There is an award plaque on my office wall featuring a common education icon—an old fashioned desk. You know the one—cast iron frame with a wooden bench seat and a hinged slant top. Style has changed, but the desk is still a classroom staple. If guests on a game show were asked to list the five most common things in a classroom I’m sure student desks (neatly aligned), a blackboard (even though most of them are whiteboards now) and a teacher’s desk (accessorized with an apple) would make the list.
My classroom isn’t like most classrooms. There are no desks--just tables. Lately I’ve been wondering if 25 years of teaching in a room with tables rather than desks has had a profound impact on my education philosophy.
Have you noticed that as most of us move through the education system we use desks more and tables less? Tables are commonplace in the learning centers of primary classrooms. Many teachers in the intermediate grades combine student desks into clusters. They are quasi-tables used for some activities, but they’re still very much individual workspaces. By high school the desk and its chair have become a single unit--usually arranged in rows facing the front. By the time we go to college, the desk has often evolved into a theater seat with a fold up lapboard. Only in graduate level seminars do tables seem to make a reappearance.
A desk is physically and philosophically singular, defining personal working space. Desks also establish pecking order. The teacher’s desk is bigger than the student’s desk. The principal’s desk is bigger than the teacher’s desk. And the superintendent’s desk is the biggest of them all. (School secretaries and bookkeepers often get bigger desks than teachers and that should tell us all something about power, but that discussion is for another day.) Interacting from behind a desk establishes territory, authority, and control over the conversation. What lies on a desk in full public view is still understood to be private and off limits.
Tables are different. They demand at least acknowledgement of tablemates. Tables enhance inquiry and projects but can complicate teacher delivered information. Sitting around a table requires a certain level of social awareness as you work in your space while respecting the space of others. Tables imply equality. They encourage collaboration and teamwork. Even when someone is presiding at the head of the table the assumption is that input will be sought and opinions will be heard.
I think we need more tables in our schools. But tables can be risky. Tables can facilitate collaboration, but they can also encourage non-productivity. Classroom management is more complicated when students are facing each other rather than the teacher. And although tables allow for interaction, they also create the opportunity for closed conversations and intentional exclusion. Teaching around tables requires careful preparation, active communication, and constant monitoring.
While I think we need more table time in our classrooms, I also believe we could use more table time in our profession. Our schools would be more vibrant, effective and efficient if teachers could sit down at the table with colleagues, administrators, policymakers, researchers and future teachers more often. I know this because of what I have gained from four years of participating in the professional learning activities of the Teacher Leaders Network. What I have gleaned at our virtual TLN roundtable has made me a more effective teacher in my classroom, a more useful contributor to my own school community, and has prepared me to work with stakeholders who set education policy.
I hope you will pull up your chair and join me here at the table for some conversation.
The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.