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?