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I see what you aren’t saying: hidden messages of classroom setup

Carol Buckley
July 28, 2021

The degrees have been earned and certification tests passed. Graduation ceremonies and parties are over. Diplomas were dispersed and framed. You prepared for the interviews and finally the job offer happened. New elementary teachers will spend the next few months working feverishly on preparing their first classroom for that much awaited first day of school when their very first class of students arrive. How exciting! 

You will undoubtedly stew over every detail and re-arrange things several times in your mind and in person before you have your classroom just the way you want it to be. Desks are arranged in pods for cooperative learning. You invested in a classroom library, and have books arranged by category in visually appealing decorative bins. There is an adorable bean bag, a child-sized sofa and soft pillows that invite all readers to get lost in a book. 

As we scan the rest of the room, it is clear that you care about and want to inspire the young learners you are about to meet. You have carefully selected a theme with which they will find meaning. You have inspirational messages, encouraging words and quotes carefully placed around the room. Your small group table is carefully placed near the many crates of leveled readers for all possible levels of reading needs. In clear view for students is a word wall you will add to as the year unfolds. Each desk top displays a neatly stacked set of textbooks, a brand new pencil and eraser, and probably some small token from the teacher to soften the edges of starting a new school year. A warm welcome is written on the board. A sign on the teacher’s desk displays what book he or she is currently reading, so students see him or her as a reader. A jobs chart and subject/activity titles are hanging from the board and are prepared in such a way that changing it day-to-day will be easy. You may even have cute posters around the room to promote good behavior and strong character.

As a professor of pre-service teachers, each summer I note with interest the many pictures of classrooms posted on various social media sites. Recent grads who are in their first teaching position proudly post pictures when they put the finishing touches on their new classrooms, and rightfully so. They have put a lot of hard work, time, thought and money into having the room just the way they want it. This room is definitely a reflection on you, and the appearance of it will speak volumes to administration and colleagues, but more importantly it will send a strong message to your students and their parents/guardians about what you value. This is a big deal! First impressions will be made based not only on what is visible, but also on what ISN’T visible. 

In the room described above, the teacher is clearly encouraging students to read. It is also clear that he or she cares about character development and socialization. The teacher doesn’t have to say a thing. Students and parents can tell what is valued simply by looking around the room. 

But what do we know about the teachers’ thoughts on mathematics? Students and all who enter the classroom will hear what the teacher is not saying about math. Students like or dislike of mathematics will likely follow the lead of the adults in their world. If math is not visible in your classroom, students will interpret this as a dislike of math or lack of importance.

You have the opportunity to influence the young learners in your class. Elementary students deserve to have a teacher who is equally as ambitious and enthusiastic about teaching math  as they are about teaching English-language arts or any other subject. You have a responsibility to inspire and engage those learners, sparking a love of math. Your attitude about the content you teach will be contagious. 

So, as you set up your classroom this summer, be proud of your accomplishments. Be ambitious and tireless in your preparation. But please consider including a math museum, math centers and math manipulatives. Tell the families who will soon be entering your room that you value math.

Carol Buckley is an associate professor of mathematics at Messiah University in Pennsylvania.

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