How do I set up a comfortable classroom to meet students’ needs as well as my own?

Deal with required things like bathroom procedures first. Use pillows and cushions for alternative seating and decorate with art. Have a place for coats and other personal items.

A teacher smiling and decorating their classroom
Two teachers need support arranging their classrooms. One asks about classroom decor and the other wants to know what items Dr. Kem can’t live without. (Source: Halfpoint images / Getty | Photo Illustration: Lauren Bryant / Chalkbeat)

Two teachers seek help in setting up their classrooms.

I really want my students to feel comfortable and safe in my classroom. Do you have any ideas for how to decorate to convey that message? I teach middle school. — Cozy Classroom

Cozy Classroom,

Welcome to the part of teaching that requires you to have a thorough understanding of interior design with a touch of Feng Shui. 

Middle grade students change from minute to minute. At 9 a.m., they’re nostalgic for the good old days of elementary school. By 9:05 a.m., they want to be in high school so they can “do whatever they want.” Your classroom should reflect ways to foster their independence while supporting your rules and procedures.

Take care of required items first:

  • Bathroom procedures - Do you have a sign-out sheet, or electronic or print passes? Do you require permission or can they just leave?
  • Classroom supplies - Do students know how to get pencils, paper, highlighters, scissors, and extra chargers?
  • Cell phone storage and chargers
  • Books and classroom libraries
  • Period products
  • First aid supplies 
  • Games and puzzles (especially Monopoly, Jenga, Uno, Phase 10, and Taboo).

A great thing to have for your classroom is alternative seating. When I taught middle school, I scoured thrift stores and marketplaces for couches and chairs. I invested in rugs and pillows. I created classroom centers and allowed students, as an incentive, to work on assignments in these designated areas.

When decorating wall spaces and boards, it’s important to strike a balance between district-required bulletins and posters and items that show your personality as a teacher. 

Don’t be afraid to hang art and curtains. My classroom looks like an art museum since painting is my hobby. It’s a great conversation starter because students want to know who’s the artist and the inspiration behind my work. Search “classroom decor” on YouTube for inspiration.

Cozy Classroom, create a space where you won’t have to stop instruction to help a student locate the tools they need to be successful. 

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[Are you a teacher? Submit your question for our advice column here.]


What are some of your must-have items to keep in a classroom or personal bag? Not school supplies, more like “I’m a human who spends 8-10 hours a day here” supplies. — Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins,

Here are the items I can’t live without:

Coat closet. Where I live, we experience all four seasons. Sometimes in one week. Our HVAC system can’t keep up with the climate changes. One of my pet peeves is that many high school classrooms don’t come with coat closets. Life has taught me to prepare a place to keep many changes of clothes. At work, I have a sweater and a place to hang my coats and jackets. 

Comfortable shoes. Teachers everywhere need to be prepared with shoes that allow them to stand on their feet for extended periods of time. I wear tennis shoes daily because we have vinyl composition tile over concrete floors that can put a strain on your back and knees. Students may tease you about wearing tennis shoes, but your overall long-term health is important.

Lotion. You will become a hero on cold days if you have plenty of lotion. Students will come from miles around to slather on moisturizing lotion. You’ll find that your supplies dwindle quickly, so tuck away a bottle for yourself.

Essential oil diffuser. We aren’t allowed to burn candles or other scented items. I understand the fire hazard. The problem I have with this rule is I always have crowded classrooms with students who are still learning personal hygiene. I recommend every teacher use a fragrance source. My personal preference, which also seems to be the safest, is oils for diffusers. 

Healthy snacks. The snack machine in the teachers’ lounge is not your friend; pack your own favorites.

A lockbox. My school was built in the 1970s. There is an open-concept design which was supposed to allow for cooperative work between classes. An unfortunate outcome with this flexible workspace is that it eliminates privacy and security. If your building’s design does not include a locked facility for your personal items, bring your own. 

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A planner. Online planners are nice but there’s nothing like an old-school teacher planning book. These books really help you visualize your plans and keep you on track.

Finally, purchase a journal. It’s a treat to go back and read over your thoughts from year-to-year as you grow as an educator.

Dr. Kem Smith is Chalkbeat’s first advice columnist. She is a full-time 12th-grade English teacher in St. Louis, Missouri. Submit your question to Dr. Kem via this submission form, and subscribe to How I Teach to receive her column in your inbox.

If you have a rebuttal or additional advice you’d like to share with Cozy Classroom or Mary Poppins, please email afterthebell@chalkbeat.org.

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