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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. Hi Angela. Thank you for this perspective. I have never used a theme, but with all the blogs I’ve been reading lately, I was wondering if I should be. I have added things in my classroom to make it feel special for my students, but not for decorating purposes. This summer, I did do some painting of some of my shelves and cupboards because they were looking so beat up, so I ended up with a color theme of sorts. I am okay with that.
    I want to focus on my students, so when I do activities that look interesting for them, I feel like I have accomplished my goal of capturing their attention. Then they can get to work on the meat of the project.
    I usually try to change up my bulletin boards with student work throughout the year, but I don’t do too much else in the room once I get it set up the way I want it to be. I do minimal decorating for holidays, but I do like to use holiday themed material for subject work. That is my compromise.
    Having said that, I love seeing what some teachers are doing and I am more inclined to coordinate than I used to be.
    Luckily, I have been out of the country for a few weeks, so even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t be in my room doing too much. That being said, I did buy a few small things while in Korea that I will be using in my classroom.

  2. I appreciate this discussion. I teach Kindergarten. I have to say, I feel better teaching when the room isn’t messy. I feel better when I see bright colors. However, I don’t have the money or energy to do much more than put up 4 big bulletin boards at the beginning of the year. Then I spend my time working with my students to create learning charts, shared writing, art projects, etc. That is what ends up decorating the room. The very best decorations are the little pictures the kids make for me. It’s not my classroom, it’s our classroom. The focus really shouldn’t be on how cute it looks or doesn’t look. The main reason we are there is to learn and grow with each other.

  3. Thank you for your liberating post!! I’ve taught 5th grade for ten years and used to have a somewhat theme of race cars. Now, like most other teachers who commented, I have a calming color scheme that makes for a clean and comfortable environment in which to learn. I look back at my racing theme items and cringe! When former students come to visit they remember how I let them read on the floor or the Pilgrims simulation. They never talk about what the room looked like! So I feel that I’m doing the right thing as a teacher : )

  4. This post brought back my first days of teaching when I scrambled to come up with a new theme every year and spent hours readying everything in my room. Thankfully, like so many other teachers, I came to the realization that the effectiveness of the space and the quality of the student work or class charts I posted around the room was more important than the overall look of the decorations. I now start my room with many blank bulletin boards covered in only complementary fabrics awaiting the work we will do throughout the year. I hopefully send the message that the room needs the students and their work to become complete.

  5. I personally don’t have time for “cute”. I taught summer school and my room is already set up. Some teachers at my school have been working since the last week in July setting up their rooms. I have to report next week for the beginning of school and am taking time off to recharge since I taught summer school. “Cute” doesn’t necessarily reflect the learning in the room. If kids aren’t using it, it is only wallpaper.

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