The Highly Effective Teacher Toolbox: 5 Tips for Curating Your Classroom Environment

There’s nothing more intimidating to new teachers than the experienced educator’s classroom. He or she has carefully curated their classroom environment. With eyes closed, the experienced educator can point at the 100s chart and world map on the wall. The reading area includes huge matching floor pillows in bright colors that he found on sale at a high end retailer for a dollar each. A new  teacher will try to replicate this amazing design, but without years of collecting and revising the classroom environment to meet the needs of his/her students it can be challenging to replicate. What can you do if you are not that chevron-print obsessed teacher?

Over the years I’ve struggled with putting my own spin on my classroom environment. Before teaching full-time, I worked for a non-profit and provided oversight to afterschool programs. In my position, I was responsible for helping staff create an afterschool space in elementary school gyms and cafeterias using very little furniture and with almost no time between the last bell and the arrival of the kiddos. Using checklists, we would support staff in creating an environment that minimized distractions and behavior problems while inviting students in to the afterschool space. 

Keep your focus on what matters in your classroom environment!

With that experience, I’ve supported countless teachers in improving their learning spaces. Knowing that students need a clean, welcoming space to learn in helps me prioritize time to consider my learning environment each year. There are some basic features of an effective learning space; check out my list below!

Here are 5 tips for creating a welcoming classroom:

  1. Avoid creating runways. Check your room for any long, straight paths that invite students to run around the room. This is a surprisingly easy mistake to make, even in a small classroom!
  2. Don’t overdo it. Your classroom should first and foremost be a learning environment, not the set of a tropical-themed photo shoot. Props and bright colors are fun, but consider the effect that your classroom decor is having on your students. Are you struggling with controlling their bodies because you’ve placed 4 foot high inflatable palm trees in the reading area? Do they have a difficult time finding important posters and anchor charts on your walls around all of the cutesy borders? Streamline for an effective learning space.
  3. Space out. One year I was teaching at a charter school and my classroom was a small cabin in the woods. During the long, northwoods winter, I read a biography of Steve Jobs in which the author shared Jobs’ almost monastic design style. His home decor style, if it can be called that, was based on the idea that nothing should enter his space that he didn’t need. After reading the book, I spent a few hours removing extraneous “stuff” from my classroom. I was able to move the furniture further apart, but the changes were not very noticeable. On Monday morning the following week, a very sensitive second grader entered my room, stopped in the doorway and exclaimed, “There’s so much more space in here! It feels SO much better, Mrs. C!” Moving bookshelves away from the reading area by about 2 inches per side made all of the difference for that student’s ability to learn and feel comfortable in my classroom setting. 
  4. A clean nothing is better than a messy something. Some teachers just can’t, and I get it. But consider the message you’re sending when you leave trash on the floor, messy papers laying on all of the group work tables, and posters falling off the walls. I’ve observed many classrooms that look like someone “trashed the place” during the robbery. Your students will struggle to take you and your message seriously if you don’t have a tidy room. In lieu of decorating, set a phone alarm for 15-20 minutes one day a week to help yourself schedule a clean up time. 
  5. Ask a teacher-friend for help. Bring in a teacher who seems to have their room decor figured out and has a similar style to what you’re attempting to create in your learning environment. Make sure to clearly share your goals for your classroom space, then ask her for her honest opinion. Asking for help can support you in prioritizing changes in your classroom that will lead to more effective learning time. 

New teachers, give yourself time to find your classroom design. Don’t try to do everything at once, but do make changes that help decrease distractions and behavior problems before adding cute and colorful posters! Make changes that make an impact on student learning first.

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