What Story Does Your Classroom Tell? It Should Be About Devotion to Learning

In his classic book “The Students Are Watching,” Ted Sizer wrote of how teachers are constantly leaving “breadcrumbs” behind that send messages of belief, attitude and expectation to their students. These signals, some overt and some hidden, add up to make a teacher’s professional character and have a direct impact on their work with students.

your class should tell a story that reveals your devotion to learning and studentsA good question for teachers to ask themselves from time to time: What does my classroom say to the students about me and, more importantly, what I think about them? Here are a few ways to make that story matter:

Think of the classroom as a workspace

It’s reasonable to expect your students to carry as much of the intellectual workload in the classroom as you do (if not more). Too often I’ll conduct an observation and see the teacher doing all of the work — lecturing the entire time, or racing from student group to student group and explaining expectations again and again — and wonder why the students are passive while the teacher is so active.

The classroom is a place for your students to develop their proficiency in your subject areas. To think this happens only while the teacher is moving and the students are still runs contrary to piles and piles of research. Teaching is hard work no matter how it’s done, but the work will produce better results if it gets students engaged and active in the subjects they’re studying.

Be mindful of who sits where

As they say in the real estate business — Location, Location, Location. Where a child sits (or is placed) sends a message about the child’s importance to what is happening in the classroom. Be conscious of where you expect children to sit and understand that proximity to you indicates both an expectation of participation from the student and a sense of caring.

Allowing a child to self-isolate by sitting in the back or away from the main group is, more often than not, unhealthy for their growth and development. Also, pay attention to where you sit the more socially sophisticated students. These children sometimes receive a disproportionate amount of attention from well-meaning teachers.

Try to be tidy

Yes, there are some teachers who do a wonderful job and whose classrooms always have a messy appearance, and yes, a classroom dedicated to being a workspace won’t always be overly neat. That being understood, remember that the physical appearance of your classroom sends a strong, but unspoken, message about how you value your common space with the children.

It doesn’t have to be mopped and scrubbed every day, but it should be clean and neat enough that everyone knows you take your work seriously.

Don’t send subliminal messages

Please avoid hanging messages and signs (no matter how tongue-in-cheek your intention may be) alluding to the difficulties of teaching. This includes things like posting signs that exclaim, “Best Part of Teaching — July and August” or putting an X through each day of the calendar, as if you were finishing out a prison sentence.

Children, especially adolescents, don’t need many reasons to feel alienated. Don’t accidentally hand them one in the name of good humor.

Put student work on the walls

An interesting phenomenon I’ve seen from time to time is the classroom, usually at the elementary level, that looks like it could have come right off a Hollywood set. Every bulletin board is perfect and the posters hang in just the right places, but I notice a key ingredient is missing — student work.

Your students should produce for you, and hanging their work on the walls is a great way to honor their efforts. Also, many teachers want to have finished or “perfect” things on the wall in case someone were to happen by and see a messy, in-process piece. Learning is messy business, and it’s OK to have imperfect work out for those to see.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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