advice, alfie kohn, assumptions, being a teacher, classroom setup, community, educators, elementary, new teacher, new year

Declutter I say! Or Why Motivational Posters Demotivate

Life is full of choices, so choose carefully! How can anyone love you if you do not love yourself? And my favorite: failure is never an option! All sayings found on various motivational posters sold to teachers that mean well and boy, do they sell. Anyone who has ever been in a teacher store those last couple of weeks before school start will see the poster wheels spinning frantically as the just right poster is sought. Ok, I admit I, I was one of those teachers, however, I thought I was clever and that I had it all figured out. You see, I had edited my pre-packaged collection and therefore only had select few displayed. Thus, my students knew that these were the sayings they had to focus on. I remember one was a cute little frog hanging on to a tree branch and something about sticking with it. Oh, day in and day out that little frog inspired my students to never give up! Right? Well, not exactly. My students didn’t care. I am sure they thought they were cute and one or two of them used them for inspiration for their own doodles in their journals but did it ignite their passion for learning? Hardly, in fact, I would like to argue quite the opposite. You see, my students were overloaded with messages. Walk into almost any elementary classroom and you will be bombarded with motivational posters, hand-made posters, student work, rules, classroom jobs and anything else that deserves a special place on the wall. And we don’t just tack it to the all, we put up back posters and fancy boarders o that it gets really colorful and pops! In fact, bare walls are taunted and laughed at, seen as someone being unprepared or dare I say dispassionate about their room, their job, their kids!

And so the pressure on new teachers in particular is immense. You may be new but your room should still look inviting, educationally functional and also be a representation of you as a teacher. That last week before my first week of school ever, I was waking up in cold sweat wondering whether the kids would get “me” in the room? And then school happened and I realized little by little that even though I had labored intensely over my handmade sign with the great Shakespeare quote “Do Not be Afraid of Greatness” my students had never read it or noticed it really. How do I know? My principal asked them about it when I was observed the first time. But surely they had noticed all of the signs? Not so much, even if I had pored over each placement of every poster so much that my walls had holes in them from my tearing off the gorilla tape (note to self: don’t ever use gorilla tape again.) I had created rules – keep them simple but firm, and a little flexible. Classroom jobs – instill responsibility but make the chart so fun that the kids cannot wait to see what job they will do. And maps – I had maps all over my room. Why maps? Well, I really like maps and they filled all that dreaded empty wall space. I would have continued to cover and decorate had it not been for a pesky thing called the firecode. It stopped me at 20%.

So what changed? One day I realized that it wasn’t my room that represented me, but myself that represented me. In fact, I got sick of re-taping posters that kept falling down, or moving them when I actually needed the space for learning and so little by little down they came. The ultimate clean up came when I had to move rooms this year. I sorted, evaluated and donated. Now I chuckle when I see my “old” posters hanging somewhere else. Don’t they realize why I got rid of them? I also thought about my students more and how they reacted to the environment I created. Too much of it was about me, and how I wanted the room to be. They didn’t feel welcome or that the space was theirs, but merely as guests passing through borrowing the space. Another consideration was that I have students that get over-stimulated quite easily. Being a clutter freak myself I start to get clammy when I stay in these rooms too long so imagine if you are a student trying to focus on whatever is going on on the whiteboard. Where do you look? To the poster telling you to keep focusing or on to the actual board? So is my room bare walls? Nah, but what is up there is important. In fact, the kids have noticed what is posted. Quotes form the Little Prince, from the “I Have a Dream” Speech, and student introductions in Wordles. We have some literary elements as reminders and even a couple of pictures. The students know how obsessed I am with zombies so they draw me pictures of flesh eaters. No rules, no motivational posters, just us. Our space, our room. And most importantly, room to grow into a community. Into making the space our own. They own the room as much as I do and that is more important that sticking to it or never giving up!

5 thoughts on “Declutter I say! Or Why Motivational Posters Demotivate”

  1. I can really get into the idea of making your space. Your students will thrive in an environment that they "own."I have some stuff on my walls, but most of it is space filler. Perhaps student creations and things that actually motivate and interest the students could take their place…but I'm not taking down the Iron Man that hangs from my ceiling. I get to keep that.

  2. One of the coolest displays I've seen in a classroom was this: a teacher turned a piece of maroon butcher paper into a giant brick wall and posted it in the back of the room. He proceeded to post every, and any, photo of his students, field trips, school events, school portraits, class pictures, etc. on the wall. It grew, year after year. What an amazing tribute to the fantastic kids that graced his presence in the classroom each year!!

  3. I actually attended a high school that was designed by the same people who did the state prison. There were no windows and teachers had department offices and no one had their own classroom.One would think it would be incredibly gloomy. But I remember what a relief it was for my concentration. We, the students and the teacher were the ones setting the scene…the room wasn't a factor we had to consider or incorporate.

  4. Thank you all for your comments. This post came from a place of embarrassment of how I used to be and so to see that others agree makes me feel less embarrassed and more elated that i had the realization to change. The students are excited in my room now because they fully realize that it is theirs. In fact, just Friday I was discussing with them ideas for how they would create a huge presentation of or our re-inventing the classics year-long project. It is a win-win situation since I hate to make displays and students then get ownership. The student-centered classroom has really become my mantra for the year and something that I will be continuing to push and explore. i don't want to take center stage anymore, I want to be a true facilitator, an equal participant when possible, rather than the center of attention.

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