Clear out the clutter!

On Page 19 of the Times today, there is a report on how local authorities, including Norfolk and Newham in east London, have commissioned Elizabeth Jarman, an independent consultant, to help ‘declutter’ school classrooms and nurseries to make them calmer environments.

Instead of being a riot of colour, classrooms are being transformed with the use of neutral tones, to calm children down and improve their behaviour and attainment.

This is absolutely what I have been promoting for years.  If children can arrive into a calm, focussed, purposeful environment, then their learning will also be calm, focussed and purposeful.

Too often, schools as a whole and individual classrooms are cluttered and full of all sorts of unnecessary ‘stuff’.  First impressions really matter and whether that is a parent arriving in the main reception of a school, or a child arriving in the classroom for the start of the school day, it is important that they feel that the school is in control, that they are not distracted and that their brain is not over-stimulated by the wrong things.

Think about your last visit to a school – were there boxes in the corridors, coats on floors, piles of children’s work in classrooms, half-dead plants, uncared for fish tanks, things stuck on windows, or marks on the windows where sellotape had been used on them at some point in the distant past, computer cables trailing down the walls?

If not all of them, I bet there were some.

Is this what you see when you walk into the very best work environments? – Think of the Apple Store, or any other high-performing offices that you’ve either worked in or visited. – The clutter, or lack of care wouldn’t exist, because they value the environment, they want to give the impression that they care – both for their employees, but for their clients and for the work they do as well.

So, time to transform our classrooms to show that we as teachers care – because we do (if you are a teacher reading this who doesn’t care, then you are in the wrong job!).

Schools often complain that they do not have enough storage.  I would argue that this isn’t always the case, but instead that we try to store too much!

Here are my top-tips for a calm, purposeful classroom.

  • Nothing stuck on glass – clear away anything that is stuck on any internal or external windows in your classroom.  Let in as much natural light as possible.  Once you’ve taken everything down, the windows might need a clean.  If the cleaners are too busy for this, you might need to do it yourself – a pain, but it will be worth it.
  • Nothing on window sills – again, to let in as much natural light as possible, also inevitably, every time the blinds or curtains are shut, whatever is on the window sills gets knocked over!
  • Clear out the book box – get rid of anything that is ripped, tatty or drawn on, make sure all the books are facing the right way and are the right way up.  Here, quality is more important than quantity.  Use a set list of core books for each year group – there is a great one produced by the CLPE – and stick to these books in each classroom.  Make sure the books have plastic jackets on them to protect them and last longer.  I’ve seen too many book boxes crammed with books where children cannot browse through them because there are too many there.
  • Introduce a clear desk policy – Tidy away at the end of every session, so that when children arrive back after assembly, after break, or after lunch, they arrive to clear desks, ready to focus again on their learning – think of this as an adult, how do you feel when you arrive to a desk of paperwork and marking, compared to when you arrive to it being clear?
  • Let children focus on what is being taught – After school one day, go and sit in one of the children’s chairs.  Look at your classroom from a child’s perspective.  Look at the whiteboard where most of the teacher input happens.  What is around the whiteboard that stops the children focussing on you as a teacher, or on the whiteboard where you are demonstrating what the children should be learning?  I am sure there will be posters, resources, sets of trays, piles of unmarked work – clear it away so that the children can have a sharp focus on the whiteboard, or wherever it is that the majority of the teaching happens.
  • Surface displays – Use the tops of low-level cupboards and tray units for good quality, 3-D displays.  If they are left empty, they will get piled up with books, paper and all sorts of other items.
  • Take shelves down – If your shelves are getting cluttered with ‘stuff’, be radical.  Take them down! – Is all that ‘stuff’ really needed?
  • Remove furniture – Get rid of anything that is unnecessary – although get the site-supervisor / school leaders’ permission first!
  • Cups – The bane of my life! – Make sure cups, plates and any other eating or drinking vessels are returned to the staffroom/kitchen, not lingering in classrooms
  • Plants – get rid of any dead (or half-dead plants).  Your classroom will be better without them.  But for the very best solution, your school should make an investment in this area.  There are companies where you can hire plants – they will visit monthly and water them and maintain them – and replace them if they are not thriving.  You can have matching plant pots throughout the school to match the school colours.  This is definitely a worthwhile investment and sets an excellent impression throughout the whole school.  And don’t settle for artificial plants – children should be exposed to the real, living things.
  • Temperature – Too many classrooms are too hot.  Get a thermometer for the classroom wall – I’ve used the type you can get for baby’s bedrooms – to show the ideal temperature.  Radiators can then be turned down (first) and then windows opened (second!) to get to a comfortable level.

A key to this is that it isn’t about teachers and school adults working harder, or doing more.  Train the children to follow good habits – appoint monitors – children to look after the book box, children to check the temperature, children to clear window sills, etc.  This will empower them, not detract from anything else they are doing.

School leaders must also lead by example – what does the headteacher’s office look like?  What does the main reception area look like?  What about the room where parents are taken for meetings?  If a parent is irate, are they encouraged into a room that will help them to calm and engage in conversation, or a room that will support their fury?

If as a teacher, you are a lone-warrior and the school as a whole does not lead you in your mission and your head’s office does reflect a seen from the school jumble sale, please don’t let this put you off.  It will not only be the children who benefit from a clearer classroom, but I can guarantee that you will feel better too.

Please do though remember, that I am not promoting dull and uninspiring classrooms – I still want to see role-play corners that reflect the children’s topic/project (all the way up to Year 6 in a Primary School) – and also rich, stimulating book corners that invite children in and encourage a love of reading.

I’d love to hear your comments and suggestions on this below.  It would be great if teachers sent their before and after photographs to and I’ll post them here.

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