LEARN NC

I was fortunate enough to have my own classroom during my first year of teaching. My school building was too small to provide every faculty member that luxury. Some colleagues taught in a different room every period, using carts to transport their materials. Others at neighboring schools settled into trailers that had been rented to handle an unexpected increase in the number of students enrolled.

I was grateful, but had no time to dwell on my good fortune. Students were coming in less than a week and I needed to focus on developing my course materials and management systems. I had a minimal amount of time to set up a physical classroom. Still, I knew my students would benefit from a positive environment. The previous history teacher had been kind enough to leave pictures to decorate the wall space, but those images did not create the atmosphere we needed. Every portrait displayed the head of a white male who had been a “Creator of Your Country!!!” There were no pictures of women, ethnic minorities or anyone under the age of fifty. Would my students feel a sense of belonging and engagement in a classroom like this?

I quickly replaced the pictures with a more diverse array of images and began moving desks, adding plants and organizing the board space. I created folders for students, a filing system for my materials and hung a “welcome” sign on the door. I thought I had covered the basics. I didn’t discover the infamous “guillotine window” until a few weeks later when it slid shut forcefully and unexpectedly, nearly removing the arm of a student. I didn’t learn that the carpet would be soaked after every rainstorm until I had ruined the teacher’s edition of our textbook by leaving it on the floor near my desk.

My point? If you’re a new teacher, one of your first jobs will be to set up your classroom. You’ll want to do it quickly so you can focus on other aspects of teaching, but you want to do it well so that it becomes an environment in which your students can learn. There will be some hurdles that you cannot anticipate — guillotine windows for example. But if you talk to teachers in your building about classroom issues that might affect you and your students — and follow these practical tips, you can save time, frustration and money as you begin a new year.

Twelve rules

Consider the following before you start setting up your classroom.

1. Check school policies

Before designing your classroom, ask if there are any school policies that affect classroom displays. Some principals require you to post daily objectives. Many schools have fire policies that prohibit hanging paper signs on the door.

2. Plan for inspiration

Use a portion of your space to inspire students. This could mean hanging engaging posters about content or attitude. Or if you are planning to display student work, post a sign above the area that says “ALL of my students are capable of excellence. These really showed it on a recent assignment!” Make sure you print letters large enough for students to read!)

3. Save plenty of space for information

If you need students to access certain types of information daily, create a consistent space for them to find it. For example, you could post permanent signs at the front of the room that say “Objectives,” “Warm Up Activity,” and “Homework” and use the area near these signs to provide details about each. Also have a space where the date is consistently posted, and make sure your name is posted at the beginning of the year.

I also recommend having a section of the room devoted to students who have been absent. If you decide to do this:

  • Label the space clearly. I have a sign that simply asks “Were you absent?”
  • Hang a calendar nearby to help students identify the day of school they missed.
  • Use a small filing cabinet to house an activity log (listing the work completed each day) and blank copies of all assignments (labeled with titles matching those in the activity log)

After you introduce students to the space, they become responsible for identifying days they miss, checking the log for work completed on those days, gathering the blank assignments, completing the work and submitting it to you.

4. Protect what you post

If you’re going to display any poster in your classroom for more than a month — or want to use a temporary poster again next year — laminate it before you hang it on your wall. Otherwise, you’ll need to recreate it after it is tattered and torn. Many of your schools will have laminating machines. If they don’t, other teachers will be able to tell you where the service is provided in your area. Make sure you check the school limits on use or prices at stores before making final decisions about what to laminate!

5. Make it stick

Ask other teachers in your building what adhesives work on the school walls. I once spent hours creating a display only to find it on the floor of my room the next day. Tape works on some walls. Others require putty. I have heard that hot glue guns work on the concrete walls in many schools. Finally, you can nail things into the walls. The nails are especially good for holding clipboards (if you want to clip a sign in sheet near your door) and bathroom passes (if you use anything larger than a paper pass).

6. Leave space for colleagues

Leave space for other teachers who use the room. If you have your own classroom, but other teachers use it during your planning period or after school, leave them a drawer in your filing cabinet and sections of the board and wall. Have a conversation about what else they might need. This is important in order to preserve both your materials and your relationship with colleagues.

If you are a traveling teacher, initiate a conversation about space sharing with teachers you encounter in those travels. Get a copy of keys for each room in which you’ll be teaching and ask the administration if there is a quiet corner where you can have a desk and filing cabinet that is all your own.

7. Arrange desks thoughtfully

Consider your teaching style, management style and the needs of other teachers using the room when arranging the desks. You may decide to use rows, clusters, a circle or some other configuration. Design with a purpose in mind!

8. Lock it up

Have at least one small closet or drawer in your classroom that can be locked, even if you have to add a small lock yourself. You’ll need this area for confidential files and personal items.

Learning this lesson cost me one camera and some priceless pictures on the roll of film inside it. It cost another teacher her grade book the week before our grades were due.

9. Be cheap

Save money on supplies! Ask a colleague what supplies are provided, how you can get them and if teachers are given a certain amount to spend on their classroom each year. If there are things you need to buy on your own, ask retailers if they have discounts for teachers. Office Max, Staples and Barnes and Noble all offer reduced prices on classroom supplies, and other stores in your area might too. For most, you will need evidence of your educator status — a school ID badge, union card or pay stub will work. Finally, save all of your receipts. If your school offers money later, you could be reimbursed for purchases if you still have the paperwork. Those receipts also help during tax season since purchases for work are tax-deductible.

10. Keep track of textbooks

Number your textbooks and create a system for loaning books out to students who forget theirs. Students have to pay up to $60 for lost books, so you don’t want any confusion about which book they had or whether it was returned to you. Track which books are assigned to each student by noting each student’s book number next to his or her name in your grade book. Create labels with your name and room number to place on every textbook so that lost books can be returned to you.

Also, decide whether you are willing to lend books to students who do not bring their own copy to class. If you do loan books, track them with a sign out sheet — I’ve created a sample textbook sign out sheet that you can use as a template. Finally, if you can, wait a few days to distribute the books. Students transfer in and out of classes at the beginning of the year, and when a student leaves, textbooks can disappear.

11. Prepare for emergencies (but don’t create them)

Locate the emergency call button in your room and learn how to use the intercom system. You don’t want to accidentally signify an emergency when you’re trying to answer a page from the office on your first day!

12. Be ready to file

Create your own filing system. You will need places to:

  • record and store your lesson plans and resources
  • file administrative materials such as: student IEP, notes from faculty meetings, a parent contact log, discipline log, a faculty handbook, student handbook, hall passes, sub plans, pass codes (for the computers and phones), and important contact numbers.

Last word

I know it is overwhelming, but hopefully organizing your classroom now will save you time later. Doing it quickly will allow more time for developing your curriculum and management systems. Doing it effectively will create a space in which your students can thrive.