Your Room Is Your Teaching Partner

Your Room Is Your Teaching Partner
By Steven W. Simpson, Ph.D.

Most of us have learned the classroom management trick of simply walking
over and standing near trouble spots in class. You don't have to look at
the disruptive students. Your physical presence in the area calms things
down. Your room can do the same job for you.

I learned this from a woman who had been a teacher for about 30 years. I
was in her room asking for help on a lesson plan. While we talked, she
was washing desks. I made the mistake of asking her why she was doing
the janitor's job and she looked at me like I was either very stupid or
very rude. Lucky for me she was a teacher, so she educated me.

She explained that she made a habit of keeping her room as clean as her
home. She did this for two reasons. First, she simply liked a clean
environment. It made her feel good. Just as a clean and orderly home
helped her live a happier and less stressful life, a clean room helped
her in similar ways as she taught her classes.

She told me that in addition to making her feel good, a clean room made
her students feel good. They knew she cared about them enough to provide
a nice room for learning. They knew she liked her job because her
working environment reflected her feelings.

A nice room taught her students to respect property. She said she rarely
had to ask students not to write on her desks because her desks were
always spotless. Kids just assumed, because the desks were kept clean,
that they were meant to be clean. Her students learned by looking at
clean desks to keep them that way.

It did not work with all kids all of the time, but it worked with most
kids most of the time. The same thing was true, she explained, with
trash. I looked around and noticed there were several trash cans in her
room, rather than just the one school-issued can. She had decorated her
cans and people used them. By putting more trash cans in her room and
keeping trash picked up, kids learned experientially that rooms are to
be kept clean. Trash goes in the cans. Clean rooms feel good.

I was learning something important. Classroom management is not all
about rules and tone of voice. Classroom management is systemic. A nice
room feels good and calms people down. A nice room, like a good lesson
plan, teaches students appropriate behavior and good values. They learn
that you respect them enough to provide a pleasant environment and they
return the favor.

I am currently working with a very tough class of difficult kids. They
are slowly responding to my usual methods, but about half-way through
the afternoon one day I watched one of my students drawing on a table.
First it irritated me, but then I looked around and realized that my
room needed work.

It was a cold, impersonal and not very clean place. My friend would have
been very disappointed. The tables were dirty; there was trash on the
floor. The bookshelves were a jumbled mess. And the place smelled bad.
Who could ever be happy to walk into such a place? How could the
students respect a place I did not respect myself?

So, I went to work. Like my friend, I got out the plastic bottle with
the blue stuff in it and cleaned the tables. I went through every book
case and every plastic tub, putting things in order and getting rid of
the junk. I dusted. I straightened. I decorated.

I found posters of mountains and canoes and animals, reflections of who
I am as a person and of the things I value. I brought in flowers. I used
the smelly furniture spray my wife showed me. Now when you walk in that
room, it feels good. It smells good.

A clean and pleasant room doesn't solve all of the teaching problems I
face with this group of students, but it solves some of them. And like
my old friend told me, kids learn what you teach them.

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