May 07, 2006

Classrooms Matter?

“You’re in a good mood today,” a student remarked.

“Always,” I replied.

“Its a great class,” another responded.

The environments we create in our classrooms matter to our students. Our classrooms are our spaces, our kingdoms, our universes, and when our students enter our dominion they should feel invited, welcome, and comfortable. We’ve all been present in someone’s classroom that felt cold and inhospitable. Most university classrooms are that way: sterile, undecorated, and impersonal. But that’s at the university. College students are self-motivated, focused, and already committed to their education. The students we teach are not. They need more from us then just our assignments and our assessments. Kids need our personal attention, and that starts the moment they pass over the threshold and into our classrooms.

In my classroom I display some artwork, a few posters, notes on the whiteboards, and a bulletin board of important information. The desks are arranged in “pods” of six that work efficiently for both individual and group computer work. I can move around the room and through groups of kids with ease. One wall is full with windows that reveal a huge oak tree, a view of the 1938 theatre building, and a staff parking lot. The room was recently renovated and is now carpeted. I have a fairly reliable air conditioning unit on the roof. The building was constructed in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s and shares the typical architecture of that time. But none of these things that make up this classroom actually make up this classroom. The kids don’t come to this classroom everyday to view the artwork, stare at the oak tree, or enjoy the air conditioning. They come to classroom to enjoy the company of their teacher, and maybe to learn something.

Classrooms are as unique as the teachers that occupy them and should be a direct reflection of the teacher’s personality and educational philosophy. Elementary classrooms are different than middle or high school classrooms. But the same techniques that create warmth in an elementary classroom will work in the high school classroom as well. From posters on the walls, to seating arrangements, to the display of the American Flag, the classroom should be not only a haven for learning, but also a feel-good safety-zone for the children. Positive messages should penetrate the atmosphere coming from the visual decorations as well as the teacher.

Do your students look forward to coming to your class? Not just look forward to the learning the day’s lesson (although that is vitally important), but do they look forward to being in your presence? Sometimes teachers can take advantage of their position because of the captive audience. Kids really don’t have a choice when it comes to enrollment. Sure, a parent can request a teacher or period change, but most of time, once a child becomes your pupil they are stuck in your classroom.

Elective teachers understand this better than most core subject instructors. We live and die by the number of students enrolled in our classes. Next year, for the first time since I began teaching multimedia, I will probably not teach a full six-period day because not enough students signed up for my classes. That is not a symptom of me personally, but of the stringent requirements and prerequisites I have built into my courses to avoid becoming the campus dumping ground. (I’m planning on writing more about that soon.)

Here comes another heretical statement: teachers should entertain their students. Education is not, and should not be competitive. However, because most teachers do not compete for students, many teachers do not work as hard as they should to capture and hold on to the attention of their pupils. I am not suggesting that a course in stand-up comedy should be added to all the already nutty teacher prep programs. But there is nothing wrong with having fun in the classroom while learning is happening. Everyone is more comfortable and at ease when they are laughing and enjoying the moment. We release tension and relax. Add a little laughter to the beginning of a stressful day of testing, or in-depth day of study and you’ll get students who test better and work harder. Plus it’s just more fun.

I’ve already written that I believe school should be fun. That generated a lot of surprising discussion. Some teachers reject that idea that classrooms should be anything other than learning laboratories. That’s fine for some teachers, and some subjects, at some developmental levels, when appropriate. However, I believe that many younger kids (pre-university) need more than a simple empty space if they are going to turn on the light in their heads and open their minds to new information, concepts, and ideas.

Teachers hold the keys to not just the classroom doors, but also the hearts and minds of the students. I good instructor will make even the most mundane subject come alive and seem exciting. I’ve seen it happen. Our Physics classes are packed not because of an innate love for Physics among the student body, but because the Physics teachers are dynamic, passionate, and just plain fun to be around. Kids line up to take one of the toughest courses offered because they want to share the yearlong experience that is Physics at this campus. I hated Physics when I took it in college. I hated it because the teacher failed to make the subject accessible to the students and his classroom environment was impersonal and barren of any personal identity or connection.

We must connect with our students and our classrooms are a good place to start. Mario Cipollini, a professional cyclist from Italy, signed one of the posters on my wall. It caught the eye of a new exchange student from Belgium where cycling is a huge sport (even before Lance Armstrong). As I recall, she was sitting in class on the first day evaluating her situation grimly. Then she saw the poster and brightened up. After class she came to me and commented on the poster. We had made a connection. From that point on she was engaged in the course work and look forwarded to attending the class. I enjoyed our ensuing conversations about cycling.

What kind of a king or queen are you? What does your empire look like? Are your subjects happy with your leadership, or are they preparing for rebellion? These are important questions to consider when teachers prepare to work with kids. We should be focused on making our students’ experiences in our classrooms pleasing, pleasant, and positive.

Please post your comments below.


  1. Interesting reading. You are so right. I think exactly in the same way, but it´s hard to get through with such ideas. Mostly teachers don´t realize how important the environment is and as you say, your enthusiasm.

  2. Physics may appear to be a tough subject. But if you note that the physicist tries to explain everything in nature including even your thought process, this subject becomes interesting. Once it becomes interesting you wont mind the difficulties.

  3. my principal want's us to take down all of our posters and only have word walls or other items related to instruction...I'm totally against 49ers poster and star wars art make the class fun and cool and don't take up much space...we have a word wall and instructional stuff but he's of the mind that my personal posters that the kids love are a distraction...what do you all think?