Teaching

Older Students Deserve Colorful Classrooms, Too

By Caitlyn Meisner — August 15, 2023 6 min read
Brittany Hagan, an eighth year English-language arts teacher near Philadelphia, sets up her classroom each year to provide a calming environment for her middle school students.
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As students age, they are inevitably bogged down by more homework, more responsibility, and more stress, yet they’re given less visually stimulating classrooms than in their early school careers.

Why is that?

Classrooms for older elementary and secondary students often lack enough color or stimulation for students to remain engaged. Studies have shown the visual environment of a student can impact their attention and learning. A colorful, welcoming environment can assist in making students feel welcome in the classroom, which may be sorely needed. Only 38 percent of students said their school was welcoming, according to a 2022 Qualtrics survey of high school students.

Education Week spoke with three teachers who shared their ideas for enhancing the classroom environment on TikTok. For Jaclyn Richie, Brittany Hagan, and Tia Trapasso, creating a classroom environment to welcome students each and every day is an important part of their teaching philosophy.

“My main goal [is for] the classroom to be a place that the kids like being in,” said Trapasso, a 5th grade English/language arts teacher near Worcester, Mass. “I try to view the classroom through their eyes and ask what is going to feel most inviting and functional for the day to day.”

‘They deserve a decorated classroom, too’

Richie, a high school U.S. history teacher in New Iberia, La., said every student—even high schoolers—deserves a classroom full of color and personality.

“You go through elementary school with your teachers full of joy and energy, then you get to middle school, and it slows down, and then in high school, it’s like a halt, and nothing fun can happen,” Richie said. “This is a place to learn, but realistically, they learn best in those decorated classrooms they’ve been having for six or seven years now.”

Richie said she believes the classroom is a space to make students feel at home to further induce a better learning environment. She believes students perform better when they see that their teacher has put in the effort to decorate their room.

Hagan, a 7th grade ELA teacher near Philadelphia, said students can recognize the effort taken by teachers to make the classroom a comfortable environment. In her district, there are no requirements for setting up the classrooms each year. Teachers can do what they want with the space given.

“Students are able to recognize that I put in a lot of effort because that’s just not how a lot of middle and high schools [operate],” said Hagan.

She said that while many students likely do not take notice of the setup of her room, some comment and enjoy the calm nature of the space.

“If I’m expecting my students to sit down, be collaborative, and feel comfortable, safe, and confident in that learning environment, the one thing in my control is creating a space that allows them to do that,” Hagan said.

To do this, she said she utilizes flexible seating most often as a way for students to feel more comfortable in the classroom. One of her signature seating arrangements is made from three old tires she was given by a nearby tire shop.

“I went home with a hose and dish soap and I just scrubbed them,” Hagan said. “I spraypainted mine because I like them to be cohesive with the rest of my room. [The kids] just sit on the floor inside of them, almost like a pool float.”

Richie said she has a “selfie wall” for her students as a way to incentivize participation, but also as a method to help students feel welcome in her classroom.

“If a student answers a question right, engage in a discussion, help a peer, or even show [a lot of] school spirit, I will take a picture and at the end of the month, I get them printed and staple them all to my bulletin board,” Richie said. “It’s a shout-out to kids who are really going above and beyond.”

Trapasso, who as a student who did not enjoy going to school, recognizes the importance of making the classroom a space to enjoy.

“At the very least, I want my classroom to be a place that [students] enjoy being in, even if the idea of coming to school is something they don’t love,” Trapasso said. “I really want the space to be something for them to feel like a second home, … and hopefully, that will transfer to enjoying education a little bit more.”

Carving out a space for students and themselves

Hagan and Trapasso both said they stay away from bright colors because it reflects their desire to keep the room calm. Instead, they use calming colors—like shades of blues and pinks—to make the room colorful but not overwhelming.

Hagan said when she first started teaching eight years ago, she went with bright neon colors but quickly realized she wanted a calmer environment in her room as she would in her home.

“I spend more time in my classroom than I do at my house,” Hagan said. “I feel like a lot of teachers probably feel the same way, not because of a poor work-life balance, but because that is my job. It’s important that middle schoolers feel [at home], too.”

Richie, who is entering her fifth year of teaching, said she wanted to make a space for not only her students but for her, as she is in the room for eight or more hours a day.

“I really needed a place that would bring me peace, as well as [for] the students to have fun,” Richie said. “There’s pops of colors everywhere, … and I try to keep it as colorful as I could to bring engagement from the kids and myself.”

Trapasso said she tries to set up her classroom in a way that is intentional for the age group she teaches. In addition to flexible seating, she said she likes to display student work to make her students feel welcome.

“It really does show that their work is meaningful because it’s displayed in the classroom,” Trapasso said. “If they know that something is going to be displayed, it gives them a little bit of intrinsic motivation because they are more willing to put in their best effort. It also shows that they’re a part of this classroom and they can contribute to the things that we use and see every day.”

The cost of a classroom

The cost of setting up a classroom can vary from year to year whether this is teachers’ first year, eighth year, or 30th year of doing so. In a LinkedIn survey posted by Education Week last week, 35 percent of the 1,610 respondents said they spend more than $300 on classroom décor each year.

Richie, Hagan, and Trapasso said they spend similar amounts annually—or have in the past—to get their classroom set up just right. For Richie, $250 to $300 is typical for each year.

“It’s those little things that kind of just add up,” Richie said. “This year, I had a significant amount of things purchased off my Amazon Wish List, so I encourage every single teacher to do [one] because it literally saved my life this year.”

Hagan said she tries to limit the amount she spends annually, but this year, she had to spend more since she moved to a new room. She also made an Amazon Wish List for donations. She said a typical year for her is around $100 to $300.

How social media can help—or hurt—inspiration

Thousands of teachers flock to TikTok and Pinterest each year to find inspiration from teachers on how to set up their classrooms. From DIY projects to save money, flexible seating ideas, and storage solutions, there’s no shortage of videos from which to draw inspiration. Richie’s, Hagan’s, and Trapasso’s videos are among thousands posted under the hashtag #classroomsetup.

The three teachers agreed that their motivation for sharing their experiences on social media was to further share inspiration and their techniques for setting up a classroom for older students. They’ve taken a lot of ideas from social media platforms in the past and then started paying it forward.

Trapasso—who started teaching in September 2020—said social media was her only way to connect with other teachers for inspiration on lesson plans and décor during the height of the pandemic.

Hagan said it’s easy to compare rooms on social media, but it is important to remember the reason for teaching: the kids.

“The most important thing is that your kids feel valued and cared for by you, and there’s ways you can do that without having décor everywhere,” Hagan said. “That comes from the relationships you build, and all the decorations will come after or can come with years.”

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