ClassROOM: Teaching and Physical Space

ChairI was thrilled when I learned my schedule this semester: noon to 4 most days, a nice change from my usual 8 a.m. start.  Then I learned the catch.  When you teach in the middle of the day, it seems, you’re much more likely to end up in a terrible classroom.

My first class of the semester was in a room with no computer projection system.  A major inconvenience for that course, but resolvable – we have portable systems that are usually available, as long as I book in advance and leave for class early enough to get to the IT Centre first.

My next class was, to my astonished chagrin, in the college amphitheatre.  It is, as the name would suggest, a lecture hall.  It seats around 100, so the first order of business was to move everyone in my class of 40 down into the first 4 rows.  The bigger problem is that – well, that it’s a lecture hall.  It has a wonderful big projection screen and interesting acoustics, but I’ve never lectured for more than 10 minutes at a go in my life.  The seats are bolted to the tables, and it’s impossible for me to get between rows; when it comes to group work, moving students around is going to be a crazy headache.  Doing in-class essays is also going to be a challenge, as everyone’s right on top of everyone else.  Lecture halls are for lecturing, not teaching.  I have no idea how I’m going to work with this space.  (When I asked the students how they feel about it, though, they said, “It’s cool!  It’s like being at the movies!”  I guess so, but they’re unlikely to still feel that way after staring at ME for a few weeks.)

The next day I had my third class.  It’s in an almost windowless room in the basement, and five minutes before our first lesson, all the power in the building went out.  I fumbled my way downstairs to find that the students were all shining their phones around to see each other, as the room was completely black.  Mercifully, the power came on about 10 minutes in – or maybe not so mercifully; the fluorescent glare revealed up a blank, bunged-up, low room twice as deep as it was wide, meaning that I seemed to be shouting at the students in the back through a train tunnel.  I have no trouble projecting, but a room like this magnifies student-in-the-last-row behaviour issues; they truly believe themselves to be invisible, so I have a feeling a lot of pauses and “ladies in the back, I’m still talking”s are going to be necessary.

Some colleagues have suggested that I make room change requests – the winter semester is never as crowded as the fall, so there’s an outside chance that such requests will be honoured.  However, I’m curious.  How will working in these spaces affect my teaching and my students’ learning?  How can I accommodate myself and my lessons in creative ways?  Is it even possible that dealing with challenging spaces will make me a better teacher?  I’m tempted to stick with these weird rooms and see what happens.

Have you had experiences, good or bad, with challenging classrooms or other teaching spaces?  How did you deal with them?  What did you learn?


Friends, I’ve taken on too many projects.  I’m going to do my absolute best to post once a week at least, but the next few weeks may be sporadic.  I’ll do my best to be back on a regular schedule as soon as possible.  I hope your winter semester is starting off really well!

Image by Agnes Scholiers

30 responses

  1. I had to laugh at your various teaching environments! I’ve had many similar situations where the room is totally inappropriate for group work and fluid teaching. The absolute worst situation I had was teaching my first university class. I was assigned to teach the class to several other locations at once. The other sessions were visible on monitors, while I needed to stand in the exact same spot so they could see and hear me. Meanwhile, I had a class of 20 students in the room with me. They were seated at fixed tables with microphones so they could ask questions everyone could hear. The trouble was, that from where I stood, I could only see half of my class! To top that off, on the first day there was a fire drill! I didn’t know they even had fire drills on campus! I had to tell each of the four other locations to “stay tuned”….

    • Rebecca: I’ve been taking “blended” graduate courses where some of the class is off-campus and online, and I always find it difficult. I totally understand the desire to accommodate students who can’t physically come to the school, but it always reminds me that videoconferencing etc. is NOT as effective as having everyone in the same room and able to interact face-to-face…

  2. Your situation reminds me of a teaching nightmare I had where the class was an L-shape and I could never see more than half the class at one time and could not keep control of them. I am curious to see how things pan out for you. I’ve thought about your auditorium situation since I first heard of it, and imagined myself borrowing mats from the G-building and having the students sit on the stage in a circle as in kindergarten, and felt that would be preferable to them sitting in their seats, but of course rather uncomfortable for adults, and something more feasible with 20 rather than 40 students. I suspect in the end, I’d beg scheduling for a room change from the auditorium and try my hand out of curiousity’s sake with the A-wing cavern (where i have taught a few classes, and yes it is awful).

    • Maia: I was at first of your opinion, but the amphitheatre continues to pique my interest. As it happens, this course involves a lot of individual work and oral presentations, and there may be enough room to spread the students around the space for group work. I think I’m going to stick with it, but I’m going to give it some thought over the weekend…

  3. I have to say that I haven’t learned very worthwhile lessons from working in poor facilities. I once had a classroom with no discernible heating and air-conditioning, and very poor air circulation. What I learned was that people are cranky when they get hot, and they don’t like to work when they are either too hot or too cold–especially if they are used to being fairly comfortable most of the time. I take HVAC issues a lot more seriously now, because they matter a lot more than I would have thought.

    I also taught in other people’s classrooms for a year. I learned that some people are passive aggressive if they perceive you have misused their space in some small way, while others are very helpful and accommodating. I also learned that the first few minutes of class count, and if you are spending the first 3 minutes of every class unpacking and arranging your props instead of settling the class, that the class is a lot less settled. But I did actually know that–I just didn’t know how much it mattered.

    I’d request a room change. Facilities matter. Anyway, if you don’t request it, you won’t get it. But even if you do, you might still be stuck where you are.

    • I will consider it! I agree that heat and cold are major issues – so far, they don’t seem to be presenting themselves here. These rooms are more odd than bad, at least so far, but I’m going to give the question some serious thought before Monday.

  4. I find one of the greatest challenges to be the odd inconsistencies in classroom technology at the small Midwestern American university where I teach. Every room has some form of computer projection–which is helpful for me because I use that a lot. But, in some rooms, in addition to the computer and projector, there is a document camera that has to be on, in others, no. And if there is a document projector, the buttons that you have to press to tell the screen whether you’re using the computer, a video deck or the document camera all vary. Finally, a few rooms are set up for the education program, which uses something called a “Smart Board,” which I loathe because I’m not smart enough to use it easily, and because it comes with its own built in systems, such as electronic markers, that are totally irrelevant to me since I only teach in the ed rooms now and then. Finally, the biggest headache is just getting the computer in the room to “boot” if it’s either not on, or is “locked” because a previous faculty member did not log out. Yet, for all the frustrations, I guess I would say I like teaching with the new tools. Sorry, going on way too long about technology, and you mostly wrote about space–a whole other topic, but yes, I have had the same experiences–teaching in places where the furnishings could not be moved or were way too small or too large–and yes, it makes a difference when the class is taught. I’m not a morning person, but at my school, too, there are advantages of requesting that dreaded 8 a.m. time slot …

    • Joe: Yes, technological inconsistencies plague us too. For example, I spent the first two classes in the amphitheatre searching fruitlessly for a switch that would raise the projector screen so I could write on the whiteboard behind it. (The teacher of the next class finally showed me: it’s a regular old key in the wall that you turn for “up” or “down.” Really?) For the computers and projectors we have a bewildering variety of remotes, on-screen controls, push buttons and switches, and they are rarely the same from one room to the next. This is another reason I think staying in these rooms might be advantageous – I will learn all their nooks and gadgets and may be able to apply that knowledge elsewhere!

  5. My first 2 years of teaching were spent in a High School that didn’t have enough classrooms for it’s quickly growing faculty. I spent those two years teaching from a little black cart and moving from classroom to classroom. Whatever a room was available was were I went. Everything from a well thought out English classroom with posters of Shakespeare on the walls to a shop class with sawdust and power tools all around me. By the 3rd year I was placed in what I thought would be a permanant room between two English classes. Although I loved my neighbors the quietness and lack of a water source and kitchen appliances was difficult ( I am a CTE teacher) I transported water on my cart for Interior Design painting projects and had to borrow the FACS teachers classroom whenever we had a cooking lab. After one year in that room I was moved to a room with a water source that made my life alot easier, however I still had to “borrow” kitchens when labs were scheduled. After two years in that room (and being somewhat comfortable there), my fellow FACS teacher retired and I inherited the one and only FACS classroom. We have since taken on 2 additional FACS teachers and they have dutifully served their time on the infamous “little black cart”. The school has recently expanded by adding 16 new classrooms. My coworkers were thrilled to get 2 of those new rooms. Unfortunately they are heavy on new technology but not equipped with kitchens or needed space to teaching our subjects. They are now left with borrowing from me when necessary! 🙂 I’m just glad to have a place to call home!

      • Teaching from a cart forces you to learn organization skills and also to think out of the box when you realize you don’t have that specific item you need. Not having access to a computer most of the time was always interesting too. One other positive is that although you don’t have a classroom to decorate and get ready for each new semester, you also don’t have one to clean and take everything down in at the end–I have 3 refrigerators to clean at the end of every term ! 🙂

  6. I always enjoyed taking classes in lecture halls. They are often spacious with high ceilings, which is pleasant. There is something in what the kids say about it being like the movies, too…you might find your students surprisingly attentive! May have to work on projection though, unless they have a mic also.

    I am teaching ESL in a room with a stove and sink in it this year. I decided to have the kids do a cooking show presentations and we cooked pizzas in class! If life gives you lemons….

    • Jessica: I sometimes think that my complaints about a classroom are simply about its unfamiliarity. I had to teach in our geography resource room, one year, and I was put off that the students were at tables of three instead of individual desks. Within a few weeks, I realized that the tables had many advantages! Another reason I think it might be worth it to stick with my weird classrooms for a while………………

  7. As an ESL teacher abroad, it seems we get shuffled around a lot and are suddenly introduced to new rooms. Learning flexibility is always intriguing, but moreso in retrospect. It’d be nice to have time to plan out how best to use the space.

    I’m no fan of the lecture-hall/stage model, but am likely to have to learn to use it a few times. If you figure out how to make such a space interactive, I’ll be very interested to hear. Regardless, I’ll have to keep thinking out ways to prepare for whatever the next 12 teaching weeks have in store when session resumes.

    • I’m thinking that the lecture hall will be very appropriate when it comes time for students to do their orals. The basement room will NOT be the best space for that, but it might work well for group work. The upshot: we really need to tear down our rickety old building and construct a new one full of flexible multi-purpose classrooms, but that’s not going to happen. (We also need to entirely overhaul the education system so that “classrooms” become obsolete, but that it is a topic for another time…)

      • With you on the educational overhaul (in favor of authentic language skills development through context rich environs/coaching/’unlearning’).

        That’s much more difficult to acquire than a new building in the Middle Kingdom (where the building is likely to be new but not clean and finding suitable tables is more the problem. Just a few weeks ago I asked for the projector to be cleaned and they replaced the lens instead.)

  8. Wow! You have quite the variety of issues going on there! I was a “floating” teach for 2 years (I am high school) and when I finally got my own room, it really changed my teaching. I was SO much more comfortable and had all my resources available to me without having to cart everything around. Good luck!!

    • TG: I have little fantasies about having my own classroom, or perhaps changing my job description to one that requires a “room of its own.” Sometimes this is a reading room that students come to to find and read awesome books; sometimes it’s a tutoring room where I help students work on literacy skills. I love the idea of having all my stuff in one place!

  9. Yes, it can definitely affect your class! Did you see the recent study about the effects of class room space on learning? I wrote about it on my blog recently….
    As a teacher (of younger kids), there is no way that the physical space of a classroom does not affect the dynamics of the class. (Study or no study!) I’ve taught in tiny cramped classrooms and huge, modern, and comfortable classes, and I’ve had no classroom and been a floating teacher too.

    • S of S: Yes, I’m feeling the effects already, and have requested a room change for the basement corridor room. It’s less than likely that I’ll get it, but you never know. Interesting post; thanks for sharing!

  10. Hi Siobhan,
    in my first year of teaching, I got grade one. I was so excited and decorated their beautiful, little room all ready to go, only to find that they were moving me. I moved three times that year. Now when you have resources, classwork, furniture, 28 desks and chairs and 28 little children- it is not an easy task! I demanded that I was staying in my next room for two years and had that wish granted. Ask for what you want…definitely! Or at least tell someone that you are not happy, and want first dibs on the best stuff next time 🙂

    • HMC: there is no first dibs where I work! We are a huge college with hundreds of teachers, and Scheduling has the worst job in the world trying to just find classrooms for every course section. I have put in a request to change the basement locale, as it will definitely be problematic where orals are concerned, but it’s unlikely the request will make a difference. Just trying to stay positive about the whole situation – it’s nobody’s fault, even if it’s a huge pain for me and my students.

  11. I loved reading these comments about teaching space. Teachers are so awesomely flexible and adaptable and responsible. We MAKE things work for our students. I loved the black cart story. Imagine an architect or an engineer or a doctor or a TV producer working with 40 people from a small cart. I have two stories to add to your pile: I once taught literacy for a semester to a small group of 5 students on a staircase. But my very favourite place was the recreation room of a public housing building next to the laundry room. It had its own washroom (I brought the TP), a small portable blackboard which I stole from the elementary school across the road, a kettle for tea and coffee and a balcony where my students (adults) and I smoked lots of cigarettes. I loved that space because IT WAS ALL MINE and MY STUDENTS ONLY.

  12. I went into a Faculty Concerns meeting today. 8 of us in a stark conference room built for 30. We sat across from each other and there was an ocean of table between us. those sitting on the same side were lined up without eye contact to one another. It made me think of this post and I thought I would revisit to ask how the spaces you were given this term are going? Have you noticed any significant effects?

    • Tanya: thanks for asking! The amphitheatre is working out fine; it’s awkward for group work but they manage. I think it will be especially effective when they’re doing their oral presentations. The horrible basement room is still horrible, but I have found it helpful to insist that they abandon the very back seats, and then one day I came in to find that a clever teacher had moved most of the desks as far to the front as possible. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before. It helps a lot! So it’s going ok, but I’m certainly hoping for nicer spaces next semester… (Note: our department always meets in a board room, but there are over 50 of us so there are few other options…you get used to swiveling around to see the person on the same side of the table as you who’s talking…)

  13. Tangerine peel에서 이 항목을 퍼감댓글:
    하긴 이런 문제도….ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ특히 대학에서는 이럴수 있겠지 강의실이 달라지니까…

    Classroom is also the key element in teaching….Quite easy to forget about it! Still, teaching materials tend to take a minor parts in ESL teaching in the high school of Korea. Only textbook centered!

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