If you haven’t already, you soon will be back in your classroom getting things ready for the new school year. A lot goes on before you even see a single student. Unless you are a teacher, you are unaware (sure you may know, but you just don’t know) how much work goes into setting up a classroom when it’s ALL been packed away for a few months. In fact, that is the wake-up call that summer break is nearing its end - when you walk in that empty-ish room and it hits you that YOU will be putting it all back together.
If this is your first year of teaching and you’re setting up your classroom for the first time, you’ve got a blank slate. Which can be nice, but also like being stranded on a desert island and all you want is a stapler. Or maybe that was just me. I just wanted a stapler. But I couldn’t get to it because the desk drawer it was in was swollen shut - yes, it was a very old wooden desk. It’s a very long story that I don’t know if I’ve shared on here (yet) but it involves at least five filing cabinets and the California Raisins.
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But that’s for another time, because before you can feel ready to teach, you have to have your space ready for the kids. I know that social media has given you lots of ideas for what you “need” - and I use need loosely because, let’s face it, social media is trying to get you to buy, buy, buy. And feel, feel, feel - unfortunately, it can start to make you feel like you can’t compete with all the colors and organization. I’ve felt that way, too. What initially began with Pinterest (how old am I that I remember when Pinterest came out - amazingly, my first years of teaching we survived without it) sharing ideas and learning new things has become marketing mania. You are being sold to, just like ads in a magazine.
Before we get started, I feel I’ve got to emphasize this because classroom set up - effective classroom set up - has NOTHING to do with looks. Yes, you need to have your students feel welcomed and stimulated to learn and feel like you are just as "extra" as the teacher down the hall.
But fast forward a month from now, when the kids are in front of you and you’ve got papers to grade and things to teach - the aesthetics will not matter as much - if at all. It’s going to be "trench time," down in the trenches teaching. And all the color coordinating in the world can’t save you if you don’t have a functional space.
So that’s what I’m going to talk about with you today - what you need to do in your classroom set up to make it functional and support learning. You can make it pretty AFTER you make it functional. These are the things that matter most with classroom set up for back to school.
Number one - do this if you can when you set up your classroom. For the first few days or first week of school, plan to sit the kids alphabetically.
WHAT?! NO - blasphemy! How dare I suggest such a thing. This is why though - you don’t know your class yet.
(Back up. - maybe you don’t have desks, maybe they’re at tables in your room - still ABC it. I’m coming from upper elementary land.)
Anyway - like I said, you don’t know your class and who works well with who yet. You probably would also like to avoid the disgruntled parent who tells you “Oh, my child can’t sit beside that child” on meet the teacher night. At least now, you have an out. “Thank you for letting me know, I just arranged seats alphabetically to hand out materials…”
Because that is why we do it alphabetically. You are going to have to distribute materials to each student and it will probably come to you by student last name. You save time if you have them sitting alphabetically at first so you can pass things out. They don’t have to stay this way. You will learn who is who and who can and can’t be with who fast. And if they are in rows, however that may be, it will be easy to put them into groups if that’s your end game. But start them out ABC - it works.
The next thing goes RIGHT along with setting kids alphabetically, because you are going to number everything in your room when you do your classroom set up. Yes. Each kid is getting a number based on their last name.
You can wait to assign numbers until you have a finalized class list, but this is another classroom management hack that will save you time and frustration. That number is going to save you from having to write or type out labels with names. If you number things like cubbies or plastic boxes, you can reuse them year after year (I mean, wipe them out, clean them up first). Every kid has a number, every number has a space, like for their chrome books, or iPads, or their clips for lunch count. Numbers also work well if you need to call roll quickly - start at zero, and then have the kids call out their numbers in order.
So far, we've got ABC, 123. To go along with that, you need a crate. Like a plastic crate, and you may want more than one depending on how many classes you have.
This is a fast and relatively cheap way to have a system for collecting work or storing assignments and papers. You are going to put hanging files in this crate, and each hanging file is going to have a number that belongs to a student. And that is where they will put their work, assignments, packets, whatever you choose to use it for. These crates need to be in locations in your room where the students can easily access them without having to ask you “where do I put this?”
So now we’ve got ABC, 123, crates that they can easily access.
Speaking about easy access…that’s next. When you begin your classroom set up, you’ve got to decide what you want them to have access to and what you DON”T.
Because you don’t want to always have to stop drop and get them a tissue. A band aid. A pencil. Notebook paper. A hall pass. Decide where you are going to position your “self serve” items. And when you go over rules, routines, and expectations - which, if you haven’t already, download the Great 88 - the classroom management checklist of your dreams! 88 things to go over and over! You are going to point out where these self serve items are, how you use them, when they can go get them.
As I mentioned you also have the things you DON’T want them to get into. Maybe…it’s scissors if they won’t need those everyday. Maybe it’s tape, or the books you use for mentor texts. The things you don’t want them into need to be out of sight and mind so they don’t get into them by accident and you have control over when and how they are used. I know it looks nice to display things, but if you’re not using it daily or you don’t want them to be a distraction, put them away.
Next, You need to see all the kids at all times. That was blunt. But boom. Super important.
When you are setting up your room, you need to ensure that you will always have your students in your sight. That may seem silly to think about I mean if they are in your room why wouldn’t you see them.
Your eyes stop a lot of things. And there is going to be a lot going on in your room, and you need to be able to catch and correct before it escalates. Student desks and tables should be able to be seen by you wherever you are in the room, whether if it’s in the front teaching a lesson or working with kids in a small group. This will be something you’ll need to keep in mind all year. Like if they are working on the floor - can you see them if you’re at a table? If they are in the class library, can you see everyone - think twice - I know it’s cute, but those teepees and reading nooks - the intentions to create a fun space to read are there, but you don’t want to create situation where you didn’t see an incident go down because of the spaces you created. You need to see them at all times.
And lastly, flow. Think about the pathways and flow of your room.
How are they entering/exiting? Can they do that without running into a bookcase or having a table in the way? If you do groups, can you get between the aisles? For rotations or doing small groups, how will they move from one station to the next without a traffic jam that causes you to lose time getting kids situated? It’s hard to envision this without your class there - but walking through it yourself, thinking about the number of kids that need to be in each area at a time, helps you when setting up classroom furniture and items so you spend less time doing crowd control and more time teaching.
Let recap - the most important things you need for classroom set up:
Set up students desks/table areas alphabetically at first until you know them and have distributed materials. It’s not a permanent arrangement.
Give every student a number - you can wait for a final roll - and number all the things students will use or have distributed to them…
Speaking of which, a crate with hanging files that are numbered is an effective, inexpensive way to have students organize their work or materials.
Decide what things in your room need to be easy access and what things need to be distributed by you on a case by case or lesson by lesson basis. They need to have access to things that will lessen classroom disruptions. They do not need access to all the things all the time.
And to end with - flow. Pathways and flow. Think about how the kids will move around your classroom. We want it functional and flowing.
See, this is the stuff that matters. You don’t have to have all the things that were #backtoschoolcool on social media. These are the things that will make your year run better. These are the things that will matter in October when the kids are eyeing that Halloween candy like a gold medal in the Olympics. Your flow, your routines, your organization will keep the ship upright. For more things that will help you keep you classroom moving along, grab your free checklist of The Great 88: Rules, Routines, and Expectations to Go Over and Over below. It’s made just for you to help you start the school year with confidence and peace.