''My daughter's teacher kept forgetting to bring back the papers the students had written,'' says Mary Clark, a trim, neat woman who teaches a problem-solving class cheerfully entitled ''Let's Get Organized!'' in Fairfax County, Va. ''It was getting close to exam time, when they needed those papers to study. So she asked me if I'd go see her teacher, tell her I taught organizing skills, and suggest a way to help her remember those papers.''
Mrs. Clark did, telling the teacher to put them in front of her door the night before ''so she'd have to trip on them going out in the morning. I don't know if the teacher appreciated it, but the kids sure did,'' she says, smiling.
Avowing that there's ''no such thing as a perfect home - not one you'd want to live in, anyway,'' Mrs. Clark has found a number of ways to help those who run a household see that ''everything is in its place - and everyone knows how to find that place when they need it.''
Here are a few of her hints:
Lists. Mrs. Clark is a great listmaker and suggests that you keep a pad of paper near the chair where you sit in the evening just for this purpose. Each evening, she suggests, you should jot down the next day's to-do list.
If you need to call someone, write down who and the topic of your call. If you're going to do errands, write down where you're going and what you're going to do there. Star the item if you need to bring something along for that store - like the dry cleaning, or your bankbook. ''When it's all written, you can start to see a logic to your day, and plan your activities accordingly,'' she says.
She also advocates making lists for big decisions - where to go on your vacation, what kind of car to buy. Divide this list into several columns, giving the name of the possible choices in the left-hand corner, and labeling the sections according to factors that are important to you. If you were thinking of buying a car, you might put down price, miles per gallon, size, special features , ''or any other factors that you care about - maybe you want a car that's bright yellow, or one with a certain kind of engine,'' she says. When you fill in this chart with a list of several options, ''you'll be able to compare them at a glance, and you'll be comparing the same things, not apples and oranges.''
Mail. Sort the mail as soon as it comes in, ''and remember that the wastebasket is your best friend.'' Notice of sales either go up on her refrigerator ''as a memory jog,'' or into the trash; bills go into a box she has for ''bills and other items needing an acknowledgment;'' catalogs are thumbed through and thrown away (''Don't you think it's time to let go of those catalogs?''). Mail for other family members goes to a spot set aside for them. ''They know if it's still there the next morning, I'm going to throw it out.''
Household files. Using an ''action file'' - a file box that holds Pendaflex file folders - organize a simple system for the family's activities, ''one that a five-year-old can use.'' You might include a section for sports (with different manila folders for each team your child is on), church, clubs, gardens , and so on. This box should be kept ''near the center of activity, which usually means the kitchen,'' and should be cleaned out yearly, perhaps after the school year.
She also suggests that there be one location for correspondence (a box of stationery, envelopes, stamps, pens, and letters to be answered), one location for bills and receipts necessary for taxes, an expandable file or large index box for recipes, and a Rolodex for telephone numbers.
''You can do a lot with a Rolodex,'' she says. ''Put the name of your favorite shopping center on one, and then write down phone numbers for all the stores there - you might not remember the name of that hardware store when you need it.'' Write all the bank phone numbers and your account numbers under a ''bank'' card.
She also recommends making an extra section ''after the XYZ'' for things like the paint formulas you've used on each room (and where you bought the paint), or measurements for curtains you've made (so you'll know how many yards to buy next time).
Kitchens. ''The biggest clutter in kitchens seems to be paper. You must literally muck it out every day,'' says Mrs. Clark. Though she acknowledges that ''most kitchens are built by men who have no idea how they work,'' she recommends the ideal: silverware and toasters should be near the table, pots and pans should be near the stove or sink (since you usually have to put water in the pans), and spices, filed alphabetically, should be near your preparation center.
She also recommends turntables for any dead-space storage (in hard-to-reach, hard-to-see areas) and the refrigerator (''so you don't have to move everything around to see what's in back'').
Figuring out ways to get more space from a kitchen ''is only limited by your imagination. Be creative. One friend cut a thin wedge on her counter in back of where the drawers were, and used that to store her knives.'' Others use grids or pegboards over the back of cupboard and pantry doors to store spatulas, pot lids , or a plastic totebag holding ''all those lids for plastic containers.''
Big Projects. ''Make dates with yourself, giving yourself a reasonable time limit. I will clean the linen closet before my mother-in-law visits - that sort of thing,'' she says.
Then, ''do it one little bit at a time. Clean one shelf each day, and put anything that doesn't belong on that shelf into a carton.''
Finally, if it's something you really can't stand doing, ''like if your Christmas tablecloth is still sitting there waiting to be ironed,'' consider hiring someone else to do it. ''Do what you can stand, and then reward yourself by hiring someone to do what you can't face,'' she recommends.