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Method in the messiness

Last month I didn't set myself any New Year's resolutions. If I had, mine would have been "be more tidy". As I write, the house is looking like an audition piece for one of those television programmes about hoarders. Our collection of empty wine bottles is currently exhibiting on the kitchen floor, recycling is spilling from bin bags and piles of loud, colourful toys beep furiously at us every time we tread on them.

I don't possess the tidy gene. Choosing whether to mop the kitchen floor after dinner or watch another episode of Breaking Bad takes less than a nanosecond and, unlike many of my friends, I can still sleep at night knowing there are breadcrumbs on the kitchen worktops and a wet towel on the bathroom floor. My husband claims to be the tidy one but rarely backs this with concrete evidence - when asked to explain the four pairs of his shoes scattered on the lounge floor recently, he said it was "a secret".

It's not that we want to be untidy. Every now and then (often before the in-laws are due to visit) we get furious with our inability to stay neat and wage a 24-hour war on mess: scrubbing worktops, dusting, vacuuming and chucking away piles of unopened post. We have a smug few days surveying our clutter-free surroundings before normal service resumes and we're forced to admit that employing a cleaner and getting rid of all our flat surfaces is the only way we're going to stay on a level with our house-proud friends.

Being naturally untidy poses quite a challenge when you're a teacher with a classroom full of stuff and children who keep giving you more. So far, I've managed to muddle through by appointing monitors for each area of the room, stapling important documents to the wall and keeping pens in my hair. I also take comfort in the fact that many great men - Einstein, Mark Twain, Steve Jobs - had notoriously messy desks. I know the creative genius argument falls down if you are patently not one, but I bet no one ever went to their grave wishing they'd organised their paper clips more often.

The war on classroom mess seems to have stepped up a notch recently, with the state of a teacher's classroom increasingly linked to their teaching ability. A newly qualified friend called me in tears last week because she'd been classed as "requires improvement" in one observation. In the feedback, her mentor told her that the teaching and learning in the lesson were both good, and that her students were engaged and on task, but that the mentor couldn't judge it as "good" because the books on my friend's shelves were untidy. I managed to cheer her up by telling her that I once had a lesson criticism which read "Your desk is too large. It is a barrier to learning", but we agreed that the pendulum on tidiness seems to have swung too far. It reminds me of an English teacher I once had who marked our creative writing purely on the neatness of the handwriting and the quality of the patterns she made us draw in the margin.

Physical environment in schools is important but not more so than good teaching - but then, as a congenitally untidy person (possibly indicating an as-yet-undiscovered creative genius), I would say that, wouldn't I?

Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands, England.

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