The culture of cute in the classroom: readers respond

When does the pressure to have a perfect-looking classroom become a distraction from what really matters? Readers respond to the post.

I thought I’d let the dust settle a bit after my post on the pressures and distractions of “cute-ifying” the classroom. Normally I like to respond to every comment on the blog, but with nearly 100 thoughtful readers chiming in with lengthy responses, that just wasn’t possible. It made more sense to post my response here and feature some of the main points raised in the conversation.

Almost all of you who read the article agreed that my concerns were valid, including those of you who are big proponents of cute. Most readers definitely felt that this is a discussion worth having in order to make us more intentional in our teaching practices, and I really appreciate that. There’s only one argument for cute that I just can’t get behind, and I’m glad it didn’t appear in this discussion…it’s the “I like it, so leave me alone and let me do things the way I want” argument. I don’t think that kind of attitude reflects professionalism or a willingness to learn and grow as an educator. I also don’t think we can afford to base our teaching practices solely around what makes us happy; we have to base it around what’s best for kids. Saying, “I’ll do things however I feel like doing them” is never a a good rationale for a professional, not in teaching or in any other job. Decorating a classroom may be a relatively minor issue, but dismissing questions about it with “I do what I want” is a bit of a slippery slope I’m not willing to go down, and I was relieved that it didn’t happen in the post discussion.

A common thread in many of the comments was that decorating is one of the few areas in which teachers are still given some control and options for being creative. Sauni-Rae Dain wrote, “I feel like our classrooms have become unappealing to spend time in, as our noses are to the grindstone, with little fun. Adding the cute graphics and color to worksheets is a teacher’s way of rebelling against the drabness of standardized teaching and testing.” Jana agreed: “I think you’ve hit the nail on the head – there is a lot about teaching that has become ‘un-fun’, but my classroom decor is my desperate attempt to liven the atmosphere for both myself and the students.”

Tassie also felt that making her classroom look good not only brought the element of fun back into teaching, but got her excited for the fall: “I ended the school year feeling burned out for the first time in my 15 year career. I was feeling this way because of all of the Common Core being forced on us. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is a great idea but until you get going it is very overwhelming! My spark came back when I saw a pin on making Truffula trees for my classroom library. This snowballed into a Dr. Seuss themed classroom and I have had so much FUN! I love being creative, so for me this was the way to find my spark for teaching again. I didn’t spend all summer making my room ‘cute’, however, I also spend a LOT of time preparing for Common Core and studying so now I feel relaxed, prepared and ready for another 15 years!”

The commenters who enjoy “cute-ifying” the classroom were all very clear that as much as they enjoy style, they do not neglect substance in any way. In fact, having a beautiful classroom has made it easier for them to focus on student learning. Barbara stated, “Some people have a very creative side and need to create things…sewing, painting, making displays, etc. They do not feel it is stressful, it’s actually an outlet for them and can be very calming.” Shari said, “In my real life, I like my environment clean, organized, and pretty. The same goes for my school life. I spend about 9 hours a day in my classroom, most of that time with 20 – 30 other people. A place for everything is a must. Being a creative person, while at the same time having an eye for decorating, my classrooms have always been color coordinated and neat. I spend hours on my lesson planning and preparation each week, so after the initial cleaning, set up, and decorating (which takes me a couple of weeks), the rest of the year can be dedicated to the hard work of normal teacher duties.”

So is the cute for teachers or for the kids? There were mixed opinions on that. Andrea Kerr said,”Our classrooms are an extension of us. Sometimes, it’s the only thing others know about us and our teaching.” Kathy said, “To be honest, the cute is for me, it is my motivation to stay in a room that I will generally be in ten hours plus each day when classes resume. I tie my theme into the early lessons I teach to set an environmental atmosphere. Examples: last year was about team work and I had a sports theme and this year after moving down a grade, I have a construction theme to stress work and effort. I don’t over emphasize the theme after the first weeks of school but the few decorations I use are there for a gentle reminder to my students of why we need to be on task and work together to learn.” (I love that idea!)

Quite a number of commenters pointed out that students absolutely DO notice the decor. Mary said, “My kids (grades 3-5) notice every single time I hand them a worksheet that has been copied out of an older resource book rather than one I or another teacher has created. They love the color and they love the graphics. They love themed task cards, projects, and games, but they would not care if I made a themed bulletin board.” Lisa shared this: “Two years ago, I moved from first grade to sixth grade in the same district and many of my former first graders remembered my classroom and how much they loved being there….they said it was warm and welcoming, that they learned a lot and will always remember how good they felt there. That’s really what it’s about, isn’t it?”

Elementary teachers were more likely to say that cute matters to kids, but Anna shared that even her high school students appreciate the efforts she makes to spruce things up. “The one ‘cute’ thing I do… I put clip-art on tests. I teach chemistry to college-prep kids and the clip-art relates to the questions nearby — sometimes the clip-art is a clue, sometimes it’s amusing. Either way, if for some reason I don’t have time to put the clip-art on the test, kids complain. The pictures lighten the mood on an otherwise daunting test.” Melissa said, “As a special educator, I do what I can to make my materials interesting for my students, who all face learning challenges. Content is paramount, however, for some students, adding colors, themes, and images is critical to their engagement. Similarly, I find parents are more likely to read my newsletters when I make them colorful and include pictures.”

While many teachers enjoy using their free time to decorate and organize the classroom, I thought Karen raised an interesting perspective:

One point that hasn’t been discussed yet is balance…not balance between cute and not cute, but balance between work and free time with family and friends. I would rather spend my time creating a great year-long bulletin boards, meaningful graphic organizers, personalized learning activities, and then spending more time with my family. I choose not to recreate worksheets and activities to match a theme, tradebook we are reading, etc. I keep my students engaged by having them participating in the learning opportunities, not by focusing attention on cute clip art in the corner that took me a while to find/create. I try my best to be efficient and to constantly ask myself one question: Will students learn better if I ____? If the answer is no, I don’t do it. My goal is always to do what is essential at school and to do my best to spend as much time with my family as possible. Without rest, exercise, and fun, we are not able to be our best for our students…with or without cute activities. We all need a life outside of the classroom.

The good news is that making a classroom look great doesn’t have to be incredibly time consuming. Many teachers talked about using the same theme year after year, such as Melinda, who wrote, “I have had a BEE theme that I have used for 6 years, I purchase things off and on at the dollar store or yard sales, but don’t go bonkers creating the new theme each year or spending a fortune on ink cartridges so everything can match!”  Tammy pointed out a very workable solution: “The way most teachers I work with have met this challenge is to go ahead and ‘cuteify’ their rooms over the summer and leave it that way for the year. They do still display student work, which many times includes seasonal projects.” Cherrie also pointed out the value of decorating over the summer and then slowly transferring ownership to the kids during the school year: “I have worked hard in the last 2 weeks so that when we teachers return to school, my focus is on what and how I will teach. Those bulletin boards will remain blank so that they can be filled with class-created anchor charts, vocabulary, and student work. I actually find that this approach serves me well in that it satisfies my desire to decorate and be functional and meaningful.”

A few other important points were brought up:

  • Many international teachers commented that the culture of cute seems to be an American phenomenon, as classroom decoration is much more serious and focused on content in countries such as Japan and Germany.
  • A number of you pointed out that overly decorated classrooms and bright color schemes can be too stimulating for children and counter-productive for students with special needs.
  • The pressure to make classrooms look good for parents (and sometimes administrators) is also prevalent. As KT stated, “My school has parents that judge a teacher by cuteness…the room looks awesome so the teacher must be awesome.”

I’ll wrap up by sharing Kathy’s perspective, which mirrors my own. She wrote that decorating “helps me get my head around the work that is coming. I like spending time in my room thinking of how to make transitions and the flow work more effectively and the time I spend ‘decorating’, I use to evaluate my procedures and routines. I also use the time for organizing my room. After the students enter, the focus becomes the lesson planning and the students’ needs.” Until reading Kathy’s comment, I’d never fully realized that what I was doing while ‘decorating’ and therefore how meaningful (and important!) the process really is for me.

Thank you all for sharing your thoughts. I feel like I’ve learned a lot through reading your experiences, and I’ve been able to consider some perspectives that I hadn’t understood previously. Feel free to continue the conversation in the comments! Are there any other aspects of this topic we haven’t explored?

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Rebecca August 24, 2013 at 9:22 pm

I love having a cute but FUNCTIONAL classroom. The focus should always be on making your room usable and helpful for kids. I find that information/resources I want students to look at are way more appealing if they are eye-catching. And we’re in the room 7 hours (kids) to 12 hours (teachers) a day. It’s a second home and I want it to be comfortable, attractive, and above all…accessible and useful for children.

As far as cute worksheets, I’m not too big on that. Your lesson is what needs to be engaging. Not a boring worksheet dolled up with clip art. I’d rather spend time on putting together cute teaching outfits than cute worksheets :)

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2 Angela Watson August 27, 2013 at 1:12 pm

Hi, Rebecca! I agree with you that functionality is the most important thing. It’s great that what makes a room functional and comfortable can differ for each teacher and group of students.

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3 Jodi August 25, 2013 at 5:57 am

Hi Angela,
I think some folks view a well-decorated or themed classroom as a something a teacher elects to spend time on INSTEAD of focusing her attention on academics and curriculum. I have worked with countless teachers over the years who have been “cute-ifying” their rooms. My experience has been consistent with each of them. They were all teachers willing to go above and beyond the expectations. They were passionate about their classroom and their job. They were willing to invest their own time (usually those precious summer days) and money into creating the environment.

It takes a very dedicated teacher to put that much effort into the classroom and that type of teacher is also the one who will spend her days off developing lessons, attending conferences, and striving to be the best she can be…and not someone who is opting for fluff and decor over content.

I think your article did a great job of capturing that. :) Jodi

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4 Damien August 26, 2013 at 10:07 pm

I completely agree Jodi. It’s not one or the other, but a combination of both. I have a themed classroom, but if people believe my only focus is my Harry Potter themed room and not the content and students I teach they are mistaken.

It’s not a question of dinner or dessert, there is room for both.
Damien

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5 Angela Watson August 26, 2013 at 11:50 pm

Thank you both for your comments. I do agree that the teachers who take the time to decorate their classrooms are always the “above and beyond” types. I’ve never met a teacher with a gorgeous and well-organized classroom who didn’t also put a tremendous amount of effort into planning learning activities.

I do, however, know of a number of teachers who go all out in decorating and lesson planning but are not necessarily excellent teachers. I can think of one teacher in particular whose room was absolutely amazing in appearance, but the kids did (adorable) worksheets all day long and the teacher was unable to use a computer to send email. Many of the teachers I know who are into cute are also into more traditional teaching methods and unfamiliar with technology-infused lessons, project-based learning, or 21st century skills.

I suppose it’s those type of teachers that I’m thinking of when I raise the issue of style over substance. It bugs me to see some teachers spend hours and hours decorating but then claim they don’t have time to learn how to use the Smart Board. Or they’ll spend a ton of time creating cute worksheets that are basically fill in the blank/matching/lower level thinking activities instead of learning to design inquiry-based projects that will really challenge their kids. That sort of thing.

I feel like that sounds kind of judgey, and I know it doesn’t apply to all (probably not even most) teachers who are into cute. But it is a reality in some classrooms and I’m hoping to challenge that.

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6 Karen K August 25, 2013 at 8:21 am

Thanks for this. I think I missed the earlier post, so went back and read it before reading this one. I like my classroom to be bright, and cheerful, but I just can’t get into cute! In addition, it’s really hard to get hold of ready made bulletin boards in Cambodia, and they’re really expensive in Australia. Every couple of years I invest in one “bulletin board” that I can use over and over again. I have “Star Helpers” and a set of Life Skills posters. This year a colleague bought me some “borders” while he was in the US and I’ll enjoy having and using those, but it will just be within a curriculum focused environment. The rest of the classroom decoration is curriculum or life skills focussed.
On the issue of worksheets, I think that if we expect our students to produce excellent work, then we should be providing them with an excellent example in the quality of handouts or worksheets we use. That doesn’t mean they have to be “cute” with matching themes, but it does mean they need to be accurate and as professionally prepared as I’m capable of, without wasting too much time. It doesn’t take that long to format text in a kid friendly font, with lines for them to write on (instead of just a big blank space).

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7 Angela Watson August 27, 2013 at 1:14 pm

Great point about expecting kids to do excellent work, and therefore giving them excellent quality assignments. I can think of many instances in which I gave kids worksheets that had errors on them (even those provided by the textbook company!) or were just plain boring and boring looking. Not fun!

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8 Jenny August 25, 2013 at 9:33 am

I think Karen’s perspective on worksheets is really good. Nothing irritates me more than ELA worksheets with grammatical and spelling mistakes in them. But putting everything into a slightly more fun font/format is easy enough if it’ll make my students’ reactions more positive. Download 20 fonts in 20 minutes, and you can make all kinds of activities look just a little bit more fun.

I’ve also noticed that “cute” is almost always very feminine: polka dots, chevron, bows, etc. At our school, we have a huge gender performance gap, a pretty common phenomenon. I’ve also noticed that I come off as a girly girl, even if I’m not really (I’m writing this while wearing a ruffly, pink, lacy dress). Because of that, my girly girl students tend to like me from the start. They want to read the same books I read as a kid, and they want me to sit next to them at lunch. I have a lot more trouble reaching my boys, however, and these are the students who most need to be engaged. This year, I decorated my room much more than I normally do by putting up homemade posters from Adventure Time, Iron Man, and DOWK. They came along with clever quotes that teach the students something, but they were designed to be male-oriented (not that girls don’t love these, because I know I certainly do).

Do students need to be engaged? Of course! Does the content of the lesson alone always do that? Probably not, because kids are shallow. And I doubt an Adventure Time poster with a pithy saying from Jake the Dog will help all that much, but if even one kid thinks “my teacher is pretty cool” and is willing to listen to me for just 5 minutes longer because of it, I think it was worth the hour I put into it. I guess my point is that I use my decorations to reach a population that I find difficult to reach in any other way, and I can’t imagine that that’s a bad thing.

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9 Angela Watson August 27, 2013 at 1:17 pm

Great thoughts, Jenny. I’m glad you raised the point of “cute” often meaning “feminine.” We do have to be very careful as teachers not to make the classroom only fit our personal tastes as teachers but to also appeal to both genders. I have seen pink and purple themed classrooms before and have wondered how that makes some of the boys (and even non-girly girls) feel–is it a warm, comfortable, inviting space for them, too?

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10 Edwina August 29, 2013 at 12:02 pm

I absolutely agree with, and have recently have had a lot of experience of, the opinion expressed that some people think that if a classroom looks awesome, the teacher must be awesome. It’s simply not the case. Some teachers are interesting and engaging, able to go off on tangents according to pupils’ responses, and deliver valuable lessons, without having to rely on the super organisation of their classrooms or paperwork. I agree that we should be organised and our classrooms stimulating, but it’s not the ‘be all and end all’, having the staples in displays all going the exact same way, and colour co-ordinated borders and backing paper, not to mention hours and hours of written planning and evaluations that, actually good, natural teachers don’t need to follow anyway!

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11 Kathleen Knight August 31, 2013 at 2:14 pm

I am at my first placement. I graduated in April of 2013. It was really drilled into our heads that our classrooms need to be bright, cheerful, and fun. It was a priority our teachers and supervisors would not let us forget. We were told that children cannot learn in drab, boring rooms. They need to be visually stimulated to learn. Because I have learning disabilities (an entire bowl of alphabet soup) I disagreed. Whenever I reflected on observing or service learning in a classroom I would critique the decor. It was so distracting I usually wanted OUT. I got poor comments from my teachers because of this. I was told I need to prepare carefully to ensure student success. The more “cute” the better. My classroom does have a few things here and there. They are striking, but not overwhelming. They are not necessarily functional. I get a LOT of compliments from administration. In order to add student work as the year progresses, I will remove the non-functional bulletin boards. I feel torn between my convictions, my education, and my administration’s approval.

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12 Michele hartley September 2, 2014 at 7:53 pm

Thank you for this article. When I see the some of the classrooms, and I look at mine, I feel that I failed the teacher cuteness test. My room has a few posters, but I don’t have theme. Don’t get wrong when I see the classes that have been decorated I am envious, my room is blah compared to theirs. I admire the teachers that really get into the decorating, but for me I guess you can call me minamilst person.

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