Thursday, March 14, 2013

“Classy Classrooms?”

            My adventures as a substitute teacher mean I find myself visiting many different schools and spending my days slipping into someone’s personal space for eight hours at a time. I can’t help but notice the different atmospheres teachers create within their cinderblock walls.
            When I taught, my classroom became an extension of my personal taste. I usually had a corner designated for reading. For many years, a small couch with a pole lamp squatted in one area next to bookcases loaded with my favorites. Atop these shelves I’d place philodendrons in jugs of water, pictures of my son and pets, and sometimes fresh cut flowers to brighten the room. I always loaded a huge wicker laundry hamper with an assortment of pillows for Pillow Days. If my classes behaved, on Pillow Days, the students could grab their favorite cushion from the pile, retreat under desks, to the couch, or to a private place in the room, and read or write without the constraints of iron-hard chairs and desks. Whether I taught seniors or seventh graders, having days to stretch out with a pillow and a pencil or book became a special treat. Some days, I’d add to the atmosphere by having a “fireplace” by putting orange paper over the overhead projector to cast a warm glow into the room.
            As a substitute, I’ve learned that not all teachers spend as much time or energy on their classrooms as I did, and I have definitely noted the difference between male and female teachers. If I enter a man’s classroom, I find very little personal items on display. Some may have a photograph or two back by their desks, tucked in next to their computers, of their wives, children or pets. Some may even hang their diplomas along one wall. However, the classroom décor ends there. The posters, if any are on the walls, demonstrate functionality—equations or formulas, copies of historical documents, or a list of literary terms and definitions. My recent encounters with these male educators still have more in their rooms than my first department chair. His sparse room contained absolutely no posters except for a leggy pose of Jennifer Beals from Flashdance.
            Women educators utilize their classrooms as an extension of their personal taste. Instead of one or two personal pictures tucked discretely on a corner of their desks, they plaster photographs down entire file cabinets—attached to the metal furniture with frog magnets (or flowers, pigs, roadrunners, shoes—whatever fancy catches the woman’s attention and displays her passions). Personal furniture crams into the room, too. Women teachers tend to have bookcases and brightly painted hutches along a wall. Their cinderblock barely peaks out from behind a multitude of posters—some professionally printed, others work from current or past students. Nick-knacks clutter these women’s desktops and spill onto any open surface. Tape dispensers, staplers, little storage boxes—all color or theme coordinated!
            I doubt decorating a classroom impacts student learning directly. Studies probably show little correlation between the posters displayed in a room (or lack thereof) and student performance. However, I believe that the more “at home” a teacher feels within his or her space, the more that educator will enjoy the time spent in the classroom. Whether the utilitarian and uncluttered, streamline masculine décor or the colorful embellishments of the feminine influence, if an educator’s classroom becomes an extension of personality, everyone benefits.   
Copyright 2013 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman


  1. Having a pleasant and comfortable classroom was always important to me. As a science teacher, I always aquaria of various types (depending on what the room could hold)and coordinated bulletin boards.

    My last room before moving to the dark side was wonderful.

    It was actually a regular classroom,not a lab. The district had cabinets with neutral Formica and sinks from Home Depot put in for me, so it had a homier feel than most labs. When you teach middle school, slate tops aren't all that important anyway.

    One entire wall, floor to ceiling, was window over looking trees. All you saw outside was green On nice days (or smelly lab days) I could open them a let a breeze float through.

    I covered my bulletin boards with green fabric and had plant themed borders around them. One board was for content-based store bought posters (that I changed with each unit), one was for examples of excellence (student work) and the skinny one above the white board held the motivational stuff.

    Because of the wall of windows, I could leave the florescent lights off much of the time.

    It was bright, cheerful and peaceful all at the same time.

    1. I love your description, Mary! I always loved the science rooms of my own teachers and my peers.