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I hope I don’t offend somebody here because I really don’t mean to – I am only saying this because I see what’s happening as two mistakes we might be making when we set up our classrooms without even realizing it:
First of all, most of the time, I think classroom themes that you see online are not such a great idea.
I mean, for example, just because I might like sports, I’m not going to create an entire classroom based on a sports theme, and here’s why:
Because my classroom is designed not just to showcase my personality and who I am as a teacher – it’s ultimately designed to serve my students.
That’s why we’re all here, right?
And some of my students might HATE sports.
Can you imagine how that would feel to walk into a classroom every single day for an entire year and be surrounded everywhere you look by something you really don’t like?
To be constantly reminded that you aren’t good at any of this stuff?
To feel like you are on the outside and that you don’t really belong here – every single day?
I see these kinds of things and I wonder how that little girl with the freckles and glasses who couldn’t swing a bat if her life depended on it feels every time she walks into that baseball-themed classroom.
And the second thing that really worries me is when I see teachers – very talented teachers - who create an entirely new theme in their classrooms several times throughout the year because their students really like the element of surprise – and I’ve even heard about teachers who change their classroom theme EVERY SINGLE MONTH.
Yes, it’s awesome that this teacher is so creative. It looks so cool, so we want our students to have that, too.
So, we try to do it. We try to recreate our classroom every month or every several months.
Then we wonder why we are so burnt out.
We wonder why we are working 60 or 80 hours each week, why we aren’t getting any sleep, and why we feel perpetually behind and overwhelmed.
Please do yourself a favor before you become another burnt out teacher who resents the profession she once loved and learn to say no to most of these kinds of sparkly objects that are dangled in front of us online.
Instead, my aim in this episode is to seek to give you some relief from all of that internal pressure you might have going on inside of you.
My goal is to show you another way.
To show you how to create a classroom that is authentically, beautifully, and meaningfully you, that feels like home to you, and by extension, becomes a place where your students can find a piece of themselves and feel like they truly belong, in this magical space you have created, all while saving you some precious time and money.
Okay, so let’s talk about the number one time-suck black hole for teachers when setting up their classrooms: Bulletin boards.
Here’s what I recommend when you’re setting up your bulletin boards – I want you to forget the classroom theme for a minute (we’ll talk about that plays in in just a moment).
For now, I want you to think of ease and functionality.
The way we do that is to first create a permanently dedicated space for 9 things.
You need a dedicated wall space in your classroom for:
These are all permanent and very useful, interactive bulletin boards, right?
Keeping just one bulletin board in my classroom dedicated to displaying student work makes managing my bulletin boards pretty easy.
In my classroom, for "Rules and Expectations," that entire space was a cow theme.
Why? It’s not because I love cows.
I actually think cows are kind of ugly, but that’s kind of the point.
You see, when I was only fourteen years old (and especially concerned about what I wore and how I looked), my dad went to a fancy conference in Vancouver, British Columbia.
This was a very big deal because our family couldn’t afford to travel much, so I asked my dad if he could bring me a gift from his big conference.
When I opened my present, vibrating with anticipation and excitement, you can imagine my reaction when I saw what it was:
A salmon colored t-shirt with a giant picture of an upside down jersey cow sun tanning, and the words “Roast Beef” printed boldly across it.
He thought the gift was awesome:
“You like to suntan, its peach colored, and I know you like peach color, and I thought it was so funny with the cow. Do you get it? ‘Roast beef?’ I thought of you right away when I saw it and knew I just had to get it.”
He was positively beaming because he was SO proud of his amazing gift.
I really wish I still had that t-shirt now - I’m fairly certain I gave it away for free at a garage sale the next summer when he wasn’t looking. But that t-shirt inspired a lifetime of cow-related gifts to each other every Christmas and birthday ever since.
But the point was that my dad had now given me a whole bunch of cow stuff over the years, and I kept it all housed around my bulletin board in my classroom – including a little stuffed cow named Jersey who would laugh hysterically when you pressed his belly, a cow bell, and – if you can believe it – a flying cow that I did not want in my house.
And so - when I taught the rules and expectations in my classroom, I told the story about my dad and this silly cow joke we had going on throughout the years, and I explained to them that if they heard the little laughing cow or the cow bell, that meant that they needed to stop whatever they were doing and look at me.
I also explained that if they were extra special good about coming back to me when I needed their attention, I just might turn on the flying cow for them for a minute or two.
So stupid – and they absolutely LOVED it. Why?
Because it made me human.
It made them laugh.
It brought them into my life and into my story, and suddenly, they had 100 stories about a cow, or about a time they went in an airplane, or whatever part of the story they could see themselves in – and suddenly, they could relate to me.
And the best part was when my dad would buy me the next stupid cow gift… they loved feeling like they were part of my life. 💕
I didn’t have to change the theme – I just kept adding to it to make it better and better, right?
And don’t even get me started about the celebrity my dad became in my room… my students worked EXTRA hard for a month in the spring to earn a visit from Larry. 😊
In fact, students who came into my classroom the next year had already heard about the cow thing, and they would have been very disappointed if I didn’t have it. It became a part of my identity as a teacher, as much as I hate to be known for cows. 😂
Do you collect anything that you might want to use to get your students’ attention?
What stories do you have from your own life that you could weave into your classroom to give that space more meaning and more of a feeling like home not only for you, but for your students?
What might contribute to them feeling more like family with you? 💕
Remember, I became intentional about drawing my students into a story that they could become a part of whenever I could in all of the spaces in my classroom.
Here’s another example of how I did that:
I had traveled to lots of different places around the world by the time I started teaching elementary school, and one of my favorite experiences was learning to dive on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
So on my student job board, I took the opportunity to create an incredible underwater scene and then taught my students about different sea life they might experience deep underwater on this incredible, natural wonder of the world.
I shared with them how bizarre it felt to breathe under water, I shared with them about doing a night dive so I would be able witness the delicate sea horses who only came out in black night water, and I planted the idea in their heads that they too could do anything they dreamed of.
I talked to them about this incredible underwater world that was an entire ecosystem, a kind of community, where everyone worked together to ensure that the environment they lived in remained balanced, peaceful, and stable - just like our classroom, when we all work together to do our part with our jobs.
That was my job board.
Now, I could go on and on, but you see my point.
And - if you haven’t yet heard about my Treasure Map and Treasure Chest classroom management system that took up a permanent space in our cozy reading nook, you can head back to Episode #6 to learn about how I set that up in my classroom - and how you can create your own system inspired by your own life and stories.
Finally, beyond these individual spaces, the overall theme in my classroom was rainbows, sunshine, and positivity.
I really wanted my classroom to be a bright and loving space in all of my students’ lives, and I really wanted it to be a place where I loved spending my time, so although each bulletin board had its own theme, bright, vibrant colors and positive posters filled the gaps.
The point is that my classroom wasn’t a pre-packaged theme I found somewhere that was all glossy and made for me…
Instead, by being authentically me, I hope and want to believe that my students learned that it was safe and valuable to be authentically themselves.
By showing my students that I valued my own life and my own stories above any theme I might have found online, I asked them to value and own their own life and stories.
I had to model that for my students – I had to create spaces in my classroom that were authentically me, so that they could gather the courage to be authentically themselves.
Because people find themselves in other people’s stories – and especially children.
That’s how they can relate to you, how they can connect with you.
Once you get to know me better, you’ll know how much a beautiful and inspiring space means to me if I’m going to spend any time in it, so I am going to come right out and say that when you entered my classroom, you knew I was one of those teachers who spent a LOT of time INITIALLY making it beautiful.
However, I am also SUPER practical, and efficiency is just as important to me as beauty.
And the key is that although when you walk into my classroom you would likely be struck by how pretty it was -
Here’s the most important part: I ONLY DID IT ONCE, BEFORE the beginning of the year, and I did very little to change my classroom space throughout the year when I became incredibly busy. (And if you haven’t set up your first classroom yet, let me be the first to warn you that there really is no busy like teacher busy).
The bulletin boards and spaces I am suggesting you set up do not need to be changed at all throughout the year, except when you or your students want to showcase something special on their space on the one bulletin board.
And here’s the other part you might be surprised to learn – I didn’t change my classroom set-up very much over ALL of the years that I was teaching, even when I changed grades, because I don’t go out of style.
I just keep evolving, and so my classroom theme became more and more meaningful.
What if you chose to keep adding to the same awesome theme that got better and better each year, just like you do, rather than getting on the hamster wheel and starting from scratch each year, or even worse, every several months?
Disneyland doesn’t come up with something new every single time they build a park, right?
No, they always have the same castle, the same signature rides, all of the same characters, Mickey Mouse, and princesses – and then they continue to build on what they know works.
Let’s work smarter, not harder. 💛
Let your classroom be a reflection of you and the unique stories that made up who you are and your life.
That’s what your students will love most, and that’s how your students will come to relate to your classroom space – because they will be able to find pieces of themselves and of their own stories in it.
All right, that’s all I’ve got for you this week!
If you are getting great value from this podcast and if you’re feeling extra loving, I would deeply appreciate it if you would write a positive review for me, and then tell other teachers about this podcast to help me to spread the word about it.
I hope you have a wonderful week and remember, just because you are a beginning teacher, there is no need for you to struggle like one.
Bye for now!
P.S. Are you feeling a little nervous and overwhelmed about managing your classroom like a pro? Grab your copy of the Ultimate Classroom Management Checklist to make sure you're on the right track!
Dr. Lori Friesen | Beginning Teacher Mentor
Creator of the R.E.A.D.Y. for School Academy, Dr. Lori Friesen has mentored thousands of beginning teachers across the country through her workshops and courses. Host of the popular podcast, Beginning Teacher Talk, and creator of the innovative literacy program for 1st and 2nd grade, Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed, Dr. Lori is dedicated to serving educators and inspiring learners. Learn more at drlorifriesen.com and at howdogshelpkids.com.
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