A Simple Five-Tray Filing System for Daily Teacher Paperwork


I’ve been to one workshop on classroom organization. I signed up when I realized I would not be successful using my former system: cramming all paperwork into one big folder to separate into piles at home. The main thing I learned at this workshop was that some people really enjoy organizing things, and anyone who uses sheet protectors is way out of my league.

By the end of the presentation, I was no more organized, but I was fully convinced I had no business being a teacher at my current organizational level. The only thing that made me feel better was that the presenter forgot to give out the required evaluation at the end of the session. This meant that (1) she had to track down everyone to send us evaluation forms and (2) maybe her organization system wasn’t so perfect after all.

I never did start using plastic sheet protectors, but over time my “Things to Do Soon” folder evolved into a few ways to manage paperwork and keep my desk from looking like I was building a fort.

These systems later became part of the Piles and Files chapter of See Me After Class, and they’ve gotten serious love in Amazon reviews from people who aren’t organization wizards—which is maybe the point.

The chapter provides several simple systems meant to serve as an adjustable starting point, including:

  • A low-maintenance, one-box filing system for almost any paper that touches your desk
  • A five-tray system for daily teacher paperwork
  • Two types of student record folders and how to maintain them
  • Time-management tips for keeping the papers from collecting in each of these files

Here is a description of the five-tray system for daily teacher paperwork, which you can create quickly using five stack-able trays within reach of your desk:


This is where you put incoming paperwork you actually need to handle, including papers that get delivered to your classroom, and the most important papers from your office mailbox. Note that not everything that you find in your office mailbox should make it to this file. Much of what ends up in your mailbox—catalogues, special offers for off-brand, teachers-only car insurance, etc.—is stuff you can place directly into the recycling bin in the main office. The inbox should only contain papers that require action on your part. Best of all, if you can train yourself to always put these papers in the inbox and then only look in the inbox for papers that require action, your desk will stay clean. Or so I’ve heard.

Papers to grade

This is where you put papers you plan to grade and record in your grade book, divided into folders by period or subject. When you collect an assignment from the class, put a paperclip around the stack of papers and put it in the appropriate folder. Then put the folder back in the tray and leave it there indefinitely until you stop putting off grading pull it out during the time you’ve scheduled to grade papers. If this file starts to overflow, it’s often a sign you need to schedule some grading time—or discreetly move selected stacks of paper to the “middle” file.

The “Middle” File

This is where you put student work that you’re pretty sure you’re not going to grade. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, there is more detail on this in the Grading Work Without Hating Work chapter of See Me After Class). This file acts as a secret, time-release garbage can behind your desk that will save you the trouble of sorting through a three-foot pile of papers. Label it with a vague-yet-important-sounding name. If an assignment is just for practice, file the papers here when you collect them. Eventually you can discard them if no one has asked about them. On the other hand, if a student alludes to something in an essay that you should have read, you’ll know where to find it.

Parents to contact

If you use the student record folder system described in the book, this is where you’ll keep track of parents you need to contact. When you need to contact a parent, remove the student’s record folder from your file drawer and place it in this tray. After you have spoken to the parent, document the conversation and refile the folder. If you have another system for managing parent contact, you don’t need this tray.

Papers to file or hand back to students

This is where you keep graded work that needs to be filed in student work folders or passed back to students. Divide these into periods if applicable. If you have a student aides or classroom helper who will be who passing out or filing graded work, you can tell them to look for it here.

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