I remember back to my first years teaching. I was very preoccupied by the state of my bulletin boards and the aesthetic in my classroom. I even went so far as to bring bales of hay into school to decorate for fall. Sure, it was kind of cute, and sure, it was kind of fun. But really, what was I trying to prove? What value was it adding? Not much. I doubt most of the kids from that year even remember it.

The last few days of posts and conversations have really got me thinking. How did it get this way? How did we get to a place where we idolize teachers with the best classroom aesthetic? What are the supposed functions of this success metric? What purpose does it serve in modern education?

With the help of my friends, I’ve come to a few conclusions. I’d love to hear from you, too, so please feel free to comment.

Self-Preservation

“There’s so much we can’t control,” said Molly (@okayenby) today on Instagram, “But we can control our fonts and decor.”

This was such a powerful statement today. It definitely stopped me in my tracks. I never thought of it as “self-preservation”–as a coping strategy for the lack of control that defines so many of our classrooms–until Molly said it. After all, when you’re in a classroom with so many little ones, there is so much you cannot control. It only makes sense that we would turn to the components of our classrooms that feel as though they’re within our locus of control.

Teaching is such a vulnerable profession. We are putting ourselves out there every single day in front of our kids, and no matter how hard we try, it’s really hard to hide our imperfections from our students.

It is, however, a little easier to hide our imperfections from our colleagues and our administrators when we focus on classroom aesthetic. Well, certainly if the room looks nice, we think to ourselves, others will think I have it all together. Sadly, this works for some teachers. The rosy aesthetic and the illusion of having it all together is enough for some teachers to get by.

Femininity and Sexism

I’m a little nervous to write about this one, given the fact that I identify as male. But I can’t help but wonder about the intersection of misogyny, femininity, and the focus on aesthetic in so many classrooms.

Teaching has been a female-dominated profession for quite some time, and this is largely due to a society that was built upon sexism and misogyny. Taking care of children was considered the work of women, and as a result, teaching young children became the work of women, too. In parallel, women have always been held to unrealistic expectations with regard to, shall we say, aesthetic. They still are today. Women are constantly made to believe that if they’re not aesthetically pleasing to men, that they are not enough–that they are not worthy of praise, love, and belonging.

As a result, it would seem only logical to assume that a large subset of teachers work really hard on their classroom aesthetic, perhaps to prove they are worthy of praise and belonging in their school. Some hardly work on it, and then feel ostracized for not being as aesthetically pleasing as their peers. Others don’t care either way. They manage to rise above the pressures to keep up appearances, and instead embrace the chaos and mess of being a teacher–and do it successfully.

It’s not necessarily that a cute or trendy classroom is a bad thing. Things can be color-coordinated and “cute” while still promoting strong, inclusive pedagogy. It’s possible, and I’m grateful for Erin (@erintegration) for pointing this out today. She pointed out to me that the words “cute” and “pretty” sometimes carry a feminine connotation that implies an unjust hierarchy rooted in sexism.

I’m also grateful to Kristin (@thebuzzinedu) for further clarifying my overall message of “disrupting cuteness.”

“Disrupting cuteness doesn’t have to mean eliminating cute,” Kristin says. “It means being more thoughtful and intentional of what we’re putting into our classrooms and why.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Clearly. 🙂

Capitalism

We can’t ignore the fact that all of us live in a capitalist, consumerist society. From birth, we’ve been inundated with aesthetic as a primary value of American culture. American culture has done a very good job of convincing us that we must buy all the things and keep up appearances to be happy. It’s nearly impossible to escape these messages.

It comes as no surprise, then, that these messages have seeped into our classrooms. Large corporations have done an excellent job of marketing to teachers, convincing them they need to buy all sorts of color-coordinated bins or chic faux-wood bulletin board paper. This focus on consumerism in the classroom only solidifies education’s place in the pecking order. It secures it as a tool of a capitalist society that prioritizes self-interest, competition, brand, aesthetic, and perception over collectivism, vulnerability, messiness, and humility.

This becomes even worse when we consider where the money is coming from for these aesthetically-pleasing classrooms. By and large, these upgrades are not funded by the schools or school systems themselves; they are funded by the teachers. Sure, you can make the argument that many of these teachers are simply choosing to spend their money on this decor. You can make the argument that this is their prerogative. And you’re right: it is their prerogative.

But we don’t stop to consider the ripple effects of this, we don’t stop to consider the mindlessness of this, and we don’t stop to consider why teachers feel like they need to do this in the first place. And when we see it happening, we don’t stop often enough to challenge these teachers on this. We don’t stop enough to call them in, ask them questions, and consider the implicit messages it sends to their teammates and their students when aesthetic and perfection is over-emphasized.

All in all, it’s a murky area.

I’m not trying to demonize any one who likes their space to look nice. It’s important that kids come into a space that feels organized, safe, and warm. It’s important that teachers have a certain amount of control over their space so they don’t become lost in the disarray of a disorganized or poorly designed classroom. But it’s also important that teachers spend the majority of their time and energy devoted to reaching every student in their classroom.

 

Comments? Questions? Disagreements? Additions?

How do you strike this balance? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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