The Ambiance of Secondary Learning

What message does your high school classroom send to newly arriving students? Does is speak of high expectations? Is it conducive to learning? Is it designed to reduce anxiety and to promote a welcoming spirit? With a little forethought and elbow grease, you can create a classroom environment that will help you head off discipline problems and student-teacher battles. Here are a few of the lessons in secondary classroom ambiance that I have experimented with over the years.

When I arrived in my first classroom, I was greeted with lime yellow walls and dark green trim (which were not the school colors – just the whim of the last instructor). The walls were smudged, dirt-streaked, spotted with stains, and dabbed with cobwebs. Arriving the day before classes began, I did have just enough time to run a broom around to remove the cobwebs, and sweep the floor. In looking back, I know many of my first-year problems were simply a lack of experience with students, but I now believe part of the hyperactivity of my first year students was the condition and colors of my classroom.

Over that first summer break, I set out to make the room my own – my home away from home. I sanded and painted for two weeks on my own time to transform the walls to a cooler, calmer light blue with dark blue trim. My experience has shown that darker, cooler colors tend to produce a calmer student body. The paint does need to be touched up between terms, and a total repaint done every few years.

Calming down behavior was one goal. However, I also wanted to commun-icate high expectations of learning. Taking a cue from the NASA Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, I painted my old steam pipes running up the walls and across the ceiling with bright red high-heat paint. This thin line of red contrasted well with the blue walls, giving a patriotic feel (especially when I added a vertically draped American flag from one pipe). The red line was not enough red to inflame the talkative kids, but it did say things are different in this room – you are here to reach new heights – just like the astronauts explore new regions of space.

To further nurture a calming ambiance, I used my love of gardening and brought in several green plants to scatter about the room. These plants provided a tropical, homey feel to the classroom – one that was less intimidating than a starkly furnished, brightly-lit industrial atmosphere. The plants also became doubled as part of a student care project for those in my Hydroponics module of my Technology Lab.

Plants also give off beneficial oxygen, increasing the oxygen levels in the classroom, keeping heads clearer and attention spans longer. True, having plants requires constant watering and attention – but I have found some students love to care for them. So let them!
Finally, let’s talk clean. I have always taken care of our custodial staff at school. A free bottle of water, a free pack of cookies, compliments, the garbage already bagged when they arrive…these are just a few ways to reward them for the efforts that take in keeping our schools clean. But you cannot just sit and wait for the cleaning crew to arrive. I maintain a constant vigilance for trash and dirt – using my own broom, rag, mop, and cleaning supplies to keep my classroom sparkling clean. If there is time between classes, I make a quick sweep of the room to remove pencil marks on tables, pick up scrap paper, sweep up dried mud under desks, etc. I also keep small, individual trash baskets on each table so students have no excuses for dropping trash on the floor. These baskets are emptied several times a day. I sweep my whole classroom once or twice a week just to keep it looking spiffy between custodial visits.

So if you want help with classroom behavior, start with an atmosphere that students can see and feel as they enter the door. Let them know you run a welcoming, inviting class where learning is a priority. They are now stepping into an environment of high standards. Nothing is second rate. The whole room reflects a commitment to quality, pride, and creativity. It shows you care about your students and their comforts.

Get busy creating an environment that reflects you – your home away from home. Paint the walls with fresh paint, choosing darker, cooler colors. Bring in green plants. Hang motivational pictures. And finally, keep it clean! The ambiance you create will have an amazing impact on students’ behavior.