Your In Depth Guide to Designing Your Classroom Space

It’s your first teaching job, and you just got the shiny (to you at least) key to your new classroom. You have a blank canvas to work with and a lot of energy (bless you).

 

Or maybe you’ve been teaching in the same room for six years, and you’re looking for a revamp.

 

Or maybe you’ve been teaching for five years, but you’re moving rooms for the sixth time and need to make this new one work.

 

In case you’re curious, I fall into the third category. I have yet to have the same classroom for more than a year. The good part of that experience is that I’ve had a lot of practice making different types of rooms work for me, and I can pass some of that expertise on to you.

 

Before you do anything, declutter, declutter, declutter

Go through all of your cabinets and pull out everything in there. If it’s an old room that’s served many teachers, you might want a hazmat suit, but you’ll thank me later.

 

Throw away anything that is unusable. Now I know teachers are the worst hoarders of any profession, so I know you will see something and go “Oh, but this could be useful!”

 

No, it won’t. If you haven’t used it in the last two years, toss it. Or give it to the unsuspecting new teacher down the hall. If you are that new teacher, unless you’re being handed paper, pencils, or die-cut letters, politely accept the gift and toss it the moment that person leaves for the day.

 

“What about these copies of handouts?” you might say.

 

There’s a recycling bin for that. Save the environment.

 

Seriously, space is a valuable commodity. You should protect it with your life.

 

I know the pain of going through cabinets filled with books from the 1980’s and having ten telescopes that don’t work shoved in various places across the room. But if you want further incentive, think of it this way: you inherit what you don’t toss.

 

Those telescopes I mentioned? I moved into their original classroom when I switched from Math to Astronomy midway through a semester (long story). I didn’t have time to deal with the clutter in that classroom because I was deprived of the usual two week classroom setup you get at the beginning of the year. So I shoved it and the telescopes aside.

 

The following year, I moved to a new room. The teacher who took my room cleared out the clutter. And guess what got sent my way? Telescopes. I begged her to keep them in her room. She was kind and obliged. She kept that room the next year (lucky duck), so the telescopes didn’t follow me again.

 

The next year, I move to a room across the street. The telescopes are forgotten. I open the room with my shiny new key, and what’s waiting for me? That’s right. Telescopes. The teacher who took over the old room had gotten into their room a week ahead.

Moral of the story: clean out your clutter, or it follows you. And you get more cabinet space for your stockpiles of paper, pencils, and dry erase markers.

 

 

Next, check your room for disrepair

Check every inch of your room and look at what needs to be fixed. Do the sinks work? Are they leaking? Do you see any mold or suspicious stains on the walls? Do you see evidence of rodents in any cabinets or high areas?

 

Whatever you find, follow the procedure at your campus for getting repairs fixed. It’s better to deal with it at the beginning of the year, when everyone is expecting repairs, than later on. It will also help you in planning. If you know that your outlets don’t work, then you know the lab with hot plates you planned for the first week may not happen.

 

Ok, now you can start filling your space. Start with yours.

You spend the most time in your classroom. You deserve to have a space that meets your needs. Carve out a corner of your classroom for just you: your desk, your chair, your pictures of family, your books, etc. whatever makes you happy.

 

Create a space for everything, with easy access to the supplies you need the most. Think about how you spend your off period each day. Do you grade a lot of papers? Find a way to organize each period. Do you use a lot of sticky notes? Put the sticky notes in easy reach, and designate a spot to put your important notes, like a creative memo board, or, if you’re cheap (I know I am), the side of your filing cabinet.

 

Decorate as much or as little as you wish. Either way, it’s your space. Make it a happy place.

 

The important thing about this space, though, is to ensure that your students know that this is yours. They shouldn’t be anywhere near it. Ever. Some teachers mark a boundary line with tape and enforce a no-fly zone. I’ve been able to enforce my space simply by warning them off.

 

But what if the students need something?

That’s what their space is for. That’s your next step: create a space for your students. This is where they can find all the supplies they need during the class period: pencil sharpener, tissues, writing utensils, spare paper, colored pencils, etc. When they need something, you can point to their space for them to go get it.

 

Feel free to make it decorative as well. Students appreciate an effort to make the classroom look friendly.

 

When I set up a student space, I set it up as a space that they are also meant to maintain. If the paper disappears, then they need to find a solution on their own, not at my desk. If the colored pencils vanish, they have to go find them and ask the student who has them to borrow them.

 

I also don’t give them “the good stuff.” I know, I’m a mean teacher. But even non-teachers have heard the numerous complaints about pencils walking off on their own. A student doesn’t just need a pencil for your class. They need it for all their classes. If they can walk off with a good pencil, they will.

 

Instead, I tell them to use markers or colored pencils as their writing utensils. I’ve never lost a single one of those, and I can still read/grade their papers. I don’t give them nice lined paper. I give them misprint paper or extra, unused copies with no print on the back.

 

It’s remarkable how fast they come up with a solution on their own when they don’t like what I give them.

 

Other teachers ask for collateral in exchange for pens and pencils or tape flowers to them. Those methods work too. The only trade-off with using the collateral method is that a student has to interrupt you in order to get what he needs, and you need to ensure that the collateral is actually valuable to the student (I recommend a phone).

 

You can also use this spot for handouts and extra credit opportunities. However you organize it, make it a place for students to use to take care of their needs without you. Time in the classroom is too short for needless procedural interruptions.

 

(Psst…I cover more tips for designing your classroom around procedures in this post.)

 

Now look at your classroom space through the lens of your lessons.

Designate a space for every type of activity you will do in your lessons. Where will you lecture? In what place will you give directions? Where will students present their work? Where can students look when they need help (anchor charts)?

 

We associate certain activities and behaviors with the places in which they occur. How many of us revert to childhood patterns when we visit our childhood homes? If you want students to be trained to take notes and listen when you direct teach, then it helps to do that from the same spot in the classroom. They will see you stand in your “lecture spot” and know, consciously or not, what you expect them to do.

 

Having the same place for everything, like anchor charts, also saves you time answering simple questions. If a student needs a formula for their math problem, you can point to the anchor chart and keep moving to students who need more help. After a few months, you won’t even have to point. The students will know to check these places first.

 

(For further tips on managing a class without saying a word, check out this post.)

 

Don’t forget think about work space for your students: how will you manage individual, paired, and group work? Some teachers place students in four-person groups and “subdivide” as the situation allows, asking students to pair with an “elbow” or “face” partner as needed.

 

This is more time efficient than asking students to move their desks, or moving them yourself before the day begins. However, you do need to think about how the chairs are arranged in relation to where you give directions or direct teach. Students generally don’t appreciate having to crane their necks to take notes.

 

You should also think about students’ “extra” belongings. Where should they put backpacks and other items that they don’t need for your class? For your safety (and theirs), they shouldn’t keep their belongings where someone could trip over them. A cheap solution is to tell students to keep their belongings under the desk, but your specific situation may prevent this.

 

 

If you have time, practice a lesson in your classroom.

Better yet, bribe a friend with cake (or lunch) to pretend to be a student while you run through this lesson. If you don’t have a bribable friend, practice your lesson from the perspective of you, the teacher, and as a student.

 

Begin with the point where students enter, and proceed all the way to when the bell rings. Ask yourself these questions:

 

  • Are all students able to see you at critical moments?
  • Will they be comfortable in their chairs, or feel squished against the edge of the desk?
  • Will students be able to get the supplies they need without invading others’ space?
  • Are important spaces (supply stations, your desk space, where to get the bathroom passes) clearly marked?
  • If they need to move around during an activity, will everyone be able to move easily?
  • Are there potential bottleneck points in the room (ie everyone needs a laptop and the cart is in a tight corner)?
  • Are there “temptation points” where students might become distracted or misuse materials? (Think “What could go wrong?” like in this post)

Now, if you noted down any problems in your average lesson, don’t rearrange your room just yet. Maybe all you need to do is put a procedure in place to reduce problems.

 

For example, if you note that your laptop cart is in a small corner (we can’t help where the plugs are, after all), then all you need to do is have one person get laptops for everyone in their group.

 

Or if you cannot arrange your room so that everyone is facing you, provide clipboards so that students can fully turn and write.

 

Should you demo every lesson? Of course not. No one has time for that. But it’s a good idea, even if you’re experienced, to do it at least once. I’ve been glad that I stepped through my lessons in a new room every time. It’s like trying out a recipe in a new kitchen before a dinner party. Every oven is different, after all.

 

At this point, you should be set for a new year (or reset for the rest of the year). You’ll see small issues as you get a class full of students (that weren’t bribed with cake to tolerate you), but you’ll find yourself better able to deal with them than a whole bunch of big problems at once.

How have you designed your classroom space? Let me know in the comments below!

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