The Teacher’s Desk: An Unspoken Message

 I have a lot of changes going on lately, and I’m not just talking about my wardrobe with the onslaught of the chillier, fall weather. A new job, a new location, even a newly expanded family. And I’m finding that in addition to all of these new changes come many new perspectives.

One new viewpoint in my life involves the classroom. I have attended countless open houses as a classroom teacher, but never once as a parental unit. Until now.

Last month I walked into the classroom not as a teacher, but to represent “Team Dan,” my new middle school stepson. And boy, did I see things from a new angle!

I’m going to summarize a few observations and assumptions that I made about what the placement of a teacher’s desk says about an educator’s teaching philosophy, style, and/or views on learning.  Please note this is not an absolute and there are always exceptions, but below is my humorous and somewhat satirical take on the unspoken message sent from a teacher’s desk. Enjoy the chuckle, share more ideas below. 

  • Front of the classroom: Perhaps the “sage on the stage” style of teaching, more teacher-centered. There could be a lot of direct-instruction with a lot of sit-and-get and lectures. The type of chair that is paired with the desk can amplify this.  A possible correlational relationship might be: the more comfortable and squishy the chair, the less likely a teacher moves around the room. Could be a sign of a more traditional classroom.
  • Back of the classroom: Student-centered, perhaps it is only in the classroom for lesson planning or grading long after students have left.  It’s seen as a non-important place. The classroom emphasis is on the students, not the teacher. The teacher is the facilitator, the planner, and the behind-the-scenes coordinator: the students take the center stage. If the desk were to be kidnapped one dark night, chances are that nobody would notice.
  • Desk? What desk? This teacher is totally student-centered. The message that a teacher’s desk sends doesn’t mesh with the teaching philosophy in this classroom. It’s all about the kids. It’s their space.
  • Student abducted teacher desk: It’s just another workspace for the students. This might be a rotating seat for students, another area for collaboration, a comfy spot for reader’s workshop and independent reading, or a group workstation. There are subtle signs of teacher life here on the desk, with thoughtful feedback on student work, encouraging post-it notes, and the echoes of accountable talk that has been embraced by the students. All signs of student-centeredness.
  • Middle of the classroom: In the words of my CTQ colleague Bill Ivey: “Huh?”
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  • Jennifer Henderson


    Love this!  I would add the “Build a Fort” placement…where the desk is piled so high with books and papers and “stuff” that it creates a nice little fort where the teacher can hide away for days on end.

  • marsharatzel

    It’s more than a physical layout

    Well, I’m defeinitely going to be in the push-back category for this comment.  I have a cushy chair and my desk is at the front of the room.

    But I am not a sage-on-the-stage kind of teacher.  My desk is placed where it is because I’m required to take attendence on the “teacher” desktop computer which must be attached (for some unknown reason b/c we have wifi) thru a computer drop.   They install them where they want them and there is no $$$ to move them.  So I’m anchored to that desktop where IT places it.  So everything I do sort of starts each class with taking attendence (another requirement is that we must do this within the first 5 minutes of class b/c I used to wait until the end of the day to enter it all in, except for 1st hour).  You might also see a stool and chair pulled up to that desk in the front of the room b/c some of “us” need extra help and I don’t have those kidney shaped tables to meet with small groups of students, so we use the two corners of my desk!!!  It’s quite a crowd there!

    I also use a document camera….we do interaactive notebooks, use Cornell notes and compare writings.  That is required to be paired with the teacher computer….and so it is also on my desk.  This is a big hub for us….we use it throughout class to show what someone has drawn as an explanatory diagram or where I show what my notes look like and they can make sure the notes are accurate.

    I also have a cushy chair.  And I do sit in it more than I did when I was 22 years old.

    But I also have 30-33 students in my classroom, so there is almost no walking space anywhere.  And there is almost no flexibility in how I drag the huge lab tables (you know those heavy black, fire-resistant lab table types) around the room.  When we have the ramp and cars and physics stand lab setup, I can break them apart into groups of 4.  But now that we’ve start chemistry and we have to share buckets of water and disposal buckets, I have to push them together into groups of 6 tables.  I also have to get the tables back far enough from the Demo table (which is literally cemented into the floor).  I always worry that students will get splashed from something I’m doing or if a boiling beaker might break or if the flame test goes wrong.  None of that has ever happened mind you, but I want the students and their desks…..back and away.

    For me, my push-back is because sometimes the physical environment is not what any of us would chose if we had a choice.  It’s why I drag the kids outside, why we do class in the hall or down in the “basement” of the building….it’s why we aren’t constrained to being in one place.   <and yes, I do take my cushy chair with me sometimes b/c I’m not as young as I once was and I don’t navigate the up and down off the floor like I could 2 decades ago>

    I would hope beyond the furniture, if you were to walk into my classroom, you would see the tons of “in-progress” projects, the student work on the board, the dozens of photographs I take and print off of us doing our thing, of their lab graphs and word walls…..I even strung fishing line across the front of the room so I can clothesline big “anchor” charts (and I’m not sure I’m using them like a book would tell you) since it’s not allowed to hang anything on the cement block walls.  I would hope you would see that….and the fact that very few days are we copying notes from a PPT or listening to me lecture.  I would hope you would see a busy, very crowded and probably noisy class where students are discovering what physics and chemistry are about so they can go to High School and still be interested in taking those classes.

    It’s more than a physical layout for me.