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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. I feel very strongly about getting all the cute out of my system in the two weeks before school begins. I “cuteify” my classroom as much as possible but then I’m done. It adds little value to classroom instruction. If something cute happens along the way it is usually organic or because I’m winging it and I tend to be creative in my teaching. 🙂

    1. This is exactly what I do as well. I think that nervous energy decorating a little helps get my head around the work that is coming. I like spending time in my room thinking of how to make transitions and flow work more effectively and the time I spend “decorating” I use to evaluate my procedures and routines. I also use the time for organizing my room. After the students enter the focus becomes the lesson planning and the students needs.

  2. As a brand new teacher, I fell into the trap of “cuteifying” my room. I went all out and spent WAY too much money on senseless things. I was lucky enough to work with a teacher that first year who was anti-cute. It made me rethink what my purpose was in the decor of my room. I want students to feel invited, welcomed, and ready to learn. My colors are a bit bright, but I’ve stuck with the EXACT same decor for the past four years, and I just put it all out again at the beginning of my fifth year in a new school. Keeping things organized, free of clutter (which is hard for me), and student-friendly is more important. Because I met her that first year, I have never spent time redoing anything to make my room more cute. Instead, my room is good enough and I spend my time working on learning activities and instructional strategies to help my students grow. The cute trap, however, is a difficult one to escape.

  3. What a terrific post and topic, Angela. I personally think cute is getting a bad rap because frankly, in this Pinterest-saturated world, the grass is so much *cuter* on the other side!

    As I see it, it’s easy to say that if something is cute, it must not be meaningful; or if something isn’t cute, it is. But cute just means cute. And meaningful just means meaningful. Projects and student work could be cute. They could be meaningful. They could be neither. But they could be both!

  4. I have enjoyed reading this discussion Angela. I am beginning my 14th year of teaching this August. These many years have been a great journey with many transitions along the way. When I was a new teacher, the outward appearance of my classroom was important to me because it is what I dreamed of as an education student. I couldn’t wait to go to the teacher supply stores to buy things for my classroom. I changed bulletin boards monthly and/or seasonally for about 3 years before I discovered that I no longer had the time to do so. That epiphany occurred when I switched grade levels and found myself leading a team in lesson planning and curriculum development. Suddenly, I was no longer the new kid being carried along by veteran teachers. My days were very busy and time for extra-curricular decorating was non-existent. What was decorated at the beginning of the year was what was on the walls at the end of the year.

    Two years ago, I had another eye-opening moment. In the middle of the year I realized that I was no longer happy with some my teaching approaches because they were not very effective. The students were not improving. I began researching better practices and seeking the counsel of teachers with a broader base of experiences. I had to basically change how I approached instruction. During that time, my classroom decor remained the same from year to year (bright colors). Occasionally I would add a few items that I really liked. It wasn’t that important to me.

    This year, I feel like I have a handle on how to teach my students to be much better learners and am looking forward to digging deeper into my state standards as I teach. I hope to find and/or create resources that challenge my students while meeting their needs. I did decide that I wanted to change the color scheme in my room so I embarked on overhauling my bulletin boards. It was a lot of work, and costly is some ways too. However, it is pleasing to me. I have worked hard in the last 2 weeks so that when we teachers return to school, my focus is on what and how I will teach. Those bulletin boards will remain blank so that they can be filled with class-created anchor charts, vocabulary, and student work. I actually find that this approach serves be well in that it satisfies my desire to decorate and be functional and meaningful.

    I write all of this to say that teachers are an ever-evolving group. Hopefully we chose to be in this profession because we love to teach not just to be “around kids.” There is a big difference. If we are unwilling to make changes for the benefit of the children, then no amount of decoration will cover up the problems. I am learning more and more every day that we are all different and therefore our approach to education is varied. One style is not better than the other, they are just different – as long as the children are learning with depth and complexity.

    Thank you for this post. These thoughts challenge me to consider how I can be an even better teacher this year.

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