Administration & Leadership

Designing a Welcoming Administrator’s Office

These ideas help school leaders arrange their offices to facilitate conversation and collaboration and to celebrate students and learning.

February 21, 2024
Maskot / Getty Images

You might remember being called to the principal’s sanctum as a young child. The school leader sat across a behemoth desk, Buick-size, as you gawked from your vantage point eye-level with stacks of paper. Jay Schauer’s article about classroom arrangements got us contemplating the environment fostered by school administrators’ offices. How do school leaders arrange their offices to facilitate conversation and collaboration and to celebrate children and learning?

It all starts with the design axiom “Form follows function.” Use of space, selection and placement of furniture, productivity technology, and art adorning walls must first and foremost serve a purpose. You don’t need a generous budget, a spacious room (many principals toil away in converted closets), or construction material fancier than institutional cinder block. 

Instead, an office needs room to accommodate three fundamental activities: a workspace for the administrator’s solo work, a sitting area for heart-to-heart discussion among a few people, and a conference table for larger group work. 

Individual work space

One needs a comfortable desk for tickling a computer keyboard and shuffling paperwork. We suggest pushing the desk into the corner with no adjacent seat for office visitors—that’s what the sitting area is for. Under this plan, the administrator is facing a wall while perched at the desk, reserving sunlit space for meetings. 

You can post frequently referenced information on a bulletin board an arm’s distance from the desk. Rob displayed a PERT chart to track the progress of ongoing district initiatives. Seth’s bulletin board included a photograph of Mr. Dioszeghy, his eighth-grade math teacher and role model. Faced with a thorny problem at his desk, Seth turned and consulted Mr. Dioszeghy, wondering how he would handle the matter.

To create a healthier workspace, you may want to consider a portable standing desk as well. These models, which are placed on top of the traditional desk, provide an adjustable flat surface raised to the appropriate height. When you tire, you can easily fold up the device and take a seat. 

Some administrators bring a Bluetooth-enabled speaker to enjoy soft music after school hours. Photographs of your family and your happy place promote emotional well-being and subtly remind office visitors that school administrators are human beings too.

Sitting area for heart-to-heart discussion

The sitting area is the designated setting for conversations such as post-observation conferences with a teacher, disciplinary meetings with a student and their parents, and the daily stream of visitors who “just stopped by to ask a quick question.” Most meetings convene in this comfortable living room–type arrangement: a round coffee table surrounded by four chairs. This ambience symbolically places people in close proximity and communicates equal status without barriers between them. 

Try strategically placing on the coffee table some conversation starters—for example, James Mollison’s Playground, a coffee table book of photographs showing children playing in schoolyards around the globe, or perhaps a Slinky. To break the ice before a sensitive conversation, participants can together examine what schools and schoolchildren look like in Mexico City or Nepal, or reminisce about the good old days playing with a Slinky, relaxing the tension that often accompanies a visit to the school administrator’s office. Experienced school leaders realize that a box of tissues on the coffee table often comes in handy, too.

Conference section for group work

The conference table is expressly designed for people to be able to write or type while enabling them to easily exchange ideas and maintain eye contact. On the nearest wall hangs a markerboard, interactive whiteboard, or large-screen monitor used for presentations and recording meeting notes. In a closet down the hall are stowed a folding table and folding chairs brought into the office to double or triple the size of the conference table as needed. Portable furniture allows for other flexible arrangements—for example, a larger circle of chairs or placement of a coffee urn or trays for pizza and chip celebrations.

Wall decoration

Innumerable school walls, especially those erected during the baby boom era, consist of bleak, flavorless cinder block. We’ve known administrators to take matters, along with a paintbrush and a bucket of lively colored Benjamin Moore, into their own hands. A vivid coat of paint is a worthwhile investment, considering the number of weeks when school leaders spend more waking hours in the office than in their own homes. 

Adorning the walls with art not only lends beauty to an otherwise bland environment, but also may convey a message: In this space we value children, learning, and diversity. A few suggestions follow.

  • Students’ art or vibrant photographs of students engaged in school activities. Art must represent a diversity of cultures and backgrounds.
  • A print like Norman Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With, which shows 6-year-old Ruby Bridges desegregating her elementary school wearing a crisp white dress and hair ribbon while escorted by federal marshals. 
  • Any colorful poster bearing inspirational quotes espousing the value of learning and exemplary character traits such as resilience and cooperation. 
  • Bookshelves housing a professional library for the administrator, also serving as a lending library for the leader to share books in the course of conversation.
  • Wall decorations that may also be used as a reference point during meetings. For example, Seth commissioned a talented middle school student to illustrate, in cartoon style, a speck of snow on top of a hill, ballooning in size as it tumbles down, until it humorously topples an unfortunate victim at the bottom. Countless times, Seth turned a child’s or parent’s attention to the snowball rolling down a hill, a visual reminder not to allow a problem to fester. 

What’s unique in your office? What’s interesting and beautiful hanging on the walls? What productivity technology facilitates collaboration in the office? Do you utilize conversation starters? How does your office promote emotional and physical well-being? Sharing ideas with other school leaders can help create spaces we can all thrive in.

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