It’s not about the chairs
About 13 years ago, my classroom (in a previous school) was firebombed. Although it was pretty horrific at the time, it gave us a chance to redesign the computer rooms from a room that had 15 desktops that were set up around the edges of the room, to bays where students could both write notes and work on computers. They had ergonomic chairs that could spin between the work station and a writing station in the same space, while also allowing students to work in groups. Ergonomic chairs and the placement of the teacher desk at the back of the room so that we could see all the screens were the great innovations of the time. We had desks specially made and people came to visit to see what we had done in the set up of the room. We were a “lighthouse” school in the diocese and people would say “we could do that but we’re not that school”
Fast forward three years and I’m in a different school. I remember secretly taking a photo of the room from my first staff meeting. It was placed on Facebook with a “yes, this is a classroom” comment. I was stunned with the bank of local laptops and the use of LCD screens centrally controlled from the teacher podium (not desk). The office style room, with round tables and chairs, for students to work in groups, with 60 ergonomic chairs and a small break out space were the innovations at the time.
Slowly, the school removed all teacher desks, and replaced all the tables and chairs throughout with round tables. The idea was to take control away from the teacher. There wasn’t any way that those classrooms could have been re-jigged to straight rows of chairs and tables. Every classroom throughout the school was replaced with these tables, to the point that we then had no spaces to run HSC exams and had to rent spaces in the local university campus.
People came to visit us all the time to see what we were doing with pedagogy, and you often heard people say things like “good for them they get all the money” and “we could do this but we don’t have the furniture”. Essentially “we could do that but we’re not that school”.
Now, in my third school, we have gorgeous rooms, and beautiful, colourful, comfortable furniture thats’ designed to be set up to align with the vision of learning at the school.
Again, we still get visitors coming through and saying “if we had furniture/budget like this, we could do this too”. Interestingly though, the school is now growing at a rate that we can’t keep up with with our beautiful furniture. Furniture companies take time to make stuff, and we’ve grown in 3 years from 86 students to over a thousand. That’s a lot of chairs.
In three years, our year 9 class has been in 6 different spaces due to growth of the school. Teaching and learning in each space is a little different, and needed to be reacted to differently, but there was still great learning in each space.
This year, we’ve had to supplement for three weeks with fold up tables from Bunnings and the chairs that we use for assembly. This didn’t effect the teaching and learning however.
The message is the same thing that I’ve been saying for the past 13 years: It’s not about the furniture. Good teachers with good support could teach on the oval (and do). What is required is persistence when faced with difficulties. The courage to admit that maybe it’s not about the furniture and it’s about what you do in the classroom. It’s being creative in the way that you work. It’s about relating to students in a different way, and to your team teacher that you spend more time with than your partner. It’s about a constant cycle of try-reflect and try again. It’s about going home even after a terrible day, but having the strength to go back knowing that you are doing the right thing, that you have the right vision, that you’re not going to get everything right the first time and knowing that it’ll be okay because students are the centre of what you do.
It doesn’t have anything to do with the furniture. It’s about people.