Can I make a confession?

This is the time of year when classroom set-up photos are everywhere. Each photo we see has more clever ideas and adorable decorations than the last. These images are inspiring and creative and so much fun to look through…

…but they can also be incredibly anxiety-producing.

I don’t even have a classroom anymore, and looking at room arrangements on Pinterest and Instagram still makes me feel like I can’t possibly measure up.

3 types of thoughts that run through my mind when I see a really awesome idea on social media

  • I “should” have thought of it myself

That’s such a simple idea — I should have thought of that! It seems so obvious. How could I have missed it?? Ugh. I can’t believe I spent all these years doing it another way.

  • I never would have thought of that myself

Wow, I NEVER would have thought to do THAT. So impressive. It must have taken forever. But wait, is this what parents and kids expect nowadays? Are other teachers judging those who don’t go all out like this? Does it make you look lazy or like you don’t care if your classroom isn’t this amazing?

  • I did it already, but mine looks amateurish in comparison

Oh hey, I have a set-up similar to that…but my handwriting is atrocious, and it’s not colorful, and basically my version looks like total crap in comparison. Do I need to completely re-do mine? I’m sort of embarrassed about it now….

And on. And on. And on.

This is about comparing ourselves to others, NOT a knock on teachers who have and share beautiful classroom pictures

Ironically, I’m sure that some of the ideas I’ve shared online have created those same feelings in others. This isn’t about people intentionally creating a competition or putting themselves on a pedestal. It’s just human nature to look at what others are doing or have accomplished and compare yourself.

So I think these self-defeating and critical thoughts say more about the person thinking them than the person who’s just doing their thing and sharing about it online. I do not make the assumption that because something looks good, it’s not also helping kids learn. I know that many teachers are capable of doing both: of having a classroom that deserves to be featured in a magazine spread AND that is also rigorous. If you can do both, that’s fantastic.

This post is for the tens of thousands of us that feel like we CAN’T: we have a limited amount of time and money and energy, and we just can’t afford to dedicate much effort to creating an elaborate theme in our classrooms or making sure everything matches or sewing curtains for our classroom windows. We either don’t enjoy that, or aren’t good at it, or just can’t afford the time and money it takes to make it happen.

The question that I want to answer today is not, “How can we stop other teachers from creating beautiful learning spaces and sharing them on social media?’ That’s not my goal at all. And we can’t we can’t reverse this train that’s already in motion, where people are making and sharing more options than ever before to make classrooms look amazing.

The question that I want to answer is, “How do we each stay focused on our OWN vision for our OWN classroom and not get sucked into comparing ourselves to others?”

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Why it seems to be getting harder to overcome pressure to compare

In the past…we had very little exposure to what other teachers were doing.

I started teaching in 1999, and for many years, the only classrooms I saw were those in my own school building. Even as late as 2003, there were only a handful of teachers who had access to digital cameras and the understanding of HTML coding to be able to upload those pictures and share them on their own websites.

Ironically, this is how my website started that very year — I wanted to show other teachers how I organized my papers, set up my centers, and so on, because those kind of tutorials were not widely available. I stored my classroom materials in the cast-off candy boxes from Walmart. You know how at Halloween time, they have those big cardboard cases they display candy in? Those are recycled when the season is up, and I’d go around to the local Walmart and ask if I could take them. I borrowed the school’s digital camera and took pictures of scissors and glue sticks in an old cardboard M&M box and teachers really thought it was the best thing ever. It was one of their few opportunities to see how other educators were doing things.

In the past…creating a beautiful learning space was much harder and more expensive.

Until recently, we did not have access to fonts, graphics, and beautiful digital products we could buy for a few dollars then print and go. We weren’t even really buying a lot of stuff online: a trip to the local teacher supply store was the foundation of what we believed to be on trend and the extent of our decorating options. And it was expensive. So we hand wrote and handmade everything and it all looked pretty awful in comparison to today’s standards.

But over the years — and particularly I’d say in the last 5 years — every teacher has access to beautiful, inexpensive decorating resources. We have the Target Dollar Spot. We have TeachersPayTeachers. We have fonts and clipart galore that allow us to make and decorate our own materials quite easily.

Even if you’re not super creative, a few minutes on Pinterest or Instagram will give you hundreds of ideas you can try, and many of them are look amazing. The bar for design and photography has been raised because the tools for making things look attractive are cheaper to buy and easier to make.

In the past…no one but our own students benefited from our decorating efforts.

And here’s the most critical part — no one ever saw what we did anyway, except our students and colleagues. My kids didn’t care that I was using an old M&M box to hold their scissors. I don’t recall any other teacher in our school who had a super impressive way of doing it. So I never felt pressure to cover the boxes with colored contact paper or spray paint them or buy any legitimate containers.

I was able to do what worked for me, without comparing myself much to others or inadvertently making others compare themselves to me.

It now feels like every aspect of teaching is broadcast to the world…

Today, the number of people who see what we’re doing is much bigger. Students, parents, colleagues, and admin are taking photos and videos of what’s happening in school, and sharing them publicly.

We’re no longer creating for the 30 kids in our classroom, but for the thousands of people online who might see it.

We’re now acutely aware of what thousands of other teachers and schools are doing — not only in decorating their classrooms, but in the amazing school culture they’re creating, their fantastic immersive lessons, the adorable outfits they’re wearing, the amazing-looking food they’re eating, and the perfect-looking home they live in with an adorable looking family.

We THINK we see it all.

But we’re actually comparing our real lives to other people’s highlight reels

We see other teachers’ best projects, the most attractive areas of classrooms, and their most engaging lessons… and then we unintentionally compare them to our full reality.

We think of our worst stuff, the ugliest part of our classroom where there’s just a gigantic mess of stuff piled on a table and think, “My room is awful.”

We’re not seeing their mess, and there’s always mess. I mean, if you’ve seen any of my videos, the background behind me usually looks really nice. I assure you, the rest of my home does not look like that. This is why I tend to do my videos in the same place. There’s one spot in my house that looks really nice visually, and the rest of it is just pretty normal looking. I do not do Facebook Lives in a place where you can see the gigantic pile of clothes on the chair in my bedroom or the dirty dishes in my sink. Because you don’t seem them, you might assume they’re not there. But they are.

I also have special lighting that I use when I’m making a video, because if I just use the regular lighting, everything is all shadowy and weird looking and emphasizes every wrinkle on my face. I’m not going to intentionally show you the worst side of me, and neither will most people. Other than the occasional “haha, massive fail, look at how bad this turned out” images, most of us are posting only our best, most flattering photos and videos. We are carefully curating the parts of our lives and our work that we share with others.

And that’s not a bad thing. I don’t want the whole world to see my husband’s socks on the floor.  Most of us are just sharing the ideas, work, accomplishments, and moments that we are proud of. That’s okay–we just need to keep that in mind when we feel pressure to compare.

So let’s return to the question that I asked in the beginning:

How do we each stay reflective on our OWN vision for our OWN classroom and not get sucked into comparing ourselves to others?

1.  Know that the pressure you’re feeling is growing every year for many teachers. It is not just you who looks at the magnitude of options and ideas out there, and gets immediately overwhelmed and feels inferior.

2.  Realize that most of this pressure is something we’re placing on ourselves. Sometimes it might be coming from parents or admin or someone else who’s urging you to do more, but the majority of our stress in this area is self-imposed. We are the ones looking at all the different ideas and allowing ourselves to fall into the comparison trap.

3.  Actively push against that internal voice that says, “You’re not good enough. You need to do more.” Set up your classroom in a way that works for YOU and YOUR students. Every school, every teacher, and every group of kids is unique. There is no one “right way” to decorate a classroom.

Remind yourself:

I am enough. My efforts are enough. I have a limited amount of time and energy at the beginning of the school year, and I choose to channel my resources into creating a room that helps ME teach more effectively and efficiently throughout the school year, regardless of what everyone ELSE is doing.

The purpose of my classroom space is to help kids learn and to help me teach. I choose to stay focused on this purpose. I can be okay with having a classroom that doesn’t look like a magazine spread. My room does not have to be ‘perfect’ on Day One, and will evolve throughout the year according to what my students needs and want in their learning environment. I’m going to stay focused on the kids and streamlining the learning process for them, because if I do that, I can’t go wrong!

4. Stay reflective on your OWN vision for your OWN classroom and be clear on your WHY. I want to invite you to do some self-reflection here. We need to have hard conversations about these topics without thinking this is about dividing us or “teacher shaming” people who do things differently.

We need to know what we’re doing in our classrooms and WHY. Once we know the WHY, we no longer feel the pressure to be like everyone else. It doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing, or what they think about what you’re doing, if you have a clear purpose for your choice.

Think about WHY you want your classroom to look the way it does, and what the purpose of decorating it is. I know you may feel like decorating your classroom is your only creative outlet or the only place where you have autonomy. It represents you, and you want to represent yourself well.

But the truth is that your classroom doesn’t just represent you: it represents all the kids in your classroom, too, and you can think of decorating as a journey you’ll take with them over time.

You can express yourself and your creativity through your interactions with kids and your relationships with them. That’s where the real you and your talents shine through. Not what’s hanging on your walls.

What really makes your classroom an amazing place to learn is you, not your stuff. Click To Tweet

I hope this message is one you’ll think about when you start to get overwhelmed by everything you see on social media. Remember what really matters. Don’t bow to self-imposed “Pinterest pressure.” Do what makes sense for YOU and YOUR students. What really makes your classroom an amazing place to learn is you, not your stuff.

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This post is based on an episode from my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new 15-20 minute episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. 

Truth for Teachers podcast: a weekly 10 minute talk radio show you can download and take with you wherever you go! A new episode is released each Sunday to get you energized and motivated for the week ahead.

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Discussion

10 Comments

  1. Lisa T.

    “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
    — Theodore Roosevelt

    • Denise Hoedl

      I love that saying as well as Eleanor Roosevelt’s: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

  2. johanna ortiz

    Sometimes simple is better. And Yes! It’s what you teach and how you teach it to draw in the students that makes you a great teacher not what is on the walls.

  3. Kathy Griffith

    I’ve taught a LONG time, and still have to quelch that inner voice that tells me that I’m not doing things well enough. We have to be ourselves. We don’t have to run ourselves ragged changing everything all the time.

  4. Wendy

    I definitely needed to read this today! I spent DAYSSSSS looking at pictures online and trying my best to decorate every inch of my room to try and live up to those crazy, self imposed standards and this will be my 20th year teaching! Thank you for a great article!

  5. Maria Martinez

    At just starting to teach it gives me great encouragement, just to be me and allow myself to discovered who are my students and what we can do together.

  6. Nicole grimm

    Pinterest has so many great ideas. Luckily I know my limitations. If it’s something do able for me I do it. if it’s more at Martha Stewart’s skill level I just admire it.

  7. Denice Odette

    Thank. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one that can get overwhelmed. I would love to see pictures back in 1999.

    Blessings,

  8. Christina DeNisco

    Thanks for sharing! I love the honesty and for helping us understand we aren’t alone❤️

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