“It’s the most wonderful time of the year …”
If, when you hear this you begin singing, “with the kids jingle belling and everyone telling you be of good cheer,” then you are not a teacher.
Staples has ruined this traditional Christmas carol for teachers forever. I can nearly guarantee that every teacher hears the next line as “They’re going back!”
Back to School that is.
Ahhh, back to school. A time of year fraught with emotion for students and teachers alike. Here in Ohio, the back to school advertising frenzy begins on July 5th. Yes, July 5th – the day after Independence Day.
We’re not even quite halfway through summer vacation when we are told to start gearing up for the return to school.
This is particularly cruel as I’m not sure a teacher exists who doesn’t experience back to school nightmares. These are quintessential anxiety dreams that generally involve being late to class or unprepared – no lesson plan, no attendance list, no materials, etc. In the really terrifying versions of these nightmares, the teacher is also naked – talk about waking up in a cold sweat!
Back to School is such a tumultuous time of year. Although many decades have transpired since the long summer days of my childhood, they still evoke powerful memories, and when I think of the end of summer, the loss I feel is reminiscent of those summers:
Long afternoons that melted into evenings where it stayed light until 9:30 — which was about when our parents started calling us to come inside,
Carefree summer days when we held contests to see who could stand barefoot on the hot asphalt the longest,
Evenings spent catching lightning bugs in a jar that we kept by our bedsides overnight,
Even the air was redolent with exuberance — full of the sounds of cicadas by day and crickets by night.
This romanticization is perhaps equaled only by my powerful memories of the first days of school each fall:
The smell of fresh floor wax that seems to be the same in school buildings everywhere,
The anxiety and excitement of meeting a new teacher and entering a new classroom,
The thrill of a full set of brand-new school supplies,
The joy of seeing your name carefully written on a sticker on your desk, perhaps accompanied by a number line whose ends had not yet started to curl up.
That classroom was waiting for you. Waiting expectantly full of optimism and hope of a new beginning, a fresh start.
It was these nostalgic first day of school images that flashed through my mind when, this summer, I came across these words written on a Facebook page of a teacher group I belong to:
“Has anyone done ‘work to rule’ at the start of school? I’m the VP of our union. Need ideas to motivate elementary teachers to not set up classrooms before school starts. Looking for ideas of how to survive the first day in boxes, success stories or ways to start school with a blank slate.”
“Work to rule,” meaning only do what is explicitly stated in the contract – nothing more.
“Work to rule,” meaning that if you aren’t directly paid for time spent setting up your classroom, then don’t set it up.
I have always been a fiercely proud union member. I believe in the importance of unions, and have served in various union roles throughout my career. But this statement left me feeling sad and embarrassed and disappointed all at once.
To be fair, the person who posted this does not belong to my local union and doesn’t even live in my state. I know that there are teachers elsewhere who are struggling with low wages and excessive requirements that are far beyond anything that I have ever had to deal with. I am slow to judge because there may be extenuating circumstances, of which I am unaware, that require such drastic action.
What bothered me perhaps more than the post itself was that within just a few hours, this statement had 141 comments from teachers all around the country, most of which were supportive of this strategy.
I simply can’t get past my mental image of the children who walk into a classroom that hasn’t been prepared. A classroom where materials are still in boxes. A classroom that is simply not ready for the students’ arrival.
A classroom like that cannot possibly evoke the expectant hope and optimism that I remember so vividly from my own days as a student.
Not only does this lack of a prepared environment do the students a disservice, it does a terrible disservice to the teacher of that classroom as well, for an unstructured, unwelcoming start of the school year bodes ill for the months that follow.
Starting the school year off on the right foot is critically important, and having a well-prepared classroom environment is a major contributing factor for this. Every classroom is unique in how it is set up, and there are many right ways. Each teacher spends countless hours getting it just the way he or she wants it, with every item carefully in place prior to the ringing of that bell that marks the initiation of a new school year.
There is reason to believe that this intentional and thoughtful classroom design has significant benefits. A recent study funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council found that 16% of the positive or negative variations in student learning outcomes could be attributed to the physical characteristics of the classroom. Of this, 25% of these achievement differences were attributed to individualization and flexibility in the environment, and another 25% was linked to an appropriate level of stimulation (complexity and color) in the classroom. This is good news as these are elements of the classroom that are completely within a teacher’s control.
The results of this study indicate that students learn better in classrooms where there are a variety of available learning spaces and where student influence is observable through displays of work and student-created decorative elements.
Additionally visual stimulation should be neither too high nor too low. Décor should be limited to approximately 50-75% of wall space. Calming background colors with the use of complementary or bright colors as accents was found to be most effective.
Creating a classroom best-designed for learning is a relatively simple and effective way to make teaching a little bit easier. The short-term investment of time, effort, and money has long-term gains.
Whether your school year is yet to begin or whether you have already done most of the heavy lifting of classroom preparation, it is important to examine the design of your classroom to ensure that it best meets your needs and those of your students.
And, yes, I know that for many of us our rooms are overcrowded, our furnishings shoddy, and the extra touches that create a welcoming atmosphere typically must be paid for out of our own pockets.
Is this fair? No, of course not. But it is the reality for many, perhaps most, of us. Consider the number of hours each day that you and your students will spend in your classroom. Generally, this amounts to about 50% of one’s waking hours. Making that space more pleasant is worth it for all parties involved.
As part of my research for this post, I perused the book What’s in Your Space: 5 Steps for Better School and Classroom Design. It’s a drool-worthy book – sharing images of a high-end, high-tech, student-centered new construction.
The pictures in that book look nothing like what exists in most school buildings.
As a result, I initially set the book aside as an impossible ideal, but then I returned to it, turning directly to the section titled, “Find Ways to Make This Shift Even When Budgets are Tight.”
I found this important message, “Only a handful of schools in the world have an unlimited budget with which to redesign learning space. Educators with small budgets can begin with one corner of a classroom.”
Consider your classroom. Which corner do you want to start with?
Spend some time mentally re-visiting how last year went. Is there an area in your room that felt congested? Or cluttered? A space in which students tended to be off-task or at loose ends? Or perhaps an area that students intentionally sought out for silent work or regrouping that you would like to make more inviting.
Begin with one of these spaces.
Consider adding lamps, plants, a rug, or different seating options. If routines or procedures were an issue, think about what you can design to help make this more structured.
There are infinite ways to make classrooms more inviting, more comfortable, or more functional. Here are a few of my favorites provide by teachers at Gamble Montessori to help you get the creative juices flowing.
(Tremendous thanks to Krista Mertens, Olivia Schafer, Tori Pinciotti, and Beau Wheatley for inviting me into their classrooms at Gamble and allowing me to take photographs of their beautifully designed spaces.)
A place for everything and everything in its place
If clutter or organization is a concern in your classroom, consider purchasing simple containers and labeling them.
Materials to support classroom procedures
If you had procedures, such as tardiness protocols or classroom jobs that didn’t work so well last year, think about materials you could design that would better support and reinforce your expectations.
Morning meeting structures to build community and promote classroom cohesion
If you struggled to develop a positive classroom culture, you may benefit from adding a well-structured daily or weekly meeting to your routines.
Nontraditional student work areas
If you found that students struggled with focus and engagement, consider creating student-friendly work spaces that may look very different from the standard desks and chairs.
There are innumerable ways to design a beautiful and functional prepared space for student learning. However, to do so takes significant time. Ideally, teachers would get paid for this time; the reality is that few of us do.
So, yes, advocate for more paid time to prepare your classroom. Advocate for professional development days to be moved to later in the year to allow for more time for classroom set up in the critical days just before the start of the year. Advocate for getting reimbursed for the materials you have to purchase out of pocket to beautify your space. (That $250 federal income tax credit doesn’t go very far!)
But to leave your classroom unprepared for the arrival of students on that first day is a set up for failure. Students are already worried and anxious about the changes that lie ahead. Quite frankly, so are most teachers. It helps everyone to begin that pivotal day in a space that reflects readiness of the exciting journey that you and your class are about to embark upon together.
Your students are worth it. So are you.
 Lynch, Matthew. “Study Finds That Well-Designed Classrooms Boost Student Success.” The Edvocate. May 10, 2016. Accessed August 02, 2017. http://www.theedadvocate.org/study-finds-that-well-designed-classrooms-boost-student-success/.
 Carter, Dwight, Gary Sebach, and Mark White.What’s In Your Space?Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2016.