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The Un-Perfect Classroom

I was one of three new kids in my bunk at camp in 1989.  The rest of the girls who were in my bunk had been together for a few years and were known for getting perfect tens on daily bunk inspections.  That summer, I was the kid who made my bunk get nines, rather than tens, because I wasn’t so good at at making hospital corners when I made my bed.  Every day, my bunk mates would be disappointed when they didn’t receive a perfect ten.  Quite frankly, I didn’t care… I thought a nine was good enough.  After all, I made my bed and it looked neat.  However, it was was never made perfectly enough for the person who was inspecting the bunks.  Fortunately, the girls in my bunk and I became friends despite the fact I was caused them to get less than perfect scores on bunk inspection.  I guess they realized perfection was overrated.

I hadn’t thought about the bunk thing for over 20 years until I heard Douglas Reeves,  founder of The Leadership and Learning Center, deliver a keynote, “Doing the Right Things, Right Now,” at the TCRWP Writing Institute earlier this summer.  One of the many insightful things he said was:

“Perfect classrooms mean no risk-taking is going on.”

Something about that triggered the memory of the almost-perfect scores I caused my bunkmates to receive.   And then, right after that thought popped into my brain, I began to think about my classrooms.  They were never as neat as other teachers’ classrooms.  They were organized, but they never looked like they were ready for a visit from the Secretary of Education or the President of the United States.

After hearing Reeves say that “perfect classrooms mean no risk-taking is going on,” I realized the appearance of my classroom was more than okay because something of great importance was happening inside Room 310.  (BTW:  I’ve only taught in Room 310, both in New York and Rhode Island.)

April 2009 | Delivering a minilesson in my classroom | As you can see, the area that served as my desk/media station, was adjacent to the meeting area. It wasn't exactly picture perfect, was it?

My alma mater, The George Washington University, had a slogan they used in admissions materials.  It was, “SOMETHING HAPPENS HERE.”  I borrowed that slogan and used it as the motto for my classroom year after year.  I believe this slogan connects with the idea that Reeves asserted, “perfect classrooms mean no risk-taking is going on.”  When something big is happening in classrooms, students are encouraged to take risks.  Risk-taking and true learning is never neat… it’s messy.  And that’s okay.

August 2008 | My classroom was looked much more perfect before the students arrived. (Isn't that always the case?)

I always tried to make my classroom perfect for the first day of school.  Once the kids “moved in,” it was nearly impossible to keep it looking perfect since so much was happening in there.  As you prepare your classroom for the beginning of the 2011-12 school year, remember, your classroom shouldn’t look flawless once the kids arrive.  If kids are communicating with one another and are engaged in learning that fosters collaboration and stimulates critical thinking, it’s more than acceptable for your classroom to look less than perfect.

14 thoughts on “The Un-Perfect Classroom

  1. I always wonder about the really neat rooms. When do you have time? Teaching is really hard, messy work. If your brain doesn’t hurt and your room is perfect, you are doing something wrong!


  2. I prefer a reasonably well ordered environment (especially at the beginning and end of each day) and I think children respond well to this too – isn’t there a danger that everything just become so much junk if it’s strewn about everywhere? Over the years I’ve inherited classrooms that are in a shocking state. I can think of one & the previous occupant had a ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude to his class! By the way, I feel happy about the learning that happens in my classroom.


  3. I always tell me kiddos that I should not be allowed to walk around the room with stuff. I always stop to comment on a student’s progress and put the stuff down somewhere. We have a good time retracing my steps and find what I am looking for. I try not to leave me too many free surfaces to put things down. This way I can’t lose things….


  4. I totally identify with the writer of this article and know that I have a classroom that is full of full of good learning, but never seems to satisfy the naturally neat people that I encounter regularly. Thanks for sharing. I think that I will keep this.


  5. When I interviewed for my current position I was asked by the principal “If I come into your room at any given moment, what will I see?” I replied with a smile, Organized Chaos. She laughed and I got the job. Since then, that is what my room has been. Organized Chaos. Equipment, papers, students all in differing places, people up, people down, people talking, people listening. It’s called learning and being interactive with each other. And we have a lot of fun while we do it.


  6. Every year is a new beginning and I search for new ways to be organized and have a “perfect” classroom. It never lasts past the first day so I’m saving this blog to cheer myself up–and find validation.


  7. I remember a very clear statement from a former principal. She told me that my room wasn’t conducive to learning. This was a science/s.s. class and the students had nothing to obstruct their view. After that comment I have always taken pictures of my class before and after my student have left the room.


  8. My room is always a work in progress. Desks are never in nice straight rows because kids move around a lot. School tools are out and being used. Another thing about my room–it’s never quiet. I am just as suspicious of quiet rooms as I am of perfect ones….if it’s quiet, what are kids doing?


  9. I worked with a teacher who was visited by her superintendent one day. She apologized for her messy classroom as she and her students were engaged in a hands on activity. The superintendent replied, “I am not worried about the messy classroom, I would be worried if it was too neat. I can see that there is a lot going on in here.”


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