Secrets for Secondary School Teachers: How to Succeed in Your First Year (2004)

Chapter 2. Organizing Your Room

Once you can find your way around the school, the next priority is to organize the personal space in which you will be operating. You learned in education classes that the classroom environment is critical in setting the tone for everything else that you do. You know from your own experiences as a student that there exists quite a different atmosphere in a room that is drab versus one that positively vibrates with energy. You also know that different things happen in a room that is organized with desks in neat rows versus those arranged in a circle.

The culture of your school, what other teachers are doing around you, the subjects you are teaching, and your personal philosophy of learning, will each contribute to the goals you have for organizing your classroom. As you begin to set up your room, consider not only your needs but also those of students.

I (Cary) always appreciated when the classroom was arranged in a different order than the traditional rows, one after the other. If the class size is small enough, it would be great to be creative and change things up a bit every once in a while. My government teacher arranged the seats in a big circle and she sat in one of the seats just like the students. In a way, it put everyone on the same level and encouraged more discussion among the students.

Another teacher would sometimes stop class and have us break up into groups of four, moving four desks together in a square for each group. It really doesn’t take long to move the desks around and breaks up the monotony of the normal class routine. Spontaneity is the key to grabbing the students’ attention.

I (Jeffrey) once shared a classroom with another teacher who had a very different style than my own. The first thing I’d do each day was rearrange the room with all the desks in a big circle so that students could see and talk to one another. I wanted a more democratic structure than a traditional teacher-centered classroom, one that encouraged interaction. Because this was a class in social skills training, this particular physical environment was entirely appropriate.

My colleague, however, was teaching a content-oriented course in a far more traditional manner. He was threatened by the things I was doing in my class that directly contradicted many of the values he considered most important: discipline, control, and authority. He believed learning took place through his lectures, whereas I valued student interaction. Our room arrangements reflected these pedagogical styles.

Because I was a new teacher, and because my colleague had a lot of power in the school, he worked behind the scenes to make me comply with his standards. The principal approached me apologetically, saying that he had some complaints because I was leaving my room “in disarray” for the next class. Perhaps it would be better, he admonished me, if I just left the desks “the way they were supposed to be.” I was appalled, of course, but I learned a valuable lesson about how our own actions as teachers impact, and sometimes even threaten, our colleagues. In the future, I shared my plans for seating arrangements with my principal and got him on “my side” in advance. I also asked my students to return the chairs to their traditional placement before leaving the room.

We mention this object lesson not to discourage you from taking risks, experimenting with alternative classroom structures, or expressing your unique style through your teaching—quite the contrary. We hope you do create a classroom environment that is stimulating enough to keep students’ interest and encourages them to think for themselves and challenge ideas. Just remember: Everything you do as a new teacher is being watched by others and evaluated according to their standards.

By establishing routines with the students, desks can quickly be arranged and rearranged during a class period. If you share a room with another teacher, you will need to communicate and negotiate not only how desks are arranged, but how whiteboards/blackboards and bulletin boards are utilized, as well as how desk, bookshelf, and cabinet space is used.


The first step in organizing your room is to check out the resources you have to work with. Spend a few minutes sitting in different parts of the room to observe what it feels like. Where is the flag located? Where is the intercom speaker? Imagine you are a student sitting there, daydreaming about something far more important than whatever is going on in the room at the time. Note what is within the visual field from each point in the room. Listen for the acoustics as well, to hear how sound travels, both for sounds within the classroom and potentially distracting noises outside.

Survey where the bulletin boards are located, as well as the chalkboards/whiteboards, pencil sharpeners, lights, electric sockets, overhead projector, computer, or any other available equipment. Remember, when you use any audiovisual aids, you will need access to electricity and ways to avoid glare so the screens are clearly visible. If you have a telephone line in your room, you will want to position a desk and chair near the phone jack. Also note what type of heating or air conditioning system is used. Will students be subjected to strong air blowing on them, depending on where they sit?

Next, look at the furniture and equipment that has been assigned to your room. Do you have bookshelves, tables, chairs, desks, file cabinet, wardrobe, a computer? Is there any audiovisual equipment in the room? What items do you feel are most important? Start making a list of what is missing. Keep in mind that the resources available in your school may not match with what you were once told in teacher training was mandatory for good learning to take place. Technical aids are certainly useful, but they may not be absolutely crucial for good learning to occur. For now, make a list of what you need, and hold onto it until you figure out the most politically expedient ways to lobby for what you want. And if, for example, you are lacking computer technology in the classroom, find out how to reserve time in computer labs and/or the library for student projects, or see if there is another teacher you can be paired with to share a computer or audiovisual equipment such as a TV/VCR.

Most schools have a media or audiovisual center where equipment is stored. Sometimes, equipment is kept in each department. Even if you don’t have permanent equipment, you might be able to gain access to things on an as-needed basis. For example, most foreign-language teachers have a television monitor, a VCR, and a cassette recorder reserved for them, purchased with federal grant money. Can arrangements be made for you to keep equipment in your room on a regular basis? Some schools even have opaque projectors available for your use. In addition, many districts have media centers with wide varieties of instructional materials available for teachers to reserve and use. In some states, the resources are housed at regional rather than district levels.

Check to see what supplies, supplementary materials, and curriculum resources you will inherit or have access to. Again, sometimes these resources will be stored in a department chair’s room or other office, other times in a media center, or both. Decide where you will keep these materials and how they will be distributed to your students.


Room arrangements are critical to maintain student safety as well as engagement with class activities. From what direction will the students enter the room? Will they have sufficient space to walk by desks or tables with their big book bags? You have probably already given consideration to how you want to arrange the room to fit your teaching style and course content. Will students be listening most of the time or working with partners? How much will cooperative group work be a part of your classes? Will students need resources or reference material as they interact with one another?

Where will you place your desk? What will be on it? Will you have more than one “teacher work center”? Is placing your desk near a telephone a factor in your decision? Will you have a computer on your desk? You will want to keep your personal things in an area that is not easily accessible to students, yet is visible to you at all times.

Specific seating arrangements are designed to accomplish different goals. As you walk around the school visiting other teachers, check out the ways they have arranged their rooms. Note the advantages and disadvantages of each. Some of the more common configurations include these:

•   Traditional rows of desks to maximize the number of students in the room and maintain order

•   Rows of desks facing each other across a center divide to encourage student-teacher interaction

•   Horseshoe arrangement with desks facing the front for maximum eye contact with students

•   Tables seating small groups of 4 to 6 students for cooperative learning

•   Desks in one large circle to facilitate student interaction

•   A “fishbowl” design, with an inner and outer circle of desks

Of course, a combination of arrangements may be possible, depending on the particular learning activity. In fact, one way to keep students engaged is to devise ways that move them around from one seating arrangement to another. Nevertheless, you will still wish to settle on a relatively stable arrangement to begin with, at least to facilitate taking attendance until you get to know the students.

One other consideration in space design is related to managing student behavior. Because issues related to classroom behavior and discipline will be among your greatest challenges, you will want to make sure to arrange things in such a way that allows you full view of everything going on in the room. That is why many teachers prefer to use an overhead projector so they can face the students rather than turn their backs and write on the front board. Also, you will want to consider potential problems that could emerge. For example, some students will find countless pieces of paper or Kleenex to throw away. Their pencil leads will always be breaking. If you don’t want students to cross your line of vision during your instruction, place the objects they need access to, such as boxes of tissue, paper, pencil sharpeners, and wastebaskets, at strategic points around, or on either side of, the room.

The larger your classes, the less flexibility you will have. Often new teachers have no choice in whether there will be desks or tables in their rooms. There is no sense whining and complaining about what you don’t have in the way of resources, equipment, and furniture; for now, make the best of what you do have. Improvise as much as you can. Visit other classrooms for ideas. Begin a list of what you’d like to obtain, and keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities to fill in what is missing.


The impression the room gives as students enter will set the tone for the class. Consider all the display space in the form of bulletin boards and blank walls. Because you can figure that at any given moment in time, more than half your students are in the midst of fantasy or otherwise occupied with thoughts about their families, friends, love lives, or lack thereof, it is important that you design displays in ways that are visually stimulating but not distracting.

With me (Cary) or most of my friends, we could care less about stuff like bulletin boards. I can’t figure out what teachers think is so important about them. Who cares?

But my math teacher did something that was kinda cool. He put, on one of the side boards, a sheet of paper with the year, 1997, lettered on top. Then he had numbers going down the side from 1 to 100. Whenever you were bored or in the mood to do so, you could go up to the bulletin board and invent an equation using the numbers 1, 9, 9, and 7 whose answer would be a number from 1 to 100. For example, 1 + 9 + 9 + 7 = 26; 1 + (9 x 9) + 7 = 89. The challenge was fun.

In spite of this skepticism, bulletin boards are useful for brightening up the room as well as helping you to emphasize key points of given lessons. They allow you to post general information about school activities. You will probably want to post the bell schedule and other school- or district-mandated announcements, such as the school mission statement and where to go for a fire drill. You may use some of the space to post current events related to your content area. Keep in mind that, if students face the front of the room, spaces in the back should be designed for different purposes than those to the sides or the front, such as motivational or decorative, because the students see them only as they enter or as directed.

You might want to hang pictures, photos, or posters to create a homey feel to the room. Students, and their parents, love to see their work displayed. In many schools, teachers are permitted to hang student projects from the ceiling. Some classrooms turn into museums by the end of the year, with student-created artifacts and projects!

It all depends on what mood and images you want to communicate to your students. In a history class, you would expect to see pictures of past achievements. In an English class, you might see rules to use for writing, or programs for plays, or pictures of famous authors. In a math class, you might see applications of formulas, geometric patterns, or famous mathematicians. But these are only traditional applications; you can be a lot more creative than that!

In deciding what to do with your bulletin boards, consider the following functions that are possible:

•   Informative—Giving facts

•   Rule giving—Guidelines to follow

•   Demonstrative—Showing examples

•   Motivational—Giving inspiration

•   Stimulating—Posing a question or new idea

•   Rewarding—Displaying student work

•   Aesthetic—Reflecting interests and likes

•   Reinforcing—Giving support

•   Entertaining—Using humor


Before you put your plan into action and start moving heavy furniture around the room, first design a blueprint on a piece of paper, positioning each piece of furniture and equipment. Consult the following checklists for items you might wish to consider in your plan:

Permanent Features

___ Placement of door

___ Electric sockets

___ Bulletin boards

___ Light switch

___ Pencil sharpener(s)

___ Location of windows

___ Chalk- or dry-erase boards

___ Lighting

___ Telephone line

___ Stationary cabinets

___ Laboratory (science, home economics, art) equipment

Technology-related Equipment

___ Computer(s)

___ VCR

___ Audiotape player; CD Player/Record player

___ Television

___ Laser disc player

___ Overhead projector

___ Opaque projector

___ Screen


___ Teacher’s desk and chair

___ Stool

___ Podium

___ Wardrobe(s)

___ Student desks or tables

___ Wastebasket(s)

___ File cabinet(s)

___ Table(s)

___ Chairs

___ Bookshelves


Once the furniture is arranged, you will next need to concentrate on supplies that will be useful in your work. First, take inventory of what is already available in your room. Then, make a list of items you will need, based on these suggestions:

•   Lined paper

•   Construction paper

•   Scotch tape

•   Book covers

•   Stapler(s) and staples

•   3-hole punch

•   Paper clips

•   Pens

•   Rulers

•   Computer disks

•   Hanging folders

•   File folders

•   Overhead markers

•   Attendance book

•   Scantrons (machine-scored answer sheets)

•   Plain paper

•   Masking tape

•   File cards

•   Post-it notes

•   Pencils

•   Scissors

•   Videotapes

•   Index cards

•   Dry-erase markers or chalk

•   Dictionaries

•   Lesson plan book

•   Multipurpose cleaner and paper towels

•   Tissues

•   Snacks to munch on (for you)

In addition to these general supplies, you will also need those related to your subject—chemicals for science teachers, balls for physical education, paint and clay for art, food for consumer and family sciences. Consult with your department head and other colleagues for suggestions in this area.


It is helpful to have a place in your room where students who have been absent can pick up their makeup work or a paper that was passed back when they were gone. Some methods that teachers have used successfully are these:

•   A notebook binder where handouts—instructional as well as homework—can be found for each given day

•   A file folder, posted on the wall or placed in a drawer in a hanging file or situated in a storage box

•   A calendar posted with each assignment listed

•   A list of assignments on a poster board

•   An area of the chalkboard listing the day or week’s objectives and assignments


Easy access to first-aid supplies is important. Band-Aids are commonly requested. You will want to have the basic supplies readily available so as not to waste class time looking for them.

You will probably receive Band-Aids, a disinfectant, cotton swabs, sterile gauze pads, and gloves in a first-aid kit from the nurse’s/health office. It is a good idea to include safety pins in the kit for torn clothing. For serious problems, immediately refer the student to the school nurse or health aide.


Often new teachers receive schedules that require them to move from room to room for part or all of the day. Most teachers in this situation select one room as a home base and then use a cart to carry office supplies and the resources they need for each day. They prepare posters on large display paper, poster boards, or large Post-it notes that they can easily post when they arrive at the scheduled room. In each room, they identify bulletin board space and chalk or dry-erase board space to reserve for their classes. Their students are directed as to where to locate information pertinent to their specific class. In such mobile situations, it is important to keep the lines of communication open with the other teachers so that cooperation can be maximized.

Another secret is to color-code items for each class according to the room they will be used in. For example, use a red book cover on the text, red file folders, and a red notebook binder for course materials for the “red” room. It’s also wise to carry “emergency” enrichment and/or review activities at all times. They will be useful in any of the following scenarios:

•   you are called away from the class

•   the students finish an activity more quickly than you anticipated with plenty of time before the end of the period

•   you discover that students don’t have the prior knowledge you expected in order to move to the next level activity

Even more important for “traveling teachers” is to begin and end classes promptly so that the room can be prepared for the next group. Establish routines for materials and supplies to be collected and desks rearranged at the end of the period, if necessary. Let students know where they can find you before and after school if they want to see you, rather than approach you with personal questions at the beginning or end of the class in the room you are trying to vacate. Since the between-class-periods time is limited, consider developing communication through other means (journaling, email, etc.).


You may decide to bring some things from home to make the room more comfortable, such as a fan, a desk lamp, posters, magazines and books, and/or supplies. When I (Ellen) was teaching World History, I brought in a life-sized model of a knight’s armor which I posted as a sentry by the door. The students enjoyed touching the metal, feeling how heavy the helmet was, and seeing how the visor moved. Some teachers bring in plants and comfortable chairs or sofas, space and district permitting. In most situations, these efforts will be greatly appreciated and not disturbed by your students.

In summary, how you arrange the space for learning is as critical as anything else you do as part of your teaching method and style. If the learning environment is uncomfortable, unattractive, distracting, or unduly plain and dull, you cannot maximize the possibilities for fun, organization, and focused concentration that will be necessary in the tasks that you plan.

Your classroom is your new home. In some cases, you will spend as much time there as the place where you live. Customize and decorate it in such a way that it becomes a comfortable base for your work and an inviting place for others to visit.