Could a Messy Desk Make You a Better Teacher?

Fingers crossed that the answer is yes.

Could a Messy Desk Make You a Better Teacher?

This is what is currently strewn about on my four-feet by four-feet office desk right now: A container of pens, a box of paper clips, two flash drives, an HDMI adapter (doesn’t work), ChapStick, two coffee mugs (one empty, one half-full from this morning—it’s 3:30 in the afternoon), an empty can of grapefruit La Croix, an empty water glass, an empty printer cartridge, many notepads, several to-do lists (many that are weeks old), and SO MANY piles of paper. I won’t get into what my computer desktop looks like. Or my email inbox. I think you get the idea.

The rest of my home, my car, and even my purse and wallet are orderly, but my workspace has always been this way. I like piles of paper. Piles make sense to me. They say, “We are here and keep thinking about us,” the way a filing cabinet simply does not.

My pigpen ways have not gone unnoticed. In my first teaching evaluation, the principal mentioned that my messy desk made me look unprofessional. Ouch. Later on, colleagues teased me. I didn’t listen then, and I’m not going to start now. I do my best work in a jumbled environment, and I know some of you do, too. Here’s why.

Clutter encourages creativity.

In a 2013 study at the University of Minnesota, 48 adult subjects were assigned to messy or tidy rooms and were asked to think of as many new uses for ping-pong balls they could, then write them down. Independent judges rated the answers on creativity (using the balls for beer pong, for example, received a low rating; using them for ice cube trays received a high one).



The messy room subjects had ideas that rated 28 percent more creative than their tidy counterparts, and they had five times as many ideas that the judges rated as highly creative. I think the takeaway here is that clutter enhances creative thought! I know it does for me. 

A mess encourages challenging norms.

In another branch of the same research, 188 adults were told they were participating in a consumer choice study. Each subject was assigned to either a messy or a tidy room, where they were shown a fruit smoothie menu. The smoothies had three optional boosts (added ingredients): health, wellness, or vitamins. One version of this menu used the word “classic” (think conventional), and the other version used the word “new” (think novelty) to highlight the health-boost option.

When tidy room subjects chose the health boost, it had the classic label almost twice as often. When the subjects were in the messy room, they chose the health boost with the new label more than twice as often. The takeaway: Subjects overwhelmingly preferred convention (classic) in the tidy room and novelty (new) in the messy room. So if you want to play it safe, be tidy. If you want to encourage innovation, maybe it’s time to embrace the chaos.

Einstein, Edison, Twain, and Jobs had messy desks, and they rocked it.

Albert Einstein, known for his messy desk, famously said, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” As someone who lives among what my coworkers have coined “the piles,” I can relate. I simply feel like I’d rather be creating things than filing, organizing, or purging.

I’m not comparing myself to these geniuses, but judging from these photos, I’m guessing Einstein, Edison, Twain and Jobs were in my camp. The next time you feel guilty for not cleaning up, think about the theory of relativity, light bulbs, Huck Finn, and the iPhone.

Having a messy desk might actually help you get in more steps during the day.

Think about it. If your desk is messy, you’re more likely to be on the move. And moving around helps you think. According to another study, regular exercisers tend to do better on tests of creativity than their less active peers.

I like to think that my messy desk is helping me get more steps in because I want to get up and move about. At the least, taking regular strolling breaks from your clutter can help you think better, plus walking around the room is a great classroom management tactic. Some teachers are even trading in their desks for aprons.

The institutional need for an orderly desk is a little dusty.

The perceived need for neatness and order is a carryover from the Industrial Revolution. Before that, schools were scattered, attendance was spotty, and curriculums were random. The Industrial Revolution created the need to churn out factory-ready workers, so modern schools became the place for children to learn the basics and a healthy dose of order.

To succeed as adults, it was essential for kids to learn to fall in line. The prevailing need for tomorrow’s workforce, on the contrary, is to solve problems, make connections, and become lifelong learners. To lead by example, educators need to constantly, creatively reinvent themselves in order to keep up with ever-evolving technology, society, and most importantly, students. If the clutter helps you do that, keep it.

So ignore the hype and free your mind.

If you spend any time on Pinterest or watching HGTV, you’ll see that organizing is all the rage, but it may not be the answer for everyone. For those of you who thrive in chaos, you’re ok. Rest easy on that pile of papers. You are doing fine—maybe even better—than the clean desk owner across the hall.

Does your messy desk make you feel more creative? Come share in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

Plus, teacher desk supplies you definitely want to have on hand.

Could a Messy Desk Make You a Better Teacher?