If you don’t explicitly train your students to clean up after themselves, they’ll happily allow you to do it for them. I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to develop a system for tidying and cleaning our classroom. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent picking up after the kids. But with age comes wisdom and I learned to study other teachers who had this skill more in hand.
I found that once I had routines in place, things went much more smoothly. For instance, our routine for handling (plastic) glassware is as follows: all used equipment is washed and rinsed and left to dry in dishpans. When class starts the next day, students put away the dry glassware before we begin new labs.
Occasionally items need a more thorough cleaning, and I gather it into dishpans that I schlepp home and run everything through the dishwasher. This could also be a great parent involvement task if you’re able to coordinate that.
For some units, sinks are a must. I have four portable sinks comprised of water dispensers and tall kitchen trash cans. While it took a few iterations, the current setup works so well that other classes borrow them when they need an extra sink or two.
I’ve used these with students as young as fourth grade, and they seem to manage fine. If I were buying them today, I might change the color of the bins—these are identical to the trash cans in our room, and the students (mistakenly) throw trash into them without thinking, sigh.
I think it was during our buoyancy unit that I realized we were using a lot of paper towels to tidy up the drips and spills. I used to have a mop but switched to a stack of old towels to do the same thing. These can be used to dry hands and tables and floors as needed. I take them home and wash them when they’re dirty. This is another job you may be able to get a parent to do.
Occasionally we take 10 minutes of a class period to tackle all of the housekeeping tasks we’ve let go. I keep a list so that everyone stays busy during those 10 minutes. Choosing which things to give students power over will make the difference in your classroom.
Get into the habit of asking yourself, “Do I need to make this choice, or is that better left to the student?” “Is this something they can handle, or do I need to have the last word here?” It’s not simply a function of how many things you give them control over; it’s the choice of which things they should have control over.
Design your structures and systems so that, for the most part, students are in little doubt about what to do. Once you design these, you’ll need to teach them to the students until they become ingrained. Now when students enter my class I let them know when we’ll be working together (usually at the start or end of a class period) and how much time they have to work on their own. Once they know this, they get to work. No bell work, no fillers needed.
Expect a few bumps along the way as you transition from one organizational state to another. In the beginning, you’ll be learning what works and so course corrections are likely. I found my desire for order and my wish to train students to become competent scientists were often at odds. Defining the structure and culture of our class calmed things tremendously.