When I was a kid, I ruled the breakfast table. I was a kind and benevolent king. Always saving the marshmallows for last. My bananas were perfectly placed on the corn flakes. The first meal of my day began with me building my kingdom on the kitchen table. I would construct the walls of my castle with all the material that were in my kingdom. Salt and pepper shakers were the Knights guarding the gates. The butter tray was the the west wall. I would use placemats as hot lava fields or the deepest moats. Even if I were eating Lucky Charms, I would go to the pantry and grab all the cereal boxes and finish my castle with multicolored walls, protected further from the approaching armies by the characters printed on the sides and the sugar coated grains within. It was beautiful. I would eat my cereal in peace, knowing I was protected and undisturbed. This was my breakfast, my table, my kitchen, my kingdom.
Ever take a look at some of your fellow teachers’ desks?
Like the cereal-box kingdoms I built in my youth, many of the desks that I see teachers sit at are of a similar make up. Let’s start this analysis by first looking at the last sentence of the above paragraph. “This is my breakfast, my table, my kitchen, my kingdom.” This sentence is a reflection of how I felt after constructing my castle. Now for some substitutions as to what I can only imagine must go through a teacher’s mind when placing their 15th elephant figurine in its proper position. Most likely, the same exact position it held for the past decade. Ready? Here goes… “This is my elephant, my desk, my room, my kingdom.”
All of this came to mind when talking with a colleague about the changing culture of education and all that goes with it. At the heart of this culture change is the evolution of the definition/role/concept of the teacher from the traditional definition into that of the “lead learner.” Throughout this (r)evolutionary process, many of the traditions of a teacher’s role are no longer necessary for the survival of the species. (some of these traditions will be fought for harder than others) What was once called the classroom, is now a student centered learning space. “Sit and get” has got up and left. I have a wireless keyboard and mouse that I use to deliver content. You will find me sitting with my students in “their” learning space in “their” classroom.
So back to the elephant in the room.
Where does the teacher’s’ desk, full of personal artifacts and kitsch, fit into the concept of a student learning space? The only way I could explain how it may be happening was to allude to my breakfast table kingdom. What message is being sent to the students who walk into a classroom seeing a desk that is full of the teacher’s self image? Is the teacher blatantly saying to the students “My home, personal life, and elephants are so much more important to me than this place, that I need to be constantly reminded?” Is the desk-castle saying “This is my kingdom, you just sit here.” Does the desk signify a “safe zone” for the teacher to get away from the same place they educate in? Is it like “The Forbidden Forest” where no one except the most experienced travellers may enter? Should a student be made to feel like Dorothy, when she finally reaches the Emerald City and is told by the Guardian of the gates (the teacher) that “nobody, no how, gets in to see the Wizard?” When students walk into a classroom do they get to unload all their personal items onto their desktops (insert new blog here, or Jeff Spicoli) and arrange their pencil box, picture of family, Xbox gold card, and shells they collected from the beach, to their precise location around their notebook or computer? Is the space truly theirs? How do we begin to build a student centered learning space when clearly the centerpiece of this particular space is that of the teachers’ “Throne”?
Get rid of it.
Let’s make 2016 “The year without the fortress”
Would you be able to let go? Would you need something like a “kitsch patch” that would take a little away at a time as to lessen the blow? Could you pack up the “desktop” image you choose to display of yourself before the last day of school? Would the simple task of putting items in a box change how you teach? Would you feel as if a piece of you had left the room? Do you feel more effective if the students know you collect small glass elephants? Does your kitsch empower you to be a catalyst for learning in the classroom? These questions lead me to this old philosophical question. If a tree falls in the woods and nobody’s around to hear it, does it make a sound? If your kitsch is on your desk when no one is there to see it, does it reflect who you are? I am not asking these questions to simply add words to this post. I would really like to hear from you.
Imagine the impact of this conversation:
Student: Hey Mr. Luetjen, what happened to all the stuff on your desk?Teacher: I packed it up a little early this year.Student 1: Have you been fired? Are you leaving? (You see how they have been conditioned?) (I guarantee this will be asked most) Student 2: Why? (Teacher smiles) Teacher: Because in this room, you all matter most to me. I love my family and my elephants but this is the space that you and I share. Teacher: Who has an idea on how we can use this new space?
This task is easy for me as I don’t sit at “my desk.” To be honest, I have never had a “teacher desk” in any of the classrooms I taught in throughout my career. I do admit to have had an office for a couple of years that was unattached to the classroom, where I did sit to plan and reflect. Currently, I have a rectangular thing in my classroom that holds papers and scissors and has a tape dispenser and pencil holder on the surface. But you won’t find me there. It sits, nondescript in the room, owned by no one and everyone. As a lead learner, I choose to be present in the space of learning. Not locked in my tower. Although I must admit, my breakfast kingdoms were awesome. Perhaps in the lunchroom next week I’ll put together a fortress with the napkin dispenser, ketchup, mustard and mayo, just for old time’s sake.
Michael Luetjen teaches PreK-5|8 CompSci at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, FL
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