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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 is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
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  1. I have seen the cute debate that’s been going on recently. Here is where I stand on it. I teach 7th grade math in a middle school. I started my career as a 6th grade teacher, also in middle school at the time (we are now a 7-8 building because of space issues).

    I think it’s important for students to have a clean, organized, welcoming classroom environment not matter what the age level. A few years ago I went with a color scheme of pink, lime, and blue. Pink and green are my favorite colors, but I thought that might be too preppy/girly so I added the blue for a bit of balance. The kids loved the color scheme.

    Last year I added some zebra accents and found some cute zebra stars items from Mardel. I use these items to bring more of a continuity to my classroom and also because I found some great organizational pieces to use.

    When parents and students come to my classroom for open house they rave about how great the room looks and make comments about how it seems like my classroom would be a great place to learn math. I definitely achieved my goal of a welcoming classroom while meeting my organizational needs. I spend the majority of my waking hours in my classroom during the school week and I want it to be a place that I love coming to. I have a very small weird shaped room (irregular pentagon) that instead of looking cluttered, I hope looks warm, cozy, and inviting.

    I would not want to spend time in a cluttered, disorganized classroom myself. That does not mean that the teacher is not wonderful. I used to be a bit of a clutterbug myself years ago. I just think that when we go to inservices at the HS some rooms are blah and bare (and this is all through the year). We MS teachers comment on how awful it would be to learn in what looks like an institution.

    Just because someone likes their room to look cute (as I do) does not mean it lack substance in any way, shape, or form. I make my room “cute” so my students feel comfortable and want to come into my classroom. I did an end of the year survey and had many students comment about my classroom decor (which is really a color scheme). They appreciated it. When former students come back and visit me they complain that the room did not look that cool when I taught them. Now obviously I was just as good of a teacher either way, but there is something to be said for making your classroom look inviting.

    I think no matter what students deserve to learn in a clean and organized space. When I a post-it survey the first day of school last year and had the sentence starter Our classroom should be ____ everyday, the answer given by most students was clean or organized. That does not mean your classroom needs to be perfect, because we all know learning can be messy, but it should be clean enough when students walk in for them to feel comfortable.

    Sorry for writing a novel, maybe I should do a blog post on this! I just get annoyed when people (not you) assume if you have a cute classroom that you are all about fluff and that’s an unfair generalization I have seen in some comments on other blogs.

    1. I could NOT AGREE MORE! I feel the same way…sometimes people confuse “cute” with “lack of substance”…I work my butt off to have both, and my students and their parents love that about my classroom. 🙂

    2. I agree! Just because I am on #teamcute doesn’t mean I am an airhead who doesn’t care about high levels of thinking! I am a FIRM believer that you can do both!
      I think I’m gonna blog about this too…I strive for both in my former classroom and the campus’s that I’ve had the opportunity to work on.

      Thanks for the convo, Ang!

      matching my shoes to my earrings,

      1. Best comment ever, Amber! I’m actually challenging myself to think beyond the cute factor and ask what is really going on in the classroom. It doesn’t have to be an either/or as long as the environment facilitates the learning we want to happen! Kids do notice and actually enjoy giving their input on the decor. Thanks for this post, Angela. So much to think about.

  2. Until Matt wrote the post about cute being somewhat overrated I did not even realize this was something teachers discussed! I teach at a very small alternative high school. My school is located on the campus of a community college and we were strongly encouraged to stick with the “professional theme” of the college which was TAN walls, GRAY carpet, and BLACK chairs. This coming year I will be sharing my room with a teacher who got me hooked on Pinterest. We agreed that the room was drab and needed some color and cheer. We have made some really cute things to give the room some visual appeal. (Including pom poms!) We may or may not have included some items with glitter…. 😉

    It took some time this summer to make the curtains, pom poms, and other things, but I enjoyed doing it. When our students come back in a few weeks, they will have the opportunity to create art work to display in the classroom and in the halls so they can have some ownership in the space as well.

  3. Wonderful, honest post. When I was preparing for my first year of teaching, I brought in a few “cute” pieces to make the classroom feel like my own–namely a few paper puff balls (the ones you make by accordion folding and then fluffing out) and a pennant banner. That was pretty much it.
    I must admit: following blogs before I had my own classroom made me eager to see what I could do in my room. I think it’s part of the whole Pinterest standard of measuring up to everyone else. When I got in my room, though, I just didn’t have time–or money!–to do much. I think I spent a total of $20 on cute things (color scheme of blue, yellow, and green–I tried to keep it neutral for girls & boys).
    I did want my room to be my own space, and that’s why I brought in some things. I wanted to feel at home in this place where I spent 10 hours a day–and that was achieved. But did I turn down a cheap reading chair because it didn’t fit my classroom look? No way! So I may have ruined any “cutesy” look going on, but I’ve grown to realize that functionality is more important than appearance.
    I feel as if there’s a message here for my middle school students that looks aren’t everything…

  4. Another great post, Angela! I could never keep up with all the “cute” but I do focus on keeping the environment and the activities I do “fun” and “engaging” for the children . I’m in awe of teachers who have adorable bulletin boards along with color coordinated classrooms, however, I could never keep up with it myself. I admit, absolutely NOTHING in my classroom matches! I do what I can with what I have, but my classroom is all about learning, and sometimes learning isn’t cute.

  5. Very thoughtful post after Matt opened up the “cute can of worms”. I really believe that student created work should be the big focus, not teacher created or purchased decor. I do use borders on my bulletin boards, chosen to pique student interest and support our current learning. Sometimes I use student work as a border. I do use a logo that goes with our discipline plan on student name tags. This discipline plan is based on the definition of discipline as teaching, and is based on the Circle of Courage http://www.reclaiming.com/content/about-circle-of-courage model. This connects with our school wide entry into The Leader in Me http://www.theleaderinme.org/ and began with my reading of Discipline Without Stress, Punishment or Rewards http://www.marvinmarshall.com/ For most written work my students get a blank piece go paper and are instructed to fold it if we need boxes. I am a member of #teamglitter and my students make many colourful, cute and sparkly things for our classroom and all way bulletin boards. I also staple up papers with simple but thoughtful drawings and writings, not fancy or cute but examples of the great thinking that my students do. The key thing we need to provide is a welcoming environment where children and their work are valued so that positive learning relationships can flourish.

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