Okay, let’s get this straight right from the beginning: keeping your desks in straight, orderly, old-fashioned rows is only really workable when you’re giving a test, especially the high stakes state tests that teachers are increasingly saddled with. For the couple of weeks of instructional time that you will lose to those assessments each year, go ahead and put your desks in rows. Other than that, your responsibility is to do something more creative and stimulating for your students than making them sit in the straightest lines possible.
And no one cares what your 7th grade math teacher did. That was a long time ago, and things have changed since then. Believe it.
And while we’re at it, “classroom setup” means much, much, more than simply how you arrange your desks, even though I just began this article talking about them. Setting up a classroom involves defining your area, decorating the room, and creating specialized zones for specialized activities, and even more, more than we can get into today.
Seating and Desks
Yes, it is correct that seating arrangement is not the only element of classroom setup, but it is the most labor-intensive and should be done first, so that you can arrange the other elements of the room around what works. And “what works” is different for everybody, and depends on each teacher’s management style. There is a great online class called “Classroom Management Essentials” that goes into detail on that topic.
Keep in mind that any seating arrangement must ultimately depend on the size and shape of your room, the available natural light, and the number of students who may (according to their IEPs or 504s) have preferential or specific seating needs, and, bluntly put, the students who simply cannot be near each other, either because they get along poorly or because the get along too well.
If we accept the concept of putting desks in rows as an archaic tradition that does not work in the 21st Century, we can start fresh with new ideas. Yes, rows worked fine before we knew better, but the fact is that we know better now. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” yes, we know more than those who came before us knew, because we have them to learn from. Best practice evolves, and is, like the English language itself, constantly in flux, taking into account the sum total of past experience and new research.
Anyway, there are a myriad of other ways to set your desks up. One that many teachers like is the circle. Well, it’s an incomplete circle, really, because there must be access to the center. Think of it as a circle with a small section, perhaps two desks wide, cut out. In this way, everyone is looking at everyone else, and as long as you aren’t depending much on using the blackboard/whiteboard/screen, the circle works well. It is especially good if you have regular class meetings or do a lot with movement, because there is a large open space in the center. The circle is not generally advisable for day-to-day use.
There are drawbacks to the circle, so the clear choice to correct them is the U, or the double U. The U shape is really a square with one open side, which generally faces the front of the room, and has the advantage that no one is ever facing away from the front of the room. The double U works better for large classes in small rooms, and consists of a smaller U shape inside the large U. As long as there is room for the students to get in and out easily and without making a disturbance, the double U is a great choice.
The best use of the U shape that I ever came up with in my time as a teacher was the U with a square in the center, which is the perfect setup if you conduct regular Socractic Seminars. The “inner circle” conducting the majority of the business sits at the square in the center, and the “outer circle” sits along the outer U, so they can give their full attention to the seminar. Weekly Socratic Seminars are a great way to quantify class participation grades, since everyone is accountable, whether they are in the inner circle or outer circle.
And then, of course, you can go with groupings of desks. Keep desks for groupings in smallish islands, with either four or six desks in each group. Any larger is too unwieldy for group work. Keep the desks in groups facing each other, both sides perpendicular to the front of the room, so that no one is ever facing away from the front. In this way, you can arrange the students into regular numbered groups for group work and group presentations. It saves you from the time lost in “grouping up,” and the hassles of “But I don’t want to be in a group with him,” or “If she’s not in my group, I’m not doing anything!”
As you consider desk arrangement, it may be time to consider the effects it has on student performance and the class mood as a whole. Groups of desks, if you change them regularly, moving students around, can be the most rewarding and simplest, especially if you do a lot of group work. Once the class finds its equilibrium, and the students in each group become comfortable working together, you can reap all the benefits of well-organized teams without wasting time. And you can always change things up when you need to. I used to keep my desks in groups from Mondays through Thursdays and then go into the U with the inner square for Socratic Seminars every Friday. Of course, all of this will depend on your style and how you manage your class. If you teach adult education, changing the seating around is not recommended, however. Adult students seem to handle change less well than younger ones, for whatever reason. There is a great online class devoted to this called “Essentials of Adult Education” that goes into more detail on the specifics of teaching older students.
You must also define your area, the teacher’s area. It is a difficult proposition, since you must have a certain amount of space reserved for your use. You may feel comfortable allowing students to sit at your desk for various reasons, but I never did, and don’t know any effective teachers who do so.
Effective teaching, by the way, is the subject of a very good blog post called “Effective Teaching” by Natasha Quinonez, and is, of course, the goal of every teacher. Don’t forget that how you set up your classroom is a key part of effective teaching.
To that end, you must decide whether you want “your” space to be inclusive or exclusive. You can always arrange your desk against a wall or in a corner to restrict access to it so that when you are behind your desk, students must remain “outside.” Then again, effective teaching is never done while you are sitting behind your desk, so this really applies more to after school, prep periods, and lunch periods. As long as you feel comfortable and the students respect your space (and stay out of your desk drawers) whatever works, works. It may be a good idea to have a single student desk adjacent to yours that is assigned to no one, specifically for one-on-one meetings with students. If you hold such meetings (at the end of a grading period to review grades, or perhaps to review projects while the rest of the class works on an assignment), this arrangement can be very convenient.
Decorate Your Room
It goes without saying that you must decorate your classroom. How “homey” or “businesslike” you make the decorations will depend on your style and the way you want the class to run. Posters, handmade art, and little knick-knacks are always a good thing, if they connect to the subject you teach or to things you are passionate about. Cloth, either in the form of tapestries or hangings, softens things up considerable, if the codes in your district allow them.
You will, of course, need to leave wall space for student work—arrange your wall decorations along the borders to leave room. And perhaps the most effective way to engage students, especially younger ones, is to ask each student to bring in something from home that represents themselves, or something they care about (and which isn’t too valuable) and dedicate one wall or section to displaying those for the year. It can be a good icebreaker for the beginning of the year if the homework on the first night of school is to bring in such decorative objects. The next day, or a little at a time, each student can explain what they brought in to the class. You’d be surprised what having something of their own in the classroom can do for your students’ motivation. There is an excellent online class on “How to Handle Unmotivated Students” that goes into more ideas than we possibly can here.
Lastly, you might consider planning specialized zones in your classroom. Perhaps a reading corner, with a few old easy chairs and a pole lamp next to your “independent reading” bookcase would make your class feel homier, and give students who finish work early a comfortable place that encourages reading. The impact that an incandescent light can have in a school filled with fluorescent light can never be underestimated.
Or perhaps you might want to create a meeting place, a group of desks that students are not regularly assigned to, for quick meetings of small groups. If you have the space and work with multiple groupings, this can be quite handy. Similarly, you can set up a “conference nook” in a corner if you don’t want to keep one student desk adjacent to yours. Such a nook can be less intimidating, since the conference happens on “neutral ground.”
Or if you have access to technology in your class, you might need to set up a bank of desks with computers set up on them, separate from the “normal” seating. Long, narrow tables set against the wall can work better for this than desks, but space, equipment, and budget will determine what you can do. There is an excellent online class on “Teaching with Technology” that goes into this in more detail.
Ultimately, of course, you may not be able to make all the decisions about how to set up your classroom. If you do not have “your own” room, or share it with other teachers for part of the day, you will need to compromise. And your school district or building level administrators may have some ideas about what you should, shouldn’t, can, and can’t do, in terms of classroom setup. There is no avoiding that, no matter what you do. You will have to find a balance between comfort, your personality, efficiency, and the right atmosphere for your class.
No one ever said teaching was easy, did they? And none of this takes into account the actual “teaching” part of the job.