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It’s all about that space

6 min read

Voice of the Educator

This month, SmartBlog on Education is exploring classroom design and management — just in time for the new school year. In this blog post, education leader Fred Ende explores four classroom design principles.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist. But, in reality, it truly is. The environments in which we live and work are reflections of the ways in which we live and work. A well-organized classroom or office gives off a vibe of all machinery operating in collaboration, of tremendous thought going into decision-making and of role and responsibility in concert. A school building or district office with student work adorning the walls speaks to the importance of stakeholder voice, and of knowing, and believing in, those being served.

Much conversation and discussion focuses on managing classrooms and meetings, and how the teacher, facilitator and leader needs to manage up, rather than directing down.  While these conversations are important, valid and necessary, less focus appears to be placed on considering how the design of one’s space can sometimes be all the management that is needed.

Let’s take a look at four space design considerations that can help you consider what your space says, and how those who live within (or simply visit) might answer. As a connected aside, I highly recommend that everyone regularly read The New York Times Workspace column. Running every few Sundays in the Business section, this column takes an in-depth look at how leaders across professions live, learn and lead based on the spaces they’ve designed.

Design consideration 1: Face-time is key. Where you sit in your space tells an important story. Are you facing a window? Are you looking toward the door? Are you tucked away in a corner? When others walk into your space, are they able to look into your eyes when they speak with you, or are they looking into the back of your head? If we want “our” spaces to feel like spaces where “everyone” is welcome, then we need to be situated in a way where we can welcome others into our space. This often means putting a desk or main table where you have a direct line-of-sight to the door (or doors) leading in, and out of, your space. Both easy and difficult conversations become most efficient when we can look into each other’s eyes as we speak. It also reduces the need to begin every conversation with “Excuse me. . .” which unnaturally formalizes every interaction. Finally, it reminds each of us that being in our space is just as much about getting out of it, and focusing on the relationships we have with those we serve. In my space, my desk is right near the door, and I can look and welcome all who enter. An additional benefit to this is that while those who know me can enter and we can chat at a table in my office, those who don’t can chat with me from the hall, should they choose, keeping conversation control in their hands, should that make them feel more comfortable.

Design consideration 2: Showcase who you are. If our spaces are a reflection of us, then they should serve more like a mirror than as a safe-deposit box. Whether we work primarily with students, educators, parents or another stakeholder group, we want our spaces to show the world who we are, and what makes us tick. For me, this means displaying the work of others, highlighting successes of my organization, displaying calming artwork and promoting my love of comics and science fiction. I’m a case in point of how an abstract wall hanging with neutral colors can live opposite from a cartoon rendering of the carbonite scene from The Empire Strikes Back. And it works. Why? Because that’s who I am in person, and people expect that’s who I’ll be in my space. The worst thing we can do is lead too many lives for people to ever learn who we really are.

Design consideration 3: Remember where you came from.  Whether we are just beginning our careers or beginning to end them, we are where we are due to our previous collection of experiences.  Our spaces must not only show who we are now, but how we “became.”  This means that we need to surround ourselves with examples of the good and the not-so-good that has gotten us to our current spaces.  How do I hold to this consideration?  I decorate my space with student work from my time in the classroom, notes and letters from those I have worked with in the past, pictures and choice words form various members of my family, and, just as importantly, reminders of failures, because really, that’s what keeps us reaching ever higher.

Design consideration 4: Think wheels, not glue. Our spaces should never become static. Just as much as we might redesign student space usage or adult learner workshop space, we should do the same with our own personal spaces. I regularly add and subtract artifacts in my office, whether it be desktop pieces, my daughters’ work, books to leave on the table for others to peruse, Spider-Man memorabilia, you name it. This doesn’t mean every change needs to be a major one (we all like routine, after all), but it does mean that your space should live like it is on wheels, rather than glued to the floor (or wall).

I’m not a design theorist, or an architect or an engineer, but I do recognize the importance of design thinking.  If we want to learn best, regardless of our professional role, we need to allow our bodies and minds to get into the frame where they can operate best. Certainly much goes into this. But a tremendous factor is how the space in which we’re going to do our best work feels, looks, and simply, “is.”  And if this is the case for us, then it is surely the case for others. So, if we make it all about that space, then there should be no trouble.

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam Northern Westchester BOCES. Fred blogs at www.fredende.blogspot.com, Edutopia and ASCD EDge.

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