I thought taking a year off would be easier. I’ve been MIA for the past two weeks because I have been truly lost not knowing what I should be doing to busy myself July 25th forward. After 20 years of planning, cleaning, setting up and readying a classroom for 75 5th graders, I’ve been on the sidelines and trying to ignore the school supply aisles, back-to-school sales, the Target Dollar Spot, and the emails from “Teachers Pay Teachers” about their big discount sale!

Thank goodness for the people who love me! I had meals with good friends — teachers, of course! — so we could catch up on all of their things that have happened while I was busy with other stuff; my Tom flew me out to Vegas after his annual convention and I felt like a jet-setter! Nothing like the bright lights, the shows, and a little gambling to give my mind a huge distraction!

I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss it…at least a little. Not the politics, the drama, nor the discipline; I miss greeting the students on the first day, and the joy of, well, teaching! I even missed the pre-year setup, although, I must admit it was never my strongest area. The process of preparing my room’s look and feel always made me a bit anxious.

Setting up my room was always a challenge. I remember my first year of teaching. I put up a bulletin board or two, a few posters on the wall, and that was it. I had no idea what to do to make my room have that “homey” feeling. I would walk around to other classrooms and try to see what other teachers were doing to create a comfy environment for learning and then take those ideas and apply them to my own classroom. In fact, I never stopped doing that. I love going into other teachers’ classrooms to see the unique imprint that each of them places on their learning environment. Many teachers have a real gift and talent for that.

I am in awe of so many of the “classroom reveals” I see on Instagram. I follow different teacher hashtags and so everyone that uses that hashtag shows up in my feed. It’s amazing the effort and color coordination that some teachers put into having a classroom ready on the first day — I can’t help but wonder if some of these teachers’ homes are as color-coordinated as their classrooms. They are incredible; I’m sure many students have their minds blown walking into a classroom so organized and beautiful! Personally, I don’t remember any of my teachers from my youth putting forth so much coordinated effort on our classrooms. What I DO remember is that the best classrooms and the best teachers were organized and utilized systems to manage and keep order in the classroom. No special equipment, décor, or lighting necessary!

This could be the cozy living room in someone’s home, instead it’s a great place to read on a rainy school day!

I think the Pinterest-inspired classroom is a beautiful way for teachers to express their talents and love for building a safe, welcoming environment. However, I look at that classroom that I’ve randomly picked from IG and several questions come to mind:

  1. What did this person spend on this small portion of their classroom? I guess it all could have been donated, and the teacher could have done the sewing herself…but even so, there is lots of money in this photo. The lighting required money. The rug. Those benches. As a teacher who spent most of her career as a single-mom, no way could I have dropped several hundred dollars on my classroom when my kid needed new shoes, school supplies, or even a little Mommy/daughter time. It looks great, but this is a disservice for teachers to post these types of classrooms and for so many other teachers look at it and think that it’s the “standard” we should try to attain. It isn’t — more importantly, don’t ever believe that your class has to look like this in order for you to be a good teacher.
  2. What will this classroom look like when the “Winter Break” rolls around? You know that a classroom can look perfect without the kids…same as your house! When my students would leave EVERY afternoon, I would walk through and pick up pencils, stray caps from glue sticks, and library books. I would then go around with wipes and wipe down smears and sticky from every surface. Then, if something made of cloth needed to be repaired, I assessed it and triaged it: trash, tape, glue, or my mom. If there’s something unraveling, you can bet the kids will pull on it. If the stuffing peeks out, they will pull on it. They can’t help it. They’re kids!
  3. Does this classroom setup improve the relationship between the teacher and students? In my experience, students need to feel part of the process in order to have buy-in. In other words, just making it look pretty, doesn’t mean they’ll respect it or work harder for it. Instead, create areas for student-inspired work and allow them to have ownership. My favorite way to kick off the year was to discuss community and to discuss what should and shouldn’t be part of our learning community. I would have the students create a paper-bag community that we would hot glue up on the wall to remind us throughout the year of the community that we were building. These items were purchased at the Dollar Tree! I didn’t need a “Donors Choose” account, a special grant, or a winning lottery ticket! Then, as the seasons changed, the students would create decorations to show how the seasons changed in our community as well, such as snowflakes in winter. Yes, this took part of a class period. Sadly, I didn’t do this as much in the later years because the pressure to teach content — all those standards — began to take over the Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) that I had built into my classroom. My realization: the less I was able to focus on building classroom community, the more issues I had with discipline and respect.

My point is this: when did we become so obsessed with special themes and designs for our classrooms? Does it make us better teachers? What does it say to teachers with very little means other than the “start up” pittance that we give new teachers? I know how I felt after seeing these classroom and began comparing my classroom to what I saw on Pinterest. I felt inferior!!! Yes, a successful teacher with years of classroom experience felt inferior because my classroom didn’t measure up to what I saw on social media. I thought that I must be missing out on the next great thing in the “teaching world” and my classroom needed to be just as cute as all of the “new” teachers’ rooms. I began spending hours searching the internet for ideas within my means and abilities that would make my class Pinterest-worthy too. I called my mom (because I have NO sewing ability) and emailed her photos of curtains that I thought would be inexpensive and easy. They required very little sewing, but lots of cute and coordinated fabrics. I hopped on over to JoAnn Fabrics and $60 later, I’m walking out with fabric, ribbon, Velcro, and whatever else I thought I might need to create the cutest curtains!

These are similar to the DIY curtains my mom and I created for open storage spaces in my classroom.

To shorten this story, my mother spent many hours cutting strips of fabric, and we spent hours in the classroom putting them together. They were indeed adorable (and still are — see the photo of me at the top: I circled them behind me). They provided a cute cover-up for some open spaces and I appreciated finding a fun project for my mom and me to work on. We did have some issues with actually getting them to stay up, but I found that giant thumbtacks can hold some weight! These curtains, though adorable, span only four feet total with a cost of $60 and nearly eight hours of work! My plans to span the windows across the back of the classroom were immediately abandoned.

I wonder, though, did the money, time, and effort put into these curtains have a payoff in the classroom? We were (and still are) a “Restorative Practices” school; creating a space in our classrooms called a “Peace Corner” was required. I always had a place in my classroom for students to cool-down, work alone, or just isolate themselves from others. (We all have times where we need to be alone and need space, especially in middle school!) Mine consisted of a desk and a think chart that usually focused on identifying feelings. Students were still expected to work, even isolated. But a “Peace Corner” goes way beyond that…they vary from room to room, but usually involve some sort of carpet, pillows, comfy cushions, fidget toys, and a chart to help students identify feelings. Soft lighting is also encouraged. To our administrators’ credit, they worked hard to find items in the community to supply to teachers, so that there was little cost. They even purchased inexpensive type fidget toys and coloring books to give students something to do as they calmed down. However, I know teachers who did go out and purchase items to make this the cutest little area for our kids who were feeling out of control. Most of these were destroyed by the end of the school year. This is way over the top and out of a classroom teachers’ scope of responsibility. Again, we are asking our teachers to give more…as they receive less and less. I can’t imagine what it was like for a teacher in a school where they were told it was a mandate, and then given no support to implement it. My curtains were soft and pretty, and I did them to fall in line making my “Peace Corner” unique, calming and enjoyable. Looking back, I’m not so sure any student noticed.

If you are the type of person that this all comes naturally for you, I’m so envious! Go for it and decorate up! Make that classroom an incredible place for your students to visit and learn. But for those of you (I include myself in this!) that have to work really hard at creating an engaging bulletin board, it’s okay if your classroom isn’t ready for social media. Your classroom should be ready for your kids and organized at a level that works for you and for them! Quit the comparison! You are enough! Be yourself and share pieces of who you are in your décor! That is what you need to kick off a successful classroom and school year! A few lamps and a throw rug or two, along with your own system of organization should be enough to kick off the school year. Better still, allow your students to guide you. When you allow your students to take part in creating the classroom, they will have more respect for it. Make the time to let them feel a part of your room.

If you are struggling to live up to something you see on social media, just remember “comparison is the thief of joy” and different is ok! Sharing pieces of yourself with your students (and that includes your sense of style) will make them feel more connected to you. I would love to know more about the teachers reading this blog, so share your classroom photos with me! Pinterest-worthy or not, you are all doing amazing things in that space and I’d love to see what is happening in your classroom!

On a personal note, I’m still in search of a new fit and a new design for my daily life outside of the classroom. The renovations on our Florida home are coming along and I’m even planning to do a bit of subbing in some local classrooms! I still love visiting in other teachers’ classrooms, and I may have things to share in the near future.

Coming at you from a rainy day in Florida….