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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. The most important part is the ability to have everything ready and organized for the students in the classroom. I like the brighter colors and ideas. I have limited funds and I can’t buy or have all the cute ideas. It is difficulty to keep new centers for the students. I live in the state of NC and the teachers have not had a raise in 7 years. It is difficult to try to create new materials with a limited budget.

  2. Thank you for this post! I have been feeling utterly overwhelmed and very inadequate because I don’t have a theme for my classroom! So many blogs have it all color coordinated and theme-based, whereas mine just evolves throughout the year. I have unsubscribed from several blogs this summer because I just couldn’t relate to all the work in gluing, laminating, etc. I put my time, energy, and money in to the success of my kiddos for 10 months; I need a break during the other 2.

  3. Aww great! First it felt like we had to apologize if it wasn’t cute enough and now it feels like we have to apologize if we spent “too much time and money” on “cutifying”…..
    Obviously the content of WHAT we do to assist children to learn and to want to learn is what matters. If we do it in a room that is cheerful and welcoming… so much the better. Should we break the bank to do it??? Obviously NOT. Should we do themes or cute because we feel like it? Absolutely… but only if it makes us happy.
    I have a Master’s degree. I have worked in the district on a committee focusing on math instruction where we did ample amounts of research as well as presenting at professional development meetings regularly. I put in the time and effort to make sure that my lessons are well prepared to be engaging experiences for the children. AND….. I enjoy spiffing up my classroom in a bright and cheerful way…. (A person CAN be well educated, work hard on curriculum development, AND enjoy a bit of color.)
    I am one of those teachers who enjoys spending some time in summer hand-making a bit of decoration… It appeals to my creative side. It makes me happy. So… I do it.
    Am I in competition with others? No. Do I think that others should do things the way I do? Nonsense. Of course not.
    So…. let’s live and let live and not stir up trouble where there wasn’t.

  4. I was going to have to post a whole book, but Sherrie’s comment above basically stated most of what I was going to say. I’ve taught all grades from sixth through ninth math for the last twelve years. I’ve not necessarily been one to decorate. Maybe a couple of posters here and there. Most of the years that I didn’t decorate, I did have several students ask why I didn’t. Now with blogging, I am taking the time to decorate. I am teaching at the high school this year, so I am keeping to a muted version of our school colors (black and gold). I want my students to feel welcomed and comfortable when they are in my room. As a parent, I do notice the rooms my kids spend their days in. I do get a first impression about the teacher based on what their room looks like. I suppose I cared more in the elementary rooms than I did in middle school though. Either way, our classrooms are an extension of us. Sometimes, it’s the only thing others know about us and our teaching.

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