The night before I met my first group of students, I was at school in a panic. Not because I was about to actually be a teacher. Not because I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. All true, however, my panic was from the feeling that my classroom didn’t look cute. It didn’t look lived in. It didn’t look inviting. So at 9 PM, the night before school started, I was in the hallway ripping down my welcome bulletin board, furiously folding party hats to create a new 3-d one that would live up to what I thought everybody was expecting. By 11 PM I went home, exhausted (did I mention I was pregnant with my first child) and still feeling completely inadequate. My room would never live up to all the other cute rooms I saw around my school. And I felt like I was doomed to fail as a teacher from the beginning.
It turns out my experience was not unique, nor dated. 7 years later, I get contacted a lot asking what to do with these feelings of inadequacy. What to do when we feel our room does not live up to what the supposed expectation of elementary classrooms is. But it is not the pressure from seeing our colleagues rooms anymore that drives us into panic. It is Pinterest, the internet, blogs that shows decorated classrooms that I will never be able to replicate. And so these new teachers ask for validation, ask whether their rooms are enough. They fear posting pictures of their room because they don’t feel they are ready. They wonder if they can be effective teachers without a “pretty” room. Our fear of inadequacy spurred on by an internet movement of cute.
I advocate for giving the room back to students. This does not work well with having a completed room on the first day of school. My walls are not very decorated. There are no chevron stripes (I do love chevron though), no fancy displays, no motivational posters. The walls are bare, the chairs and tables in pods, the room is functional but probably not super inviting. I do the inviting on the first day by placing myself in the hallway, big smile on my face, and then I ask students to become a part of the room. To move the tables. To create displays. To set the rules, to tell me what works and what doesn’t. And so then it becomes our room, but I cannot achieve that before the first day of school.
Why is this so important to me? Because for too long we have invited students into our rooms. We have let them visit. And yes, I know that our rooms are our home away from home. That we need to feel comfortable in them as well. That our personality should show through. But I feel like it sometimes goes too far, That we overdecorate, we overdo, and it leaves no rooms for students to be a part of it. They continue on as visitors in our beautiful rooms and their engagement shows it.
Now, this is not to say that having a nice looking room is a bad thing. I think there is a balance between decorating your classroom and focusing too much on it. I see some pictures and I cringe because although they look beautiful, there is no room to make a mess. There is no room to be creative because all decisions have already been made. And as the mother of a boy, I wonder how welcome he would feel in a room full of polka dots and pinks?
So I am here to say to all you new teachers, or old ones like me that need to hear it too; your classroom does not have to be Pinterest worthy to be effective. It does not have to have everything figured out, everything in its permanent place. It does not have to have all of those things we see in other classrooms, because we are not other people. We do not have the same stuff they do, we do not have the same personalities. Make your classroom work for you, allow yourself to not get hung up on how cute it is, how inviting it is. Focus on creating a community that invites all children to be stakeholders. Don’t feel you need to spend so much money decorating, find a balance, allow yourself to stop. If we really want to build a community with our students, nothing says “I trust you” in the beginning than giving the room back to them. And you can’t do that if every decorating decision has already been made. You cannot say “this is your room too” if you are clearly in charge of everything.
I am a passionate teacher in Wisconsin, USA, who has taught 4, 5th, and 7th grade. Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day. First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” can be purchased now from Powerful Learning Press. Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” can be pre-ordered from Corwin Press now. Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.