Let me start with this:

This is not an invitation to bully anyone. This is not an invitation to gang up on teachers trying to help out in the ways they know how. No one is granting you permission to do that. But what I am asking you to do is to have a conversation with me about a current trend in teaching, especially on Teacher Instagram.

I want to have a conversation about classroom transformation and classroom aesthetic.

I’ll start by saying that we are all a part of this problem, myself included. For a while, I’ve wanted to think that I was above it, but I know I’m not. I care about making my classroom look nice, and when I first started teaching, I would do what I see many young teachers doing now. I would go out and spend my own money on cute lighting or on other unnecessary decor.

But back then, I didn’t stop to ask myself–why am I doing this? What is driving me to spend all of this money and invest all of this time? Now, though, I know better. I know there is not research to back up the notion of making your classroom look like a start-up or coffee shop. I know now that the most positive impact (in terms of the physical classroom environment) on students stems from factors like natural light, air temperature, air quality, flexibility, and and ownership. But even when people know this–even when they’ve read the research–they still don’t abide by it.

Why is that?

To me, it all comes back to worthiness and shame.

We need to start having more courageous conversations about worthiness and shame–and how these constructs impact our decision-making in schools. In some ways, Teacher Instagram has only exacerbated feelings of teacher unworthiness and shame, defining success in terms of how aesthetically pleasing you or your classroom are, as opposed to how impactful your pedagogy is.

But this can’t be traced back to any one teacher or any one influencer. This isn’t about hating on the “players”; it’s about hating on the game and the system that has allowed aesthetic to become the success metric for so many things in modern American culture. Most of all, it’s about acknowledging where we are and where we’ve been, so we can use what we know now to do better.

Far too many teachers–especially our newest ones who were born into and have come of age in an era of social media–now believe that in order to be “worthy” in the teaching profession, that they must be cute and that their classrooms must be aesthetically pleasing. It’s hard for me to fully understand or analyze misogyny as a male, but I imagine there is some sort of correlation between the way society expects women to care about aesthetic and the pressures on a female-dominated profession to prioritize aesthetic in their daily lives. (If you have thoughts on this, please tell me in the comments.)

But it doesn’t stop there.

There are more than just these socio-cultural issues at play. We must talk a bit more about the socio-economic context within which this classroom design craze is situated, and how the negative impacts of classroom transformation far outweigh the good intentions of the upper-middle class (predominantly white) teachers that can afford to enact them.

A lot of teachers who promulgate classroom transformation practices will say things like, “But my intentions are good. I’m just trying to make these spaces fun for the kids in them.” Or they will say, “You do you. Your choice to design your classroom how you want is up to you, and it doesn’t impact anyone else.”

But that’s where they’re wrong. It’s naive and reductive to think that the choices you make in your classroom don’t impact anyone else. We are all a part of the collective cultures of our schools, and as a result, all of the decisions we make have ripple effects–from the topics we choose to teach, to the books we choose to read, and to the way we choose to decorate our classrooms.

When certain teachers leverage their financial privilege and over-decorate their classrooms, it inadvertently creates a hierarchy between teachers. Suddenly, one of the teachers becomes more desirable than the others, and in some cases, students might even ask the teachers why one classroom gets the bells and whistles, while their classroom doesn’t. This puts the teacher in an uncomfortable and unfair position, having to come up with an explanation for why they are not able to provide that same experience for their students.

But it also has a negative impact on the children, too. When we provide drastically different experiences and environments to different kids, we send them the implicit message that they are not worthy of these seemingly higher-quality experiences. They begin to think they are in the boring class, or that for some reason, they were paired with a lesser teacher because they, themselves, are lesser.

In the end, it all comes back to impact.

The craze with classroom design and transformation only exacerbates already existing structural inequities within our schools. Student experience in schools is drastically impacted by financial privilege–whether it’s due to how property taxes affect school funding or how certain children come to school with different sets of skills depending on financial privileges.

The decisions we make in our classrooms should be very actively working to dismantle privilege. They should not be exacerbating privilege and structural inequity. And I fear that classroom transformations are doing just that.

There is a great deal of privilege in statements like “Let me do me, and you do you.” or “I have good intentions.” It’s code for:

“I’m sidestepping the hard work of unpacking my privilege because it makes me uncomfortable.”

We must move beyond good intentions and instead move towards better decision-making that allows us to assess the impact of our decisions on our students and our collective school cultures.

Further, we must redefine the way we measure success both in real life and on social media. We cannot be defining our success as pedagogues in terms of the number of likes, the number of followers, or the degree to which our classroom aesthetic garners attention and adoration from a slew of strangers drowning in privilege. We need to think more critically about the collective and the role we play in it as digital citizens.

When all is said and done, it can’t just be about “you doing you” or “me doing me.” It has to be about teachers supporting one another and the health of the collective culture of the school. We won’t achieve that by making our classrooms look cute or competing with one another for aesthetic adoration. We’ll achieve this mutual support by having courageous conversations, by calling privilege out when we see it, and mindfully reforming our definitions of success as modern teachers.

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Comments? Questions? Disagreements? Additions?

Please comment below. I’d love to hear from you. These and more ideas will be available in my book, Reclaiming Personalized Learning, which comes out October 1st!

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7 thoughts

  1. Thanks for your share. My perspective has always been the education of my students. That’s the focus. That’s my direction. Have they mastered the basics so higher leveled lessons, creative lessons, they can focus with understanding? Understanding is the key. If they can think for themselves, solve problems, but also read with clarity and their own ideas, then I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. If they have strong basics, learn, and look beyond just what’s in front of them, even have goals both long and short-term, curious about planets and careers and such, then they will pass tests, but also reach beyond what I teach. Whatever I place on walls, decor or otherwise, often with student creativity, works towards improvements.

  2. Yes! I constantly feel like a garbage teacher even after 18 years that I don’t have a theme like ‘farmhouse chic’. I don’t have a fancy theme I change from year to year or season to season. Sometimes I just don’t have the money after I am spending so much money just to outfit my classroom with basic furniture. And I don’t feel comfortable doing a ‘grant’ for crowdfunding, because the ‘crowd’ just ends up being my immediate family, who feels sorry for me. Therefore, I don’t have flexible seating, either. Someday we will fund our schools equally, new and old, rich and poor, to level the playing field.

  3. I have utilized a variety of methods and classroom decor, not to mention lesson variety and research. It seems it always comes down to me and the class. If I’m ready, do all I can to teach, seems the classroom could disappear, and the students would even provide much materials from things they find around the house. However, I’m sure it’s different from place to place.

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