Goodbye, Teacher Desk
This is the first year in my five years as a special education teacher that I haven’t had to share a classroom with another teacher or band instruments, which had priority seating in a class one year. What that means for me is the chance to set up the room in the way that I believe will help students learn the most, which means the space has to be 100% student-centered. If we as teachers want students to take ownership of their education, they have to first take ownership of their learning space.
Some smaller things that will never have a place in my classroom are inspirational posters. At no point in time has a student ever looked at a poster of a monkey hanging from a tree with the phrase “Hang on in there” and thought to themselves, ‘Hey, you know, I was going to turn in this paper as it is, but I think I can do a little more editing. It’s what the monkey would want.’ Some corny companies have probably sent millions off those posters, but they do nothing but take up wall space that could be covered with student work. If students can’t see themselves on the wall of their classroom, how can they see themselves as members of the class? At that point they’re just occupants of a room for a specified period of time.
I’m also getting rid of any teacher desks in the space. Teacher desks are old and clunky and take up valuable space that could be used by students. What’s amazing is that if you look at a teacher desk, it doesn’t just take up the space the four legs reach. There’s most likely a huge space behind the desk for the teacher to sit and grade papers and check email. There’s also a huge invisible barrier around the desk that students know not to get near. Students, at least middle schoolers, who have to sit next to the teacher desk are the “bad” students who must be punished by being in close proximity to the teacher. That means that all other kids try to sit away from the teacher desk. In my opinion, the only place teacher desks have right now is in movies that show the stereotypical picture of what school is supposed to be.
Another element of the teacher desk I don’t like is that it screams to the kids, “This is my space.” Sometimes it can also say, “This may be our space, but my space needs to be more comfortable than yours.” Is there any better symbol of this than those executive teacher chairs with the pleather covering that leans back fifteen degrees?
Not having a teacher desk also cuts down on clutter. When I’ve had a desk, it’s been a dumping ground for unused papers, random pens, and anything else that seems like a good idea to save. What happens at the end of each year is the excess papers get recycled, the pens and pencils are long gone, and the salad that got forgotten about gets donated to the science department.
Last year my wife changed how her teacher desk was used in her third-grade classroom. She took her stacks of paper and other stuff off of the desk and opened it up to students. Sometimes there would be one student working there, sometimes a group working collaboratively. She said the desk became a special space for students to work at, their own “office,” and they would lay out their work and fill the drawers with their own pens and pencils. The quality of work they produced improved and all students felt like they owned a piece of the desk, taking away the stigma of going to the “teacher’s desk.” This year she’s at a school where her entire team got rid of their teacher desks.
When another teacher asked me where I was going to work, I thought about the layout of my room. I can work anywhere in the room that would be comfortable, whether it’s at a roundtable with other students, on a beanbag if I have to read something, or the library, a great public place in the school where the kids can see their teacher working and talk to them. Unfortunately it takes out the mystique of the teacher closing their door during planning to crank out mysterious lessons. My hope is this year that my students can come up to me in the library, ask me what I’m working on, and we can bounce ideas off each other.
And if none of those options work for me on a given day, I have enough options in my room to get creative and find a space that works for me, which is the same expectation I have for my students. The classroom is set up in a way that is fluid enough for tables, chairs, and other objects to be moved as the kids find out what works best for them at that given time