Are you switching classrooms or starting in a new school? I tried to think of my best tips for setting up a new classroom. Hopefully they will help you!
Please note this was written prior to school COVID-19 restrictions.
1. You can’t get it all done
Let’s just get that out of the way right from the start. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s better you hear it now than having a breakdown like I had the day before school started my first year. You just can’t go through every inch of a classroom that’s been lived in for many many years. You just can’t organize and weed through every nook and cranny. And that is ok! You have all year and hopefully many years to come to organize and declutter that classroom to your liking.
Your main goal before the first day of the classroom is to get the room ready for your learners. Make sure that they have their names around the room so they feel they belong. Make sure they have a space to keep their stuff. And make sure that the areas and materials they will use the most are welcoming and organized so they can use them independently. Everything else can and should wait.
2. Map it out, but know that it can change
Do you know how many times in my first year teaching I changed my set up? Pretty much every couple of months. As you use the space, you figure out what works and doesn’t work. You understand your students more and how they use the space. It is ok to change up the layout of the room during the year or over the next summers. It is my fifth year in my current classroom and it’s the only summer so far that I haven’t moved around furniture. So don’t be so caught up in needing to find the perfect set-up. You can read about how, in my second year in the same classroom, I set it up.
3. Keep some of the things when setting up a new classroom
If you are new to a school district, new to a grade level, you can’t know all the materials that are needed for all the units throughout the year. You might not know which activities or resources will be beneficial for small group instruction, because you won’t know before you teach the grade all that the students are working on throughout the year. I recommend that you keep items that you might need for a year. At the end of the year, if you haven’t touched them once, you can get rid of them! If you have doubles of something or if something is really old looking, you could toss them, but I still recommend checking with a teammate first. I know I didn’t want to get halfway through the year and then realize that I got rid of something that I needed for the curriculum or something that the school had bought, and I wasn’t supposed to get rid of.
4. When setting up a classroom, start with your personal area
This may sound selfish, but I highly recommend that you start with your personal area first. The first thing I did in my new classroom was set up was my desk with my office supplies. I put up my personal touches in this area so that it really started to feel like my space. This gave me a little escape for a water or snack break. It also gives me an open surface to organize some of the papers or materials. Trust me, you’ll feel less disorganized and scattered when you have your own space in the classroom all set up.
5. Do whatever you can at home
I am normally not a proponent of bringing work home. But in the summer, most schools are only open for a certain number of hours for teachers to set up their classroom. This means those hours you can be in your classroom are critical – it’s crunch time! In my first classroom I only had 5 days to set everything up! So I prioritized by spending my time in the classroom organizing materials and setting everything up. I took home the folders that needed labeling or the decorations that needed cutting, or the name tags that needed writing. Then I would bring them to school the next day, ready to use that time most effectively.
Now that I have been in the same classroom for 5 years, I still recommend doing whatever I can at home, but for a different reason. Now that the room is set up the way I want and I’m happy with how it looks and feels, I try to spend as few days as possible in the classroom over the summer. I am not given any paid time to set up my classroom, so I want to be as efficient as possible with setting it up. I also know that I will be spending many a day in there starting soon, and I like to take advantage of my time at home (although after this past spring of social distancing, I may change my tune this year and do everything I can to get out of the house!)
6. Pick a simple theme (so you can change it easily)
I spent a lot of money and a lot of time buying decorations I thought I would love. Well, spoiler alert, over time I got tired of it. I wanted to change my decorations and my theme the following year. I changed a few things and then realized that nothing really matched and so I had to change everything. That meant more time and more money. And in my first few years I definitely bought stuff on Teachers Pay Teachers or at Lakeshore that I thought I would want or need or because they went with my theme but turns out I really didn’t use them. I just didn’t know exactly what I needed for my classroom yet.
So I recommend that you pick a simple theme so that if you want to buy or make fun new decorations for your classroom, you don’t have to change everything around the room. You can see what I decided to choose for my simple theme here. I choose just a few colors that I liked and that went well together. Then I used those to make simple borders around the labels or decorations around the room.
I also believe that you do not need unnecessary decorations. Your students really don’t need them or even really notice them. I’m a firm believer that everything in your classroom should have a purpose. Too much stuff around the room or on the walls makes it hard for students who struggle with executive function and sustaining attention. You really don’t need motivational quotes, especially for the younger grades who can’t even read them, and you definitely don’t need decorations or art work, because you will soon have 20 or so little artists eager to see their work put up on display in their space. There can and should be lots of blank space waiting for your students to fill it up. Having an empty bulletin board does not make you a bad teacher – it makes you responsive to your students.
There is a lot of pressure on teachers in new classrooms to have the perfect set-up and a pinterest classrooms. This just isn’t feasible and it’s really not in your best interest. I hope that these 6 tips help guide you into what’s most important – getting a space ready for your learners and for you.