I can recall the first time I toured my school, being struck by the fact that there was a lot of stuff there. I mean, a lot. Storage rooms were filled with unopened manipulatives; curriculum guides from the 1990s, still in the shrink wrap. Files, books, posters, the list went on and on. On top of that, this was a school with a lot of staff turnover, so there were boxes of things which were left by previous staff members who “gifted” these very valuable resources to the next generation taking their place.
Over the years, this had created a building that couldn’t breathe under the weight of all the stuff in it. And at a deeper level, I understood that it was a school that couldn’t develop it’s own culture and identity, it couldn’t move forward into it’s own future, because in many ways it served as a museum, and repository for others’ long-forgotten materials.
Over the past 2 years, I’ve made it a goal to help cleanse this school of all the things no one needs. I have to admit, with this task comes a certain amount of guilt. I’ve written previously how the principal’s most important resource is time, how we need to guard it jealously. That we shouldn’t do the things that made us good teachers when we’re administrators, they can become our liabilities. So how can I justify spending my precious time decluttering a storage room? Shouldn’t I be doing any of the other myriad tasks which improve a school? I’ve never seen a list of important principal tasks that includes decluttering PE equipment spaces.
Yet, instinctively, I knew that was what this school needed more than anything else. Maybe it comes from my Aquarius nature, maybe from my 20 years of teaching that taught me the power of “right at hand” materials, and “a place for everything, everything in it’s place”. How many of us have stored boxes of resources, lesson plans and materials with the promise that “they’ll come in handy one day”. Guess what folks, they rarely do.
When I started my principalship, I asked for teachers’ top 5 lists for things a good principal should do. One of these was, trust your instincts. This is a tough one, particularly in the face of contradictory evidence, and pressures to do “the new next best thing”. It was my instinct to de-clutter, but it was a guilty one.
Only recently have I come to understand the method behind the madness, that there was indeed a whole science of workplace organization which buttressed my instinct called 5s Methodology. Originally from Japan, it arose from the desire to create an orderly flow and create value-added processes. If you know where things are, what they are, how they’re used, and it can be guaranteed they’re there when you need them, then all your time and energy goes into using them for the purposes you’d intended. What value are math manipulatives that are buried behind boxes of useless files, still in shrink wrap, whose purpose you don’t understand? None. This is a problem with a technical solution. Clean out what you don’t need, expose the valuable tools, organize them, and put them at people’s fingertips for immediate use. Then, all their time can be spent on the value-added activity of teaching the children. Which, in the end, is what it’s all about.
And so, I’ve come to understand that this de-cluttering is perhaps the most important thing I can do in this school. When I advocate strongly for throwing out our mismatched, broken, and dysfunctional chairs, and ask for new stacking storable ones, it’s an important step in allowing us to teach children better. (my new learning here is to slow down, explain the steps, communicate the connections and help others see what I see in my mind. Also an Aquarian trait!).
I certainly see the perils of viewing all problems as having technical solutions, and Haifitz and Laurie have warned us of this. I get that. At the same time, we need to have the courage to tackle those problems that do. Sometimes, it is all about the chairs.