The Classroom Decor Dilemma

Have you started checking out Pinterest for ideas on how to decorate your classroom this year?

We all want a good looking classroom.  I know.  Really, I do!  However, I’m going to suggest something that might make you feel a bit anxious:  don’t sweat it!

Seriously, think about how you feel when you spend lots of time and energy and, yes, money on having the best decorated classroom.  Now think about how you feel if the students mess it up, or, worse, ruin something.  Pretty awful, isn’t it?

Think about why kids may not show appreciation for all the hours you’ve spent on having a lovely classroom.  I often hear teachers blaming parents or children who “have no respect”.  I’d like to suggest another reason:  Students don’t necessarily value the time you’ve spent on décor, because you have spent the time on décor.

Let me put that in terms of another of Roe’s Rules:  the person(s) who put the most work into the room, have the most appreciation for that work.

It used to infuriate me when kids would mark up a lovely poster I put by the pencil sharpener, or when they would ignore a beautifully composed bulletin board.  One day I thought, to heck with it (using a more adult idiom), I’m just going to let the kids do it.  I was busy, after all, planning lessons, taking a class, and being a single mom. 

I took down that lovely bulletin board and left it blank.  When the students completed some work, I had the students put some of it up.  I didn’t spend time making a brilliant anchor chart,  we completed one together, and we put it up. 

Soon we had a room “decorated” with the work the students had done, and anchor charts cataloging the skills we were learning.  And before long, I noticed my stress level had gone down a bit.  I wasn’t constantly feeling under-appreciated.

That’s all well and good, but let’s face it, there are a lot of pressures on teachers to have a well-decorated room.  We also know that those pressures can lead to stress and burn-out! So what can we do about it?

Head, Face, Stress, Flame, Burn, Fire, Old, Voltage

Let’s look at some of the pressures we put on ourselves regarding room decor and what we can do about it.

What will parents think of me?
If your school has a back-to-school night, you might worry that parents seeing a bare room will think less of you.  Here are some ideas on how to cope with that.

  • Have a well-organized room and label where everything is.
  • On the bulletin board, put a sign that says “watch this space for how we are learning”, or something similar.
  • Put up a display of things the students did last year – photos of the room or of children working (blot out faces) – with a note about how “we learned so much last year!” or “Some of the wonderful things we look forward to learning.”

Students will worry that I won’t be any fun!
One of the best ideas for the first day of school, besides teaching procedures, is to show students what they will be doing and learning this year.  Make it seem like the very best movie trailers, or make it a show of “coming attractions”.  Your attitude and enthusiasm will show them that they have nothing to worry about.

What will other teachers think of me?
Let’s face it:  teachers can help other teachers have unrealistic ideas on what they should do.  They can be a serious source of peer pressure!  Stand firm and say something like:

  • I am so excited about showcasing the students’ work this year!
  • I decided to take one bit of stress off my plate.
  • I want to make it our classroom this year.
  • Wow, your room looks terrific!  You must have spent a lot of your summer planning lessons.  I guess I was not that organized. 
  • I’m spending my time now planning really terrific units.

The principal will look sideways at me!
Explain to the principal:

  • Students have not been as appreciative of your decorating efforts in the past and it led you to feel a bit of resentment for them. 
  • You want to have a truly student-centered classroom this year and having the students help with the décor is the first step.
  • You want a pleasant room, yes, and you want to spend more time planning really effective lessons this year.
  • Research has shown that classroom walls that are too cluttered interfere with student learning — see Association for Psychological Science and Carnegie Mellon University 

Stress leads to burn-out and burn-out leads to a whole lot of awful things that happen to our bodies and our souls. Quitting teaching is the least of it! We can remove some of those stressors!

Map, Learn, School, Courage, Training, Skills, Teaching

Remember, effective teachers do not spend their time making the classroom look like it should appear on the cover of Better Schools and Classrooms, even if there was such a publication.  Effective teachers plan for effective classroom management and effective instruction. 

And to be the most effective, we have to set some of those stressors aside!

Planning for THAT Student

The Fourth of July always seems to mark when I start thinking about school again.  I take a walk and see an unusual stone and pick it up for the classroom.  A friend starts to throw out something and I snag it thinking I can use it for this or that.  I’m sure you have had similar experiences.

It is also time when we start thinking about the students we will have in the coming year.  We look forward to getting to know new students to the grade.  As pleasant as that can be, we worry a bit about THAT student, the one we’ve heard so much about, or have had in class before.  Thinking about THAT student can tie our stomachs in knots.

The teachers I know report that the number of challenging students has changed, and the kind of behavior these students demonstrate has become more violent.

Articles about the nation’s schools seem to indicate that the number of students with behavior problems has not actually increased, but that the intensity of their behavior has. 

What can teachers do now to have a better 2019-2020 school year?

The first step to find a way to make ourselves think about THAT student’s behavior in a different way.  Every time a student acts out, she is sending a message.  We must think like detectives to decode the message.  We cannot just conclude the behavior stems from some fundamental core of “bad child”. 

The fact is that less than 1% of the whole population can be considered psychopaths, people who do not have that little voice inside their heads telling them what they are doing is right or wrong, people who can be considered “bad” in their souls.  This means that the student who throws a temper tantrum, who swears at the teacher, who flinches when someone comes near them, or who seems to over-react to the simplest thing is not bad.  They are not trying to get on your last nerve.  They are sending you a message.

This is where we have to start looking at patterns. 

Some are easier to see than others.  The child who has to use the bathroom the minute the class is supposed to work on math is likely trying to avoid math.

Other patterns are a bit more difficult to decipher.

There is much being written lately about the effects of childhood trauma or exposure to trauma.  These students may have short tempers, meltdown easily, or be unable to switch smoothly from one task to another. 

Children who experience trauma have classroom difficulties in five main areas:  forming bonds with others, hypervigilance, negative thinking, issues with self-regulation, and with executive function.

Forming bonds with others
Clues we can expect to see are:

  • Being wary of adults
  • Suspecting adults have an ulterior motive for being nice to them
  • Not knowing how to make friends with other children
  • Being “clingy” with children and/or adults

Hypervigilance
Hypervigilance is defined as being extremely alert for possible danger.  Children who are hypervigilant may give these clues:

  • Flinching when someone comes too close
  • Requiring more personal space than other children
  • Positioning himself on the edge of a group
  • Jumping or startling in situations that do not seem to require that reaction
  • Consistently expressing that this child or that is out to “get” her

Negative Thinking
Negative thinking is, in essence, seeing the world as a glass half-empty.  They have been led to believe they are “bad kids” and bad kids just don’t do well in school, or in life.  Clues about negative thinking may be:

  • Figuring that adults or children are thinking poorly about them
  • Being a perfectionist, or giving up because he cannot understand something or do something quickly enough.
  • Believing the teacher’s behavior towards them has negative intent.  For example, the teacher says, “Sit down,” but the child hears the teacher as if he has hollered the same words.
  • They melt-down or over-react to making mistakes.  They may attempt to hide those mistakes or say the assignment is stupid and not worth the effort.

Self-regulation
Self-regulation is the ability to wait to have one’s needs met.  It can also be the ability to calm one’s self when one is feeling “big emotions”.  Clues to watch for include:

  • Attention-seeking behavior
  • Negative behavior that happens when the teacher’s attention is focused on another student.
  • Negative behavior that happens when a peer’s attention is focused on someone else.
  • Being easily angered, easily frustrated, easily reduced to tears
  • Having to be first, first in line, first to be called on, first to be noticed.

Issues with executive function
“Executive function” is a bit like the role of a company’s CEO.  She is the one that plans, organizes, and choses the company’s direction.  Our brain’s executive function includes our ability plan, organize, pay attention, switch from on task to another, and makes choices about what to do now and what to do later.  Clues that a student has difficulty with executive function include

  • Difficulties with organizing his desk, his locker, his backpack
  • Appearing to fiddle around with things instead of getting right to work
  • Appearing angry, overwhelmed, or lost when it is time to transition from this task to another
  • Confusion about what to do first, second, next
  • Taking forever to complete a task
  • Giving up easily
  • Seeming to lose papers, pencils, books, and not being able to locate them even when they are in plain sight

Students’ behavior tells us things about what is going on inside their immature brains.  Situations that would not test an adult’s ability to function are already challenging to children.  (Remember, the brain does not really reach maturity until it is 25 plus years old!)  Those students who have experienced trauma find getting though the school day to be even more difficult than their peers do.  Their behavior may seem naughty, irresponsible, or downright mean, but it is really the child telling us she is having difficulties in the only ways she knows how.

Teachers can do some things that other professionals cannot do as easily.  They can try to teach students a different set of behaviors.  They can demonstrate that adults can be trustworthy and positive role models.  They can show kids they find something endearing about them even if they do not like all of the child’s behaviors.

Now is the time to think about THAT student’s behavior. Try thinking about the things THAT student does as messages, rather than malicious.