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Classroom Management, Education Trends   |   Jul 29, 2013

The culture of cute in the classroom

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

The culture of cute in the classroom

By Angela Watson

I recently received not just one, but two emails from teachers informing me that my classroom “wasn’t cute” in the pictures I’ve shared on this site. Commentary on cuteness (or lack thereof) is something that seems to be happening more and more frequently in education-related discussions. And what’s really interesting is that in many cases, “not cute” is meant as a compliment.

Here’s an excerpt from one email:

It seems like every time I’m looking for opinions, suggestions, and practical information about teaching, especially integrating technology in the K-6 classroom or differentiation, I am directed to middle school blogs run by male teachers. The elementary blogs seem to talk about cute bulletin board themes and actually use the word “cuteify”- as in, to make more cute, when talking about creating worksheets. It’s pretty depressing. I mean, worksheets? I found your weblog when looking for ideas about bulletin boards, simply because I have little space and less inclination; I hate bulletin board borders and pre-made things.  Your suggestions were clear, to the point, and most certainly not cute.  Student centered, student directed, and useful, yes. Exploring more, I found some practical suggestions for things that I’m considering as I’m setting up my own new classroom, and a clear sense that your view of being a teacher is not in how great you display student work, but how you use your time and energy to be the be guide (not master) for students.

Two days later, I received this from another frustrated teacher:

I follow quite a few blogs that are wonderful. The creators seem like wonderful teachers but do a lot of “fluff” and extras in a time when teachers are busier than ever. I am seeing that many teachers insist on having classroom themes (jungle, sports, animals, etc.). Teachers redo word wall words, parent notes, student information packets, learning stations, labeling systems, etc. to match the theme. Is this time well spent when we should be personalizing learning, deepening thinking, and many more?!? While looking at photos on your blog, I don’t see any of these things. I see a welcoming, engaging classroom that is “to the point” and contains the essentials. I noticed that you even commented about not putting holiday/seasonal thing up. I’ve taught for over ten years and have never had a student ask me why we don’t have Halloween, spring, etc decor on the walls. Do themes, different graphic organizers for each story with clip art from the story and all that really increase student achievement?

If you’ve been reading Matt Gomez’ blog, you know without a doubt that cuteness has become a hot button topic among teachers. But why is there such a divide between the cutes and cute-nots? Is it possible to accept the fact that teachers have different opinions of what they want their classrooms and materials to look like, and there’s no one right way?

The culture of cute in the classroom

I haven’t chosen sides in this debate, nor have I purposefully fallen on the not-cute side. In fact, until a few years ago, I thought my stuff WAS cute. It wasn’t until the boom in teacher blogging and Pinterest that I realized just how much more I could be doing. Social media has given us a glimpse into other people’s worlds and we see possibilities now that were unknown before. There are so many creative educators out there making their learning spaces and materials picture perfect that it’s easy to feel inferior. Many of us think we’re using Pinterest to find and share ideas, but half the time, we close the computer feeling that our classrooms (and homes, recipes, clothes, and bodies) don’t measure up to everyone else’s.

Though I don’t have a problem with individual teachers “cuteifying” their classrooms (or blogging about it, or buying/selling adorable things on Teachers Pay Teachers), I do have some concerns with the “culture of cute” as a whole, and I’ll share two reasons why.

First, I’m worried that making things look cute has become yet another unnecessary task and impossible standard for teachers to meet. The pressure to have a perfect-looking classroom can be intense in some schools, and teachers already feel that nothing they do is good enough. They barely have time to plan lessons or grade papers, but they feel guilty if their center materials use clashing color schemes. They worry that a plain-looking assignment shouldn’t be displayed even though it required higher level thinking on the part of students, and choose a precious but less challenging worksheet to hang up instead. They spend so much time creating the appearance of a beautiful learning environment that they’re too tired to think about the learning itself.

I can’t help but think that the time we spend making things look good is time we could have spent talking with students, creating meaningful assignments, differentiating learning, analyzing and reflecting on our own practice, and growing professionally. Sure, it’s possible to have style AND substance, but how do you make time for both when you’re barely keeping your head above water? Focusing on the appearance of things is easier and a often lot more fun, so it can become a distraction from the real purpose of teaching.

My second concern is that in some cases, we’re using “cute” to compensate for boring and outdated teaching practices. If the only way to get students to complete an assignment is to put adorable clip art and borders on it, I will submit that it might be time to rethink the assignment itself. Project-based learning and other tasks that are meaningful and authentic don’t need fancy disguises: the “hook” for kids is solving a real-world problem that they’re personally invested in. Realistically, I know that not everything kids do in school can fit that criteria, but I wonder if our energy is better spent on finding more authentic tasks instead of cuter worksheets.

I would love to know how much time, effort, and (let’s get real) money you spend making things in your classroom look cute. How do you balance cuteness with content when choosing learning materials or figuring out how to manage your time? All respectful viewpoints are welcome–let’s discuss!


Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. Thank you for your thoughtful post, and validation to spend time preparing in ways that don’t necessarily add a cuteness factor. I wish more of the blogs I read were focusing on creating a culture of personalized learning and deep thinking, rather than coordinated design themes. Thank you for bringing up the enormous elephant in the blogosphere in a thoughtful, respectful way.

  2. I have tried doing a classroom theme in the past, but I’ve never felt like I have really pulled it off. It’s fun trying to make the room look cute but once the kids actually enter the space it’s all about function. I am not opposed to buying the cutesy stuff from TPT, but I honestly don’t understand where those teachers find the time to make it all! I often look at their work and feel inferior–like why don’t I spend *all* that time on my students, but I have invested my time in my coursework and recently got a doctorate, so I guess we each have our own priorities.

    1. Congrats on your doctorate Katie! I mentor first year teachers at my school and am astounded at the amount of time, $$$$ and effort they put into decorating. After a day or two it’s just wallpaper to the students and really serves no purpose. I encourage all teachers to put the time, $$$ and effort into anything that increases teaching/learning in the room. We are judged by test scores, not colorful bulletin boards.

  3. Thank you for finally saying it! I’ve watched teachers in my school spend MONTHS setting up their classrooms to be adorable. One teacher even said that it didn’t matter if you used the stuff, as long as it looked good! When we toured each other’s classrooms for inspiration, it became very clear that this had become an interior design/decorating competition, rather than a functional, educational issue. Setting up an elementary classroom is hard enough, why make it this difficult? Why spend your summer making pom-poms to hang?

  4. I have been in education for 25 years, 17 of those as a classroom teacher and the past eight as a technology and testing coordinator. When I began everyone changed their bulletin boards on a regular basis. As education evolved, our walls became a source for resources. Word walls took up at least one wall of our classrooms and the “how to” and “what not to forget” poster world exploded until we had ran out of wall space. We didn’t really need to worry about what kind of bulletin boards we were going to put up, but how we were going to make those resources cute. During my tenure, curriculum has also been drilled down, becoming increasingly more difficult and intense. I have heard many teachers say, “I don’t have time to change out bulletin boards, there are too many other things to do”. However, many elementary school teachers also want to foster a feeling of warmth and welcomeness to their rooms, much like many people do with their homes. The way most teachers I work with have met this challenge is to go ahead and “cuteify” their rooms over the summer and leave it that way for the year. They do still display student work, which many times includes seasonal projects.

    A fellow veteran teacher and I just had this discussion the other day. She had been visiting with and helping a new teacher who was a little stressed out about changing all the “fluff’ and wanted to concentrate on the curriculum. As my veteran teacher friend and I were discussing it, we talked about the fact that, with the exception of one teacher (the only male teacher in our building), no one really does a lot of that any more. We have a kindergarten teacher that decorated using a theme that she likes several years ago and has stuck with that same theme (and it is still cute)!

    Finally, I will say that I realized many years ago, we do the “fluff” for us – the kids don’t usually notice or care (whether it is on the walls or our papers). Our rooms are our havens and the place we spend a great deal time. It should really be up to the teacher who “lives” there how they want to spend their time, because all that decorating generally falls outside of contracted timed. On the flip side, those teachers that don’t want to fluff up their rooms shouldn’t feel the pressure or need to do so.

    Great topic for discussion!!

    1. I couldn’t agree more.

      I am setting up my 1st classroom. I am going a jungle theme. It will be a set it up and leave it theme. The only changes that will be made are updating the student work that is displayed and updating the content of the various word walls/ anchor charts.

      I am doing the cute thing because my room is my haven. I feel that if I am going to spend all my time there I want it to be fun.

    2. I agree with you Tammy. I have had a BEE theme that I have used for 6 years, I purchase things off and on at the dollar store or yard sales, but don’t go bonkers creating the new theme each year or spending a fortune on ink cartridges so everything can match! I am new to reading blogs, because frankly over the school year I have no time, so my summer I thought I’d follow some. I felt like I was in over my head with all the pom pom and circumstance of classroom thematics! I have never had very big classrooms and so for me, the things I put in my room must serve a purpose. I have one small space dedicated to my Alma Mater and a few personal items. ( Picture of my GRAND DAUGHTER!) Wall space and bulletin boards are prime real estate so they are for anchor charts, word walls and student art work. I do switch out ceiling hanging things for the seasons but our decorations are student art. I had older students last year and they loved having a turn at pulling out my seasonal bins and decorating the room. I just turned them loose. 4th girls had Christmas, 5th boys had St Pat’s..etc. ( I feel I am preparing them for teamwork and for Prom decorating!!) Haha!
      Last year I bought a Frankenstein lawn stake and put him in one of my plant pots for Halloween…well he just never got taken down and we put a Santa hat on him, then a Heart for Valentines day went on the hat, then a Shamrock bead necklace…he was kinda cute, and my kids thought he was a hoot. I don’t want to live at school, and I won’t become a slave to fashion ( even classroom décor) but I do want my students to enjoy the space they have to be in all day too.

    3. As a kindergarten teacher I try to make my room comfortable and inviting. I use the work my students do as decoration, as well as charts and language activities. What I put up in July is usually what is still up in May. I don’t have time to change it out. I love TpT and the units I purchase there. I wish I knew how those teachers had time to create such wonderful activities, but I am glad they do. It has made my job much easier!

      Great discussion!

  5. Angela this is a very thoughtful post. Thank you! “How do you balance cuteness with content” is an important question but it seems so many get defensive over the question. It is important to be thoughtful and reflect on what you do and why you do it regardless your stance. Everyone should do that every year.

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