelves from her back counter cabinets to create more space for lab materials stored in labeled cardboard boxes. Equipment used for multiple labs is kept unboxed on lower shelves for easy access. A specially lined box on the back counter is designated for broken glass.

In the past, Becky sacrificed a great deal of counter space for a dishwashing area. Last year, she was able to obtain funding from a parent group to purchase a portable dishwasher that attaches to her sink faucet. “Now all the dishes from biochemical labs and diffusion labs using corn syrup can be washed,” she says. “Two years ago you would have seen a mound of dirty dishes with fruit flies swarming. Now I only have to wash slides and pipettes by hand.”

Live animals are required for some labs. Although Becky keeps a fish tank with goldfish throughout the year, she doesn’t maintain other animals in her classroom because of the cost involved. Instead, she brings them in for short periods as she needs them. For the lab on behavior, she purchases mice from the local pet store; after the lab, students can buy the mice from her (with parental permission), or the pet store will buy them back at a reduced price.

A new still for distilling water also takes counter space, but it saves time and money. Until recently, a great deal of money was spent each year purchasing distilled water for labs. Although the still requires planning ahead (one gallon of water takes eight hours to distill) and cost $200, the still is saving the science department money over time.

During labs, students can move to choose their own lab partners. Becky usually asks students to gather in teams of two or three (to reduce the possibility of an “odd man out”). She’s found that her labs tend to go more smoothly if students make this decision.

During whole class instruction, students sit in assigned seats. On the first day of the school year, she lets students choose their own seats and tells them that on the second day she will write down where they choose to sit. As long as students are working well in their seats, she doesn’t intervene in seating arrangements.

In one class, Becky tried to rearrange her students’ seating in a way that she thought would help them work better and was disappointed with the result. She then asked students to write a list of people they would work well beside and a list of people they absolutely couldn’t work well beside. She took their lists home and created a seating arrangement in which everyone was sitting next to someone they wanted to and not sitting next to anyone they didn’t. She is hopeful that this new arrangement, by returning some control to students, will work better.

Although Becky Smith has developed many organizational strategies for arranging her classroom over almost twenty-five years of teaching, she still experiments with ideas to improve the physical space and her instruction. By gathering ideas and information from other teachers, workshops, and magazines and by sharing ideas with others, she creates a classroom space that works well for both her and her students.