'Teachers must let go of their paper comfort blankets'

We live in a digital world, but teachers are still secret paper hoarders - it's time for a clear-out, says Emma Turner

The summer provides an opportunity for teachers to clear out their paper trails from the previous year, says Emma Turner

Every year, I seem to have some sort of summer-induced cathartic paperwork clear-out. I wade though the mountains of important documents, punctuated with various clips, staples and elastic bands, as though they were some kind of archaeological dig. Notes in urgent handwriting are scrawled on many, and I’m instantly transported back to the meeting or phone call or training session I was in, when I recorded that oh-so-important information. 

As I pull out box after box, sift through countless bags for life, I begin to reminisce on the year just gone, and reflect on what really is important. As the tiny scissor cuts of the shredding machine chew their way through the paper diet of my working year, it is a reminder that a lot of the time the really important stuff isn’t actually really important a few months later. 

List after list is shredded, recycled or binned. These were the same lists that would wake me with a jolt in the night, as I needed to add yet more to them in the dim squinting bedside light of term-time. 

Worksheets or handouts I’d fretted over and prickled with annoyance about, when finding the copier jammed or hidden behind a snaking queue, are now lying languidly on the office floor, among thank-you cards and a now-redundant diary, which was once a much-cherished academic friend. 

Teachers' piles of paper

As the folders are opened, perused and quickly sorted into shred, recycle or keep, there are the odd pieces of paper that spark flickers of smiles or flashes of pride as you remember a lesson that went brilliantly or find a certificate to remind you of your own academic achievements. 

So many teachers surround themselves with fortresses of folders and comfort blankets of paper. The current fad for treasury tags implies that indeed the papers we clip are actual treasure. And it is strange, the way many of us hold on to papers that are long redundant, “just in case”. 

It is almost as if the efforts that have gone into producing the documents need to be remembered, like great works of art or museum pieces, which may inspire or guide future colleagues or far off lessons in terms yet to come. 

Sometimes it is because we put so much of ourselves into the work we produce that we don’t want to get rid of something we have crafted. Sometimes it is because we have an inkling that it might be needed in the future as it “all comes around again in the end”. And sometimes we have invested so much in those folders in our training years, during our accreditations or in service of our favourite units of work, that we are loath to consign them to the bin or subject them to the jaws of the shredder. 

And it is amazing how many languages we can speak when we peruse our paper piles. Hundreds of acronyms, abbreviations and numerical values are dotted in our documents, many now long-lost languages of “levels”, or now-dormant objectives and approaches. These acronyms and abbreviations are the codes and metalanguage of our profession. They punctuate our piles-of-paper parlance and remind us of just how organic and ever-changing the requirements of us are. 

Paper-free digital whizzes

Many of us are now paper-free digital whizzes, whose offices have clear desks and whose slimline gadgets are hubs of clarity and precision. But many of us are still secret paper hoarders. Like leafing through an old family photo album, the annual clear-out can stir up happy memories as well as reveal the odd edu-monster under the bed. 

As many of us kneel almost thigh-deep in paper, often stacked in well-meaning piles with pie-crust promises to be more organised next year, it is a reminder of the varied and demanding nature of our work. Some of the papers show huge creativity in lesson design; some demonstrate excellent budgeting or management skills; some show our ability to multi-task with staggering effectiveness; some remind us of the impact of our work in cards and thank-you notes from pupils and families. 

Others are academic papers and books, designed to fire the continual striving for improvement and to scratch the academic itch we feel with research and specialist books in our areas of interest. 

Unique as fingerprints

Everyone’s summer paper trail is as unique as their own fingerprints. While we will no doubt all have similar piles of resources we’ve created, scribbled timetables and course-note handouts, we will also have our own personal edu-archives, which are as individual as we are. 

How we cultivate and coppice our educational arboretums each year is a measure of how much we’ve grown and developed as professionals. Like the rings of a tree, the rings of our multiple binders remind us of just how much we have achieved in just a year.

So, if you’re an educational paper-hoarder and are having your annual clear-out, take a moment to reflect on just how much you achieved this year and just how skilful our profession is.

Me? I’m refitting our home office with more shelves. Twenty-two years is a long time in teaching and, despite my best efforts, this edu-woodland landscape is looking a little overgrown.

Emma Turner is the research and CPD lead for Discovery Schools Academy Trust in Leicestershire. She tweets as @Emma_Turner75 

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