Opinion
Teaching Profession Teacher Leaders Network

Teaching Secrets: Arranging Optimal Classroom Seating

By August 'Sandy' Merz III — July 31, 2012 5 min read

In a recent article, I shared some ideas about how seating challenges can reveal useful data about class chemistry and individual students during the first week of school. But what next? How can we use what we learn about our students to arrange optimal permanent seating?

Few would argue that the best seating arrangements balance individual student needs with classroom community needs. Most teachers are mindful that finding each student’s peak location depends on his or her personality, learning style, ability, needs, and behavior. We also consider class chemistry, friendships, and cliques in deciding seating.

But I haven’t heard many teachers talk systematically about how we use the physical characteristics of the room—combined with our communication patterns—to leverage learning and relationships.

Enter Power Seats and Safe Zones

In my own quest for optimal seating, I’ve discovered what I call Power Seats and Safe Zones. Power Seats, by merit of their location, magnify a student’s presence in the class. Safe Zones, on the other hand, downplay the effects of a student’s actions on the class dynamics—without compromising his or her access to content.

Figuring out how this works is like a game. The mission: 1) Find the Power Seats and Safe Zones in your room; and 2) discern where each student performs best and contributes most positively.

The physical setting of the room helps to determine the locations of Power Seats and Safe Zones. Who should sit near windows, if you have them? Who should sit near the door? How might your arrangement of tables or desks magnify learning and participation while mitigating disruption? Are there different answers to these questions, depending on the content you’re teaching?

There are certainly different answers based on your communication patterns as the class’s facilitator. How do you visually scan a classroom? How do you move in the class during different kinds of activities? When students ask questions, where do you stand?

The game is more art than science. But after you’ve identified your room’s Power Seats and Safe Zones and given priority to students with medical conditions, 504s, or special education accommodations, I recommend these guidelines:

• Assign model students to Power Seats and students who distract or are easily distracted to Safe Zones.

• Auditory learners need to see you more than they need to see the board.

• If a kinesthetic learner contributes great questions and comments: Power Seat. Otherwise: Safe Zone.

• Introverts work best with few, quiet neighbors (for example, auditory learners).

How It Looks in Practice

In my previous classroom, I taught algebra and engineering to 8th graders.

I arranged nine tables in a U shape with four tables on each arm and two on the base. I chose the U to promote discussion and provide sight lines for demonstrations. The room had no windows. Twenty students could sit around the outside of the U, but since there were up to 28 students per class, some had to sit on the inside.

One set of Power Seats was midway up the U’s right arm (as viewed from the back of class), opposite from where I tend to stand. The four seats on the base of the U gained power by having the best view of the entire room. The last set of Power Seats was near the end of the left arm of the U. These seats were on the sight line to the most frequently used whiteboard.

Safe Zones were on the arms near the base of the U. Students in these seats have a good view of instruction, but aren’t in the view of other students. Another smaller Safe Zone was at the front end of the right arm, near my personal area.

Maya, with her enviable self-management skills and gift for asking the right questions, sat in a Power Seat on the right arm of the U. To either side, I mixed abilities and gender, accounting for individual special needs and peer relations.

The outside Power Seats on the base of the U went to disciplined, high-ability, visual learners. Ideally, they were opposite gender from the students in the adjacent Safe Zones (discussed below). This set-up, I learned from experience, tended to promote positive interactions.

The two middle Power Seats in the base of the U were excellent for visual learners who benefited most from peer tutoring. For example, English-language learners placed there had strong neighbors they could turn to for help and a great view of instruction.

The Power Seats on the left arm of the U, near the front, went to students who consistently voiced insightful questions and comments. A kinesthetic learner, like Reyna, fit perfectly there. When students were confused with my instruction, she would stand up and declare, “What he’s trying to say is … " She perfectly illustrated her explanations with her hands—to the benefit of everyone in the class.

Brisa, an auditory learner who never took her eyes off mine, sat near the base of the right hand arm of the U next to the Safe Zone. From there, she had a comfortable orientation toward me wherever I stood.

Cesar, an introvert, sat in the Safe Zone near my desk. He had a neighbor to his left, but not his right. Cesar avoided the spotlight but would quietly voice his thoughts (which tended to be original and nuanced). I could then share them with the class.

Seating students inside the U required knowing which students would spontaneously turn and follow instruction. Auditory learners do this, but I found that students who preferred to interact with me (rather that primarily with their peers) were a better fit. I had to be cautious, though, that they didn’t dominate me.

Nick was larger than life: loud, smart, fun, and always engaged. From a Safe Zone in the back, he could be his happy, outgoing self while contributing to (but not overwhelming) the class.

BRIC ARCHIVE

Students whose behavior often compromised the class or their own progress also sat in a Safe Zone in the back, for three reasons. The location lessened the impact of their disruptions. They were surrounded by strong students and good models from whom they could learn to channel their behaviors more positively. And most importantly, my relationship with them could be supportive and consultative rather than corrective and authoritarian (as it might have been if they were in Power Seats).

I constantly adjusted and corrected. After several weeks, students inside the U became tired of turning around so I’d switch them out. But moving one student meant moving someone else: The game never ended.

And it never does—but complex, dynamic problem-solving makes teaching fun.

I now teach in a different room with five large, immovable tables. I’m still learning this room’s Power Seats and Safe Zones, but I’m close. I’m looking forward to observing my students during the seating challenges at the start of the year, then combining those observations with what I know about my classroom to set my students up for success.

Have you observed Power Seats and Safe Zones in your classroom? What methods or observations do you have about classroom arrangements that meet all student and community needs?

Related Tags:

Events

School & District Management Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table With Education Week: What Did We Learn About Schooling Models This Year?
After a year of living with the pandemic, what schooling models might we turn to as we look ahead to improve the student learning experience? Could year-round schooling be one of them? What about online
School & District Management Webinar What's Ahead for Hybrid Learning: Putting Best Practices in Motion
It’s safe to say hybrid learning—a mix of in-person and remote instruction that evolved quickly during the pandemic—is probably here to stay in K-12 education to some extent. That is the case even though increasing
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Building Equitable Systems: Moving Math From Gatekeeper to Opportunity Gateway
The importance of disrupting traditional American math practices and adopting high-quality math curriculum continues to be essential for changing the trajectory of historically under-resourced schools. Building systems around high-quality math curriculum also is necessary to
Content provided by Partnership for L.A. Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Nearly 9 in 10 Teachers Willing to Work in Schools Once Vaccinated, Survey Finds
Nearly half of educators who belong to the National Education Association have gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
4 min read
Nurse Sara Muela, left, administers the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to educator Rebecca Titus at a vaccination site setup for teachers and school staff at the Berks County Intermediate Unit in Reading, Pa., on March 15, 2021.
Nurse Sara Muela, left, administers the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to educator Rebecca Titus at a vaccination site set up for teachers and school staff in Reading, Pa., on March 15.
Matt Rourke/AP
Teaching Profession Q&A Nation's Top Teachers Discuss the Post-Pandemic Future of the Profession
Despite the difficulties this school year brought, the four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year award say they're hopeful.
11 min read
National Teacher of the Year Finalists (clockwise from top left): Alejandro Diasgranados, Juliana Urtubey, John Arthur, Maureen Stover
National Teacher of the Year Finalists (clockwise from top left): Alejandro Diasgranados, Juliana Urtubey, John Arthur, Maureen Stover
Courtesy of CCSSO
Teaching Profession Teachers Are Stressed Out, and It's Causing Some to Quit
Stress, more so than low pay, is the main reason public school teachers quit. And COVID-19 has increased the pressure.
7 min read
Image of exit doors.
pavel_balanenko/iStock/Getty
Teaching Profession Opinion Should Teachers Be Prioritized for the COVID-19 Vaccine?
Not all states are moving teachers to the front of the vaccination line. Researchers discuss the implications for in-person learning.
6 min read
Teacher Lizbeth Osuna from Cooper Elementary receives the Moderna vaccine at a CPS vaccination site at Roberto Clemente High School in Chicago, Ill., Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021.
Chicago public school teacher Lizbeth Osuna receives the COVID-19 vaccine at a school vaccination site last week.
Anthony Vazquez/Chicago Sun-Times via AP