Practise Teaching, Teaching Practice: On Desks and Classroom ‘Feng Shui’

“Practise Teaching, Teaching Practice:” is a series of tips and observations about fundamentals for great teaching based on my experience as a teacher for over twenty years and also as a trainer of teachers for much of that time. 

There was a problem in a music department, I was asked to investigate. I went to observe a lesson: mayhem… What to do? In these situations it is unlikely that a couple of ‘tricks’ will sort out the situation but I did observe something  quite astonishing and it was the teacher’s desk. The teacher was sat behind a very large desk with her head buried in a book from which she was dictating notes. On the desk there were piles of books for marking, returning and also piles of manuscripts and other books. The thing was, from her sedentary position she was unable to see the class and they were unable to see her. The books and manuscripts served as ramparts protecting the teacher from the barbarian hordes.

But this was not all, on the side of the desk facing the class was first a drum kit and then, in order to stop children approaching the drum kit, there was a semi circle of unfurled music stands creating a moat around the desk by which the teacher had completely cut herself off from the class. After the observation I asked her about her fortifications and she looked in surprise at what she had built over the years and agreed that something needed to be done. Of course there were issues behind her unconscious building of these impregnable defences, they were an outward sign of how the relationship between a teacher and classes can break down over time. It is also a good illustration of how little things like ‘desks’ can communicate an attitude towards teaching and learning.

Here, then, are my recommendations as to what to do with desks and a few other basic items of classroom furniture and accessories:

If you have a chance to ‘design’ your classroom then you should do so. Every space offers its own particular challenges but, if you can, try to get as near to the ideal a possible. There are likely to be three or four things you can do little about, the door(s), the window(s), the board, and the cupboard. I take it as a given that these can be distributed awkwardly and, if so, one has to do one’s best. Generally if you have a board on one wall the desk should be positioned ‘stage right’ of the board. Stage right means to the teacher’s right as she faces the class. The left of the board is a less ‘imposing’ place for the desk to be. The most imposing place for the desk would be central but this will begin to act as an awkward barrier to the board especially if the board is to be used a lot.

Einstein is reported to have said that: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” Far from thinking your desk should be cluttered (an office desk might be a different matter) I do think that a desk with little on it or of excessive tidiness might not be the best  way to ‘face’ a class. What is on your desk shows snippets of your personality, interests and also a bit a bit your attitude to the subjects you teach: perhaps a family photo, or a picture of your favourite football team, though I would not display pictures of heart throbs and pin ups! A picture or two of your subject heroes might be fun. Books, both reference and current reading, should be on view and used, not allowed to gather dust. If you have a lap top do not have it too central and only use it when necessary. A desk tidy with pens and rulers etc. is always useful. It might be good to have a few exercise books and spare paper on your desk too. A plant or two might be nice if you nurture them, if you are lazy don’t bother and never compromise with a cactus! Do not collect dirty cups on your desk ever!

If you have a ‘teacher chair’ use it behind the teacher’s desk but also bring it out to the centre should you wish to have the option to sit and talk as well as stand and talk when you use the space in front of the board. This means that you have a ‘performance area’ from where you can ‘teach’ as well as from behind the teacher’s desk. It might be useful to have a lectern in this area, also to the right of the whiteboard, should you so wish.

The wastepaper bin should be either near the desk or to the left of the whiteboard depending on how you want to use it, in some classrooms there are now two bins and if this is the case I would place them in these two areas.

The clock should be placed on the wall opposite the board, easily visible to the teacher at all times and in a ‘traditional’ classroom set up this will also mean that the clock is ‘behind’ the class so as not to prove a distraction to a class at certain moments.

Pupil desks should be arranged by the teacher beforehand where possible in a way that suits the needs for the lesson to be taught and the class it is being taught to. Rows facing the teacher is very good for teacher led lessons where there is a lot of use of the whiteboard. Desks arranged in groups are very good for group work. Desks arranged for group work are not good for teacher led lessons so change the arrangement when necessary. My favourite set up, particularly for sixth form lessons, is the ‘horse shoe’ and I would have this as my default. If you have fewer pupils than there are chairs and tables (lucky you) ensure pupils sit near to the front and in the middle before they fill in the back and the sides. The number of times I have seen pupils sit mainly at the back and the sides (AND still wearing their coats!) is extraordinary and it doesn’t bode well for (that word) engagement.

Bookshelves are useful, as are other shelves at the back and the sides and thoughtful display can make a classroom feel more welcoming for all.

This is the way I would set up my room, even if you disagree with my conclusions then please think about how you set things up as I am sure it can help make teaching more effective.


4 thoughts on “Practise Teaching, Teaching Practice: On Desks and Classroom ‘Feng Shui’

  1. I like the careful planning that has gone into this. I’d make a couple of changes in my primary setting though.
    I love having a desk and keep it very much as you said. It’s my personal space with things I need and things I like. However, I don’t sit at it during lesson time so have it pushed against the wall. In the past I’ve had a desk facing children but they have a tendency to queue up at it – drives me crazy.
    The clock faces the children. They are still learning to tell the time so it makes sense to use it.
    I’ve never found the ideal table arrangement. Groups mean not everyone is facing you, rows and horseshoes seem to creep forward and resources fall off the tables.
    The bin has to be very accessible and visible, if only to check who is spending all lesson sharpening their pencil.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I let them see the clock (I’m at High School). Otherwise since few wear watches they have a tendency to pull their phones out to check the time. I then have to chide students for an action that is unnecessary if I let them see the clock.

    I don’t find it makes them any more likely to pack up early (although they know that I will make them unpack if they do, and I pretty much always teach to the final minute).


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