The journey of a chair

5 min read

Voice of the Educator

At the end of a long day, a tired first grade student lifts her chair, flips it over and lays the seat down on the top of her desk. The story of the journey of how it got there can tell us a lot about what she learns at school and what it means to be a student.

Like the choice in Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, how a teacher chooses to get the student to put the chair on the desk might at first seem not too matter much, but in the long run it can make all the difference. Or does it?

Before we look at the choices a teacher has in getting the chair from the floor to the top of the desk, let’s examine what both choices have in common:

  • First-grade students in general are not intrinsically motivated to put chairs on the desks.
  • Even though they might not be motivated to do so, it is a worthwhile task for a student to do and learn to accept responsibility for.
  • The teacher should accept responsibility for helping the student assume responsibility for doing that task.
  • There are many worthwhile reasons and benefits for having students put their chairs on their desks at the end of the day.
  • At the end of the day, the chair should end up on the desk.

There is one question however that might be answered differently depending upon your point of view: Does it really matter how the teacher got the student to put the chair on the desk, as long as the student learned to do it and did it on a routine basis?

I will leave it to the reader to decide if it matters, after I analyze the two choices and their trajectory to the desired result — the chair on the desk.

Choice one

From the start of the school year, the teacher regularly meets with her class to discuss how things are going in the room. She facilitates a discussion where they talk about what needs to be done at the end of the school day. The class generates a list of things to do as a class including what each individual student must do. Putting their chairs on the desk is one of the items on the list. The teacher tells the class that if the entire class remembers to put their chairs on the desks every day Monday through Thursday, they will earn a reward of extra free time at the end of the day on Friday. This plan works very well and the class typically earns the desired free time on Fridays for rest of the school year.

Choice two

From the start of the school year, the teacher regularly meets with her class to discuss how things are going in the room. During the first week of school, she invites Mr. Green, the school custodian, to meet with the class. He explains to the students what his daily responsibilities are for cleaning the school. He mentions that an important part of cleaning is sweeping and mopping the floor. If the chairs are already put on the desks, he will have a much easier job and he will be able to devote more time to cleaning other things too. He explains that by helping him they are also helping themselves and their school. The teacher allows time for the class to ask him questions about his job and himself. At the end of his time with the class, Mr. Green asks the students if they would be willing to take responsibility for putting their chairs on their desks, and every student answers “yes.” As the year goes on, the students regularly put their chairs on their desks with no reward or expectation of one. If a student should happen to forget, the teacher says: “Remember, Mr. Green.  Thank you.” and the chair goes up on the desk.


Both teachers are doing a good job creating a sense of ownership for the classroom. Both classes of students are learning to be responsible and developing good habits. Both approaches are preferable to ordering, reprimanding, correcting and if need be threatening students to do their jobs or suffer negative consequences.

Does the difference in approaches/choices that the teacher makes to achieve the same end make any difference in what the students really learn?

My choice

I would prefer the second choice because when the students are putting their chairs on the desk at the end of the day, in their minds, they are doing so to help a person they know do an important job. A job that benefits the other students and themselves. That simple act of putting a chair on a desk becomes more than a job because it is tied to a “noble” purpose. Students are more likely to see themselves and their peers as people who do helpful things for important reasons. Their personal gain, other then benefiting from a cleaner school, is removed from the equation. They are learning to give for the benefit of giving and enjoying the feeling and satisfaction that comes from the act itself not what the act gets for them. These students are more likely to carry this identity of helper and giver into other situations and later into their lives. This responsibility also enriches their lives.

To me it does make a difference. How about you?

Regardless of your answer, I also think it is worthwhile to discuss this type of question with colleagues.

Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including twenty as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written two books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden) and No Place for Bullying (Corwin). He writes a blog at