I have always been insanely jealous of teachers whose classrooms look like a movie set. Or teachers who can make their classroom look like a master suite in a $2.5 million home with perfect curtains, perfectly-matched color patterns, and plush furniture. I’m also jealous of teachers who can pull off a classroom theme and work it into absolutely everything they do all year. There were many times when my students’ jaws hit the floor when they saw other teachers’ classrooms. Then they asked, “Mr. Geswein, why don’t you ever make our room look fancy like that!?”
When we returned to class, I explained to my students that everyone has different talents…and my talent is DEFINITELY not designing classrooms!!
If you’re like me, I’d like this blog post to offer some encouragement and ideas because I feel like teachers (especially in elementary grades) put way too much pressure on themselves to have a classroom that looks perfect.
Every year at back-to-school time, I see SO MANY AMAZING CLASSROOMS on social media! On the flip side, even though they aren’t posting, I know there are teachers who feel insane amounts of pressure to design a classroom that can compete with all the ones they see on Instagram and Facebook.
In any of the 14 years I taught, my classroom would have finished last in ANY classroom design contest. If you threw a photo of my finished classroom decor in with 50 other classroom photos, there’s absolutely no way I wouldn’t have been in last place.
Here’s are photos of my fifth-grade classroom one year. It was about 95% ready for the first day (I did eventually put paper over that bulletin board!)
For my first 10 years of teaching, I felt really bad about this. I felt like I was letting my students down. Before my 4th year of teaching, I was determined to have the best bulletin board of anyone in the school. The Dallas Mavericks had just been to the NBA Finals (this is when I taught near Dallas) so I put each of my students’ faces on an image of a Mavericks player dunking a basketball. Then I had a phrase like “We are going to slam-dunk third grade” above it. I spent HOURS AND HOURS before the first day of school getting this to look perfect. Then when it was done, I looked at it and thought “meh.” On the first day of school, I think 2 or 3 kids said “cool.” That was it.
About five years later I was reflecting on this. I realized this ridiculously horrible bulletin board, which I spent a long time beating myself about, had absolutely zero impact on student learning. I had an amazing year with that group of students. Several kids made incredible gains in reading and math. I even managed to get press credentials to take one student to a Dallas Mavericks game as a reporter. He got to sit in the press box, stand on the court, attend the post-game press conference, get all the in-game stats, and write a story about the game just like a real reporter. (The Mavs get a BIG shout-out on that one!) It was an amazing year.
During my final few years, I finally accepted the fact that a photo of my classroom is never going to get many likes on Instagram. No one would care if I counted down to my classroom reveal and that’s fine because that’s not where my talents are. So instead, here are the things I focused on preparing before the first day of school to help my students have a successful first week:
Absolutely the first thing I did each year. I probably arranged my desks 10-15 times until I finally found an arrangement that was best. I wanted ample room for people to move around EVEN with the chairs pushed out. All desks needed to be angled to where kids can see the front of the room. I also needed space for some individual desks when kids need to be isolated. Then I put tape on the tile floor to mark where each desk should be. This meant the kids could push them back to exactly where they needed to be at the end of each day.
It’s extremely important that kids had lots of books to read in my classroom. After I arranged the desks, I set up my classroom library in a place that was open and accessible. I arranged my books according to AR level. I printed stickers with my name and stuck it on the spine of each book. Then I wrote the AR level and put a sticker on it. The color of the sticker indicated the range of AR level for that book. Here’s a photo of a few of those books to show you what the sticker looked like.
Every day at dismissal, I had a few students organize the books in my classroom library.
Prepare and label areas where student supplies would be stored
It was important to me that students had supplies in locations that were consistent and accessible.
Place inspirational posters all around the room
I loved finding inspirational posters online. That’s one way I added some color to the room, even though it required me to print on my color printer at home. But I loved referring back to inspirational posters throughout the year.
Tape pictures from National Geographic Magazines on/near my door
I used around 50-70 photos of animals and scenery. This gives kids something to look at while they’re lined up waiting to leave my room.
Overplan for the first week and prepare all materials!
I can’t imagine something more exhausting than the first week of school. So instead of spending hours decorating my room, which is not where my talents lie, I spent that time preparing and planning an abundance of activities for the first week of school. I also knew how exhausted I was going to be during that week and wanted to minimize the amount of prep work after school each day.
I wrote each day’s schedule out to the minute, which is something I didn’t normally do during the rest of the year. I spent a lot of time thinking which routines and procedures I needed to teach, which order I wanted to teach them in, and how I was going to do so. My classroom was not going to be the prettiest, but it definitely ranked highly in student engagement and organization. I had high expectations of myself to establish that during the first week of school.
Get enough butcher paper so STUDENTS can design posters to put on the walls
I think it is important to have a colorful classroom. I am not suggesting that teachers leave their walls and bulletin boards bare. No student wants to learn in a room like that. That’s why I had my students make posters for our walls.
The first few days of school, we brainstormed what it looks like to treat people with respect. Then my students illustrated those ideas on large sheets of butcher paper, which were then hung on the walls. Students also made posters to illustrate a few other classroom expectations. By the end of the week, a good portion of my wall space was covered with student artwork…and it was WAY better than anything I could have come up with. Plus, it gave my fifth graders a sense of ownership of their classroom. You’ll notice the walls in my classroom photos are mostly uncovered. That’s not the case after the first week of school!
Again, I have all the respect in the world for teachers who can design a classroom to look just like Hogwarts. But I know there are lots of teachers like me whose talents are not in decoration. I feel bad for teachers in July and August who feel overwhelmed at seeing all these photos of beautiful classrooms because there’s no way they could ever compete with those. If you have little ability and motivation to decorate like me, I’d encourage you to focus on your strengths. Not everyone can be an amazing interior decorator!
For example, I realized that my strengths involved organization, designing engaging lessons, utilizing technology, finding quality literature to teach reading standards, and saying corny “jokes” (a big plus for a fifth-grade teacher). Instead of beating myself up for not designing a beautiful classroom, I eventually realized that my students can learn a lot from me because of the unique talents I bring into the classroom every day. That, by the way, is the exact same message I told my students — that our classroom is a better place because of the unique talents each of them brings every day.
I’ll leave you with this reminder, which I realized while looking at my classroom before the first day of school one year. (Yes, that’s my classroom in the photo.)