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The Cheapest Classroom Management Tool [episode 26]


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Morning Message: 

[00:55] How do you introduce yourself to your students?

We all know building relationships with students is an essential aspect of school, but that’s not just one-sided – your students need to know you as well!

In order for us to introduce ourselves to our students, we both sent a letter home before school started that told them things about us. The letter also explained for them to bring in 3 show and tell items to share on the first day of school!

Our community has a lot of ideas we’d like to share as well! Some ways they introduce themselves are by creating a Google Slide to show on the first day that shares interesting facts, greet them with a smile and let them learn about me as we progress together throughout the year, and then giving students a multiple choice quiz about myself and when we go over answers they learn more about me.

We’d love to hear your responses to this question and future questions, so let us know over on Instagram!

Here’s an overview of episode 26:

As teachers, we tend to spend a lot of our own money on things for our classrooms. It can range from art supplies, flexible seating, extra school materials, to more classroom decor than we can count. All of that adds up and most don’t aid in any instructional or behavioral benefits. 

So what if we told you we knew what you could get that would greatly benefit your classroom and didn’t cost you a single penny, amount of time, or much extra effort? In today’s episode, we’re sharing why a strategic seating arrangement is the cheapest classroom management tool for your classroom. 

We get into the art of seating assignments later in the episode because we believe seating arrangements take priority over seating assignments, which ultimately depends on the priorities of your class and how you choose to run it. The perfect seating arrangement for your class is beneficial for building a classroom community, facilitating learning for all students, and classroom management.

Your classroom structure can be one of your strongest allies, or it can be one of your toughest enemies, which is why it coincides so well with classroom management. By arranging your desks in the most effective way, it allows you to utilize the 3 zones of proximity, a technique we learned from the book Tools for Teaching by Fred Jones. During the episode, we break down each zone and how to use this technique as a classroom management tool. 

Your seating arrangements are only effective as a classroom management tool if they meet the needs of your students. Therefore, it’s important to remember that you will need to change your arrangement and/or assignments throughout the year.

While it takes time and energy to make new arrangements and assignments, we also know that ineffective classroom management comes out of classroom instruction time, which isn’t what our goal is as teachers.

Having an effective seating arrangement is the cheapest classroom management tool. Being intentional about where you put your students’ desks results in better behavior, increased learning, and fewer hassles from your students. Sounds like an easy solution to us! 

In this episode on the cheapest classroom management tool, we discuss:

  • Why the perfect seating arrangement is the cheapest classroom management tool
  • An explanation of the 3 zones of proximity
  • Examples of how to strategically arrange students and desks 
  • The need to change your seating arrangement or assignment based on the needs of your students

This week’s teacher approved tip:

[20:19] Turn students’ desks backwards.

This is a tip we feel very strongly about! There are several benefits to this tip, which are, students can’t store anything in them and you don’t have to take time out of your day designated to having students clean them out when they become unmanageable. It also helps eliminate potential problems before they occur. 

Now, if they’re not allowed to store anything in their desks, you’re going to have to create a system and places for your students to keep all their supplies, folders, workbooks, etc. We provide several ideas for this during our explanation of this tip!

What we’re giving extra credit to this week:

[22:14] Heidi is giving extra credit to Kelsey from Wife Teacher Mommy for introducing a wins journal

[23:32] Emily is giving extra credit to 52 Modern Manners for Today’s Teens by Brooke Romney


If you enjoyed this episode, you’ll love these too:

Read the transcript for episode 26, The Cheapest Classroom Management Tool:

Hey there. Thanks for joining us today. In today’s episode, we’re talking about seating arrangement. And we’ll share a teacher approved tip about student desks. We start our episodes with a morning message just like we used to do at morning meeting in our classrooms. This week’s morning message is how do you introduce yourself to your students? Heidi, what do you do? I always sent a letter introducing myself, and then asking my new students to bring three show and tell items to introduce themselves. So that’s what I did. And I did the same thing. Last year, my son’s teacher sent a video of herself reading first day jitters that we can show our kids on the night before school started. And I thought that was a really fun touch. We have some responses from our community to this question. Sandra said I have a Google Slide that introduces who I am and other interesting facts. Tess said I wear a big smile and greet them when they arrive. And then I let them discover things about me as we progress together. Kristen said on the first day of school, I give them a multiple choice quiz about myself. They love guessing and when we go over the answers, they learn more about me. Tanya said I send them a letter with a list of things about me. And then they get their own paper to fill out. And we guess who it is. This year, I will include a QR code of me reading a book. That’s such a fun touch. We’d love to hear your response to this question and other questions over on Instagram. You can find us at @2ndstorywindow and that is with a two.

Everyone’s classroom is so different. Even in the same school classrooms vary a lot. But one thing that’s the same for all of us is that our students need somewhere to sit. Yes, and it’s easy to think that seating is just about the seats, but there is so much more that goes into it. Your classroom structure can be one of your strongest allies, or it could be one of your toughest enemies. So let’s talk about how you can make your classroom structure work for you and not against you. When we’re talking about classroom setup, it’s easy to jump into seating assignments. But you can’t know which kid sits in which desk until you know which desk goes in which spot. Seating arrangements take priority over seating assignments. And your seating arrangement totally depends on the priorities of your class. Totally, it’s going to vary so much based on what’s important to you as the teacher. Like unless you spend your day at the front of the room lecturing, having desks and perfect rows probably isn’t going to serve you very well. Right. Or maybe you do a lot of discussion in your class. Rows definitely won’t support that kind of activity. Maybe you’d want more of like a U shape or a circular shape to facilitate the flow of conversation. But maybe you have flexible seating and trying to keep desks arranged in a U shape with 20 kids bouncing on yoga balls is a daily nightmare. Really every class is different. For me, I like to arrange my second graders in tables. So one reason was that arrangement left a lot of open space and the rest of the classroom. But the more important reason was that it helped build a feeling of community. I like to set up my room with five tables of five kids. So each table had like a little cluster of four desks and then the fifth kid was seated at the back. Of course, I sometimes had to stretch it to tables of six, yay for overcrowding. But I always started the year with my desks arranged in tables. However, I did not usually end the year that way. Oh, yeah, the needs are going to change throughout the year and your seating arrangement will probably need to change too. It’s not that our classroom community became less important to me. It’s just that after a few months, too much community started to impact our ability to function. So we would have to try a different arrangement of desks.

When I was a new teacher I used to bemoan the lack of tables in my classroom. I was stuck with these dumb old desks when everyone knew a classroom with tables was the way of the future. But then I got smart. And after I had taught a few years I began to love those dumb old desks because they gave me options. That is such a good point. Because if you have tables, you only have table. But if you have desks, you have tables rows, you have isolated islands of independent learning, because it’s May and you cannot handle one more kid off task, you know, options options are good. Which brings us to the next consideration of seating arrangements, classroom management. Besides choosing your arrangement, based on your instructional goals, you need one that supports your management goals. And as we talked about in a previous episode, the most effective way to manage behavior issues is to prevent them from occurring in the first place. And the easiest way to keep those issues from occurring, is to keep your students as close to you as possible. Proximity to the teacher is the number one way to keep kids on task. It’s the number one way to keep kids from distracting other kids. It’s the number one way to keep kids from causing problems. Your seating arrangement is your cheapest management tool. So for the low, low price of being intentional about where you put your desks, you get better behavior, increased learning and fewer hassles, talk about a bargain. I know right?

In his book Tools for Teaching, Fred Jones refers to three zones of proximity. The first zone is the green zone. This is the area right around the teacher and it stretches about two to three desks away. In the green zone, kids are getting their work done. They’re not bothering the neighbors, they’re not digging around in their desks, you know, they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing. If only we could fit the whole class and the green zone. And that would be nice. But outside of the green zone, we have the yellow zone, these kids are four to five desks away from the teacher. They’re also doing what they’re supposed to assuming the teachers facing them. Oh, yeah, there’s no telling what they’re getting up to behind your back, those little yellow zone kids. And then if you could probably predict the last zone is the red zone. And this is any students six or more desks away from the teacher, your motivated kids will be fine here, you’re less motivated, kids are going to struggle. And when they struggle, they’re likely to cause those around them to struggle too.

So the goal is to maximize the number of kids in the green zone, and minimize the amount of time any kid is spending in the yellow and red zones. To do that, we need to keep as many kids close to the teacher as possible, and arrange the room so we can reach any desk in the minimum number of steps. My table arrangement was perfect for this, I had three tables in the front of the room. So right there, that’s 15 kids in the green zone. And then I was strategic about paths. I tried to keep enough of a clear walkway between the tables, that I could quickly move from desk to desk. If I’m moving around the room a lot, that means my green zone is always moving, and no one is spending too much time in the red zone. Not only did this arrangement prevent a lot of problems from occurring, it meant I could be standing next to any potential problem causers with very few steps. And tables are the only arrangement that maximizes the Green Zone. Arrangements like the double E with two long columns down the sides of the room. And then branches coming off each column like the lines on an E can also keep a lot of kids in the green zone at one time. I definitely made use of the double E once we reached the point of the year when I couldn’t handle the tables anymore. We moved into the double E; some years though, like you know some kids, even the double E was not preventing problems anymore. So I had to switch things up. And that’s when we moved to rows. Try and picture that down the center of the room. I had four rows with three desks and each row. And then on each side I had four rows of two students. And then I tried to like tilt the side rows so they were more angled toward the center of the board, instead of facing straight to the corners of the room is kind of tricky to explain over podcasts. Those angled side rows did tend to wander a little bit, they’d start to scoot out of line so it took daily adjusting to keep them in place. But overall, that arrangement did a lot to minimize the worst of the problems, but it still made it possible for kids to do some partner work. Plus, I can still easily reach most desks with only a few steps.

But those are just a few of the possible desk arrangements. Rooms are different, lesson formats are different, teacher preferences are different; rather than thinking of a room arrangement as being right or wrong, think of it as an attempt to minimize the cost of solving problems. You can play with your room arrangement until you find what works best for you. Then once you’ve figured out your desk arrangement you need to know who is sitting in the seats? The goal is to assign seats that maximize learning and minimize hassles. To do that, you’re going to have to know your kids a little bit. At the first of the year, you’re just making a guess at seat assignment. If you have access to your students IEP is before the year starts, check to see if anyone has accommodations you need to account for with your seating assignments. And I know this is a controversial opinion. But I also like to talk to the previous year’s teachers, they just spent a year trying to figure out what makes this kid tick. Why start over at zero when they’ve already laid a lot of the groundwork. I know some people feel really strongly that each student should get a fresh start with the new year. And I do I totally agree with that. But I think there’s a difference between offering a fresh start and going in blind, I can give everyone their best shot at success if I have vital information from the beginning. And I’m not having to waste six weeks figuring it out for myself. Plus, I like to think I’m grown up enough to hear anything negative last year’s teacher has to say, without letting it color my view of my new student. Yeah, and those former teachers have so much good information, they can tell you if this student wears glasses, and so they need to be near the front of the room. Maybe this one has kidney problems. And so you need to put him near the door so he can get to the bathroom quickly. And maybe this one is too shy to tell you if she doesn’t understand. So make sure you’re checking on her frequently. These two had a lot of conflict last year, maybe keep them separated until you know how they’re doing this year. That sort of information is gold. And it can be a huge help when you’re creating a seating plan from scratch.

Once you’ve accounted for any accommodations, and anything you know from last year, you kind of just have to start assigning seats and then know that you’ll adjust as needed. One year I switch seats after the second day of school because it was that kind of group. And I am tired just thinking of those little darlings. Your seating will change throughout the year, you may keep the same desk arrangement for the whole year and just switch seats. Or maybe you need a whole new class structure by November. What works for your class will likely change as your kids change. Seating arrangements are a delicate balance. Some teachers switch on a regular schedule. Last year my son’s teachers which desks every two weeks. The advantage of that is kids know if they don’t like where they are, they won’t be there for long. But the downside is that it’s introducing a lot of chaos every two weeks. No, I couldn’t do that. I tended to wait until it felt absolutely necessary to move desks because it is such a hassle. I didn’t want to do it until I had to. Before we moved desks, I always gave the kids a stern reminder that there was to be no whining. If they had a problem with where they were moved, they could come talk to me about it later. But I better not hear any kind of groans or complaints. How would they like it if someone groaned in front of the whole class about having to sit next to them. And most kids really understood that once I laid it out like that we really didn’t have many problems. And because I want to use my class arrangement to minimize issues, I am very strategic about assigning seats.

A few weeks into school, once I knew my class a little better, I set up my seating chart. I started by ranking each student as a one, two or three. One student means that they could sit anywhere probably next to anyone and be successful. Hopefully, you’ve got a large group of one level students in your class. My two level students are the kids that are mostly on task, mostly do what they’re supposed to, but might need a few reminders to get their work done and not distract their neighbors. And I can probably guess what a three level student is. I’m sure you can. The threes are your boundary pushers, they’re the 20% of kids causing 80% of the problems. They might not be the ones openly causing problems, they might be the ones who get lost daydreaming or need a lot of support. Any student that I really needed to stay on top of for whatever reason whether it’s behavior academic, I marked as a level three. Then once a rank my students I keep this list top secret. Oh my gosh, can you imagine the fire that would rain down if that ranking somehow got out to the parents? You definitely want to avoid that. Not that this ranking is negative. It’s just helping us see yes, it’s sensitive, and it’s just helping us see how we can best serve each of these students. But it might not look that way to an outsider. So definitely keep that list on lockdown. Especially if you have like parent volunteers in your class. You’re gonna want to keep that as private as possible. Don’t let anyone see that list, but use it to help you assign your seats strategically. On the computer. I laid out a mock up of my desk arrangement using just like the little rectangle tool. Depending on my class size, maybe I It set up four tables of five desks and a table of six desks in the middle. And then I would give each desk a code of a one, two or three, the desks that are most often in that green zone a proximity, they get marked three, these are the desks that are closest to the front of the room, or they’re closest to my computer or reading table. Because those are two other places they spend a lot of time, which puts them in the green zone, or a seat for three could be that fifth desk at the end of a table, it may be a little farther from the front of the room, but it’s facing straight ahead, and then it doesn’t have any neighbors on either side to bother that fifth desk is a nice little surprise. It means the kids sitting there can still be part of the group, but has fewer people to distract or be distracted by. And I really tried to use that fifth desk judiciously with my threes. But I try not to put more than two threes at the table. Sometimes it couldn’t be helped. And I had to add more than two threes into a table. And when that happened, I made sure at least they weren’t sitting right next to each other. If you have a lot of level three behaviors, maybe that’s a sign that tables aren’t going to be worth the headache, and you should skip to a different arrangement like the double E or rows. That makes a lot of sense. If we’re planning seating to minimize hassles, we know that we have a lot of potential hassles, the smartest move is to adjust our plans, so we can stop them before they build any momentum. It’s also smart to try to minimize the number of twos and threes seated right next to each other. But it is almost impossible to avoid doing that completely. Unless you have some kind of magic unicorn class. A magic unicorn class sounds amazing. I get one of those. Any desk that’s not a two or three is of course a one. These are desks that will probably spend less time in the green zone, or are a buffer separating a two desk from a three desk, I made sure that every table had a mix of ones twos and threes, the front and center table might have two threes, a two and two ones. A table in the back corner might have 1 3 2 twos and two ones. I’m aiming for a mix, not a complete balance. Once I’ve labeled the desks on the layout I printed, I glued it in a folder and laminated it, I wanted a file folder so I could keep things as confidential as possible. Then to actually assign the seats, I cut down post it notes. So they fit the size of my seating chart, I just used that like sticky strip at the top of the post it and made a bunch of one inch squares. I used one color for boys and one for girls. So I could try and keep each table balanced. And then I added each student’s name and their one, two, or three ranking. There are probably apps that let you arrange this digitally. But I needed the old school paper system to really see it all laid out. You needed one of those giant boards with name flags that people use for like seating assignments at weddings. Do you imagine that’d be awesome, are really terrible might be hard on me in that board. Either way, I think I’m fine with my folder and sticky notes.

First I started by assigning seats to any students that needed accommodations. And then I could start plugging in my level three students since they needed the most consideration. Then I would do the two and then I put in my ones. The first time you make your seating assignments is actually the easiest probably, because you can mostly just match students with their desk number. It gets trickier in a few weeks though, when you need to arrange seats. Yeah, you definitely want to be sure that any seating assignment does not become a punishment. The threes deserve the experience of a new seat. But there’s only so many places they can go. And you can’t put your twos in a spot where they escalate to a three, you rely on your ones as buffers. But it’s not fair for them to always be sitting next to challenging people. It really does take some work and some serious thought. But let’s say your classes really chatty and so you find that you need to rearrange your desks once a month. Spending 30 minutes of planning each month to really dive into your seating chart is still less work than spending countless minutes every single day managing behaviors that could be eliminated by a thoughtful seating assignment. It’s not zero cost, but it’s definitely one of the lowest cost benefit ratios you have in teaching and who doesn’t want better results with minimal effort. All the time and energy that goes into classroom management comes out of classroom instruction time. So anything we can do to make management as effortless as possible will have a huge benefit for our students. So talk about a return on investment there. So make a plan for designing seating arrangements that will fit in your space and plan for how you will strategically assign seats to minimize problems. This extra planning really will set you up for a smoother year with your students.

Now let’s talk about this week’s teacher approved tip. Each week, we leave you with a small actionable tip that you can apply in your classroom today. This week’s teacher approved tip is turn students desks backwards. This is something that we feel strongly about. To say the least. When we taught second grade, we kept our students desks turned backwards, so that they couldn’t store anything inside of them. It’s just another way to prevent problems before they can happen. On top of their desk, each student had a pencil box with crayons, pencils, and glue, they were supposed to keep it at the top of their desks. So we really didn’t have any problem with kids playing around with them. If they ever became an issue, they could easily be moved to the floor or to a counter. And then for any folders or workbooks that kids might need, we kept those in plastic drawers. I even experimented with like milk crates at each table for storage. But I ended up going back to the drawer system because it was so easy to manage. Each table had a stack of Sterilite plastic drawers, the individual drawer came to the table when needed, and then everything was packed inside. And it was all put away. If we had to rearrange desks, so the kids weren’t in tables anymore, I still assign kids a table number. So it would be something like all the kids in this row are table one, that sort of thing. And because by then the kids were so used to the drawer system, they really adapted without any issues. And another added benefit of doing this is you never have to take time out of your busy days to have your students clean out your desk when they’ve just gotten to be unmanageable, you know how that goes. You don’t have to worry about that at all if your kids don’t store anything inside of them. So it’s a win win win here, and nothing is getting lost in there. You’re not having any mystery items. It’s perfect. So we highly recommend that you turn your desks around. It is an easy way to prevent a lot of headaches.

To wrap up the show we’re sharing what we’re giving extra credit to this week. Heidi, what are you giving extra credit to this week? I am giving extra credit to Kelsey from Wife Teacher Mommy. And you might remember that we interviewed her a while back. And she mentioned keeping a wins journal of your daily successes. And so I’ve been using mine for a couple months now. And I really am getting a lot out of it. It took me a little bit to get started because I got hung up on finding the perfect journal to use. And then I realized that that wasn’t the most helpful mindset. So I just bought a blank planner that has like a two week spread on it with you know, like a box where every day. I think Kelsey uses her wins journal to plan what she’s going to do the next day. And then at the end of the day reflects on what she got done. But I just use mine for the reflecting part. So before bed, I write down three to five wins for the day. It might be something small like I exercise first thing in the morning or something bigger, like recording a podcast episode. But it has really helped me a lot with my tendency to feel like I didn’t get anything done in a day, because I couldn’t get everything done. So I’m going to celebrate that I took out the trash because it still took that an effort, even if it wasn’t accomplishing a giant project. I love that. Maybe I need a wins journal. I think everyone does.

Emily, what is your extra credit today? Well, I’m giving extra credit to a book called 52 Modern Manners for Today’s Teens. It’s a flipbook that you can put out on your counter with really simple manners like answer the door politely and a few sentences explaining how to do it and why you should. A lot of it sometimes feels like, Oh, this is so obvious. But sometimes it’s not especially things that were maybe more commonplace for our generation that have gone by the wayside with the current generation. Or there’s things in there that today’s youth face that we absolutely did not have to face when we didn’t have cell phones all the time and how that impacted social politeness and things like that. So my kids are still on the young side, but my nine and 12 year old both read the current manner displayed while they’re standing around in the kitchen because we have it on our kitchen counter. And I can tell they’re remembering the things that they read too. So I think it’s pretty awesome to have. It’s by Brooke Romney, who I found on Instagram and she does share a lot of similar ideas on her Instagram. And you can get the book at Amazon and I will put the link in the show notes.

That’s it for today’s episode. Make a plan to manage classroom behaviors with a strategic seating arrangement. And don’t forget today’s teacher approved tip to try turning students desks backwards.

More About Teacher Approved:

Do you ever feel like there’s just not enough time in the day to be the kind of teacher you really want to be? The Teacher Approved podcast is here to help you learn how to elevate what matters and simplify the rest. Join co-hosts Emily and Heidi of Second Story Window each week as they share research-based and teacher-approved strategies you can count on to make your teaching more efficient and effective than ever before.