George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Illo of silhouette of two men lifting a big desk above their shoulders

I decided to focus on learning spaces this year in the classroom and around my school. It led me to create a makerspace in my school's library, but it also led me to take a hard look at the classroom. Last summer, I visited my classroom and decided to change it around. The entire process started with one simple question: "Is this room designed for me or for my students?" It was on this question that I based every decision I made when it came to designing the room.

The Benefits of Desk-Free Teaching

The major change that I made in the classroom was deciding to get rid of my teacher desk. It wasn't an easy decision, but when I asked my one simple question, I realized that the entire room was designed around the desk, making it seem as if this was my classroom and the students were just visiting. I wanted to change that idea. I wanted the students to start feeling that it was their classroom and I was part of it. There were plenty of funny looks from teachers and students when they noticed the desk was gone, but I really learned some incredible things about myself and about my classroom by ditching the desk.

1. Comfortability

By getting rid of the teacher desk, there was more space in the room for the student desks to spread out. I have 32 students in a classroom, and having a comfortable space for all of them to sit and learn is important. One teacher desk might not seem like it would take up much space in a classroom, but removing it allowed me to give a few extra feet back to the students so that they weren't so bunched up. Comfortable students will be better prepared to learn and engage.

2. Approachability

The teacher desk has always created a barrier between student and teacher. Some students won't approach the teacher because of the intimidation factor that the desk represents. By getting rid of it, I had more students coming up to ask me for help or to answer their questions. These little interactions can be the difference maker for a struggling student.

3. Mileage

I have always considered myself an active teacher in the classroom. I'm always moving about the room during class discussions and just have a hard time standing still. Once I got rid of the desk, I saw the number of steps that I took (thanks, Fitbit!) increase dramatically. I averaged an extra mile a day. By getting rid of the desk, I kept active in the classroom. I kept engaged with my students. I was always up at the door greeting them when they came in. An extra mile a day times 180 school days is great!

4. Ownership

By the end of the year, I no longer felt comfortable calling it "my room." It was our room. By getting rid of the desk, I gave the students a reason to feel differently about the space. I was another learner sharing the room with them as we explored the world of literature. With more ownership comes more engagement and respect. I never thought that getting rid of that desk could have such an impact on my students, but it really did something for them that mattered.

Gone But Not Missed

Ditching the desk is not a brand new idea, but it was a crazy one for me to consider at the start of the year. Looking back, however, I can't believe that it took me this long to realize how much of an impediment that desk was to creating a stronger classroom environment. Most people always ask about all of the stuff that teachers keep on their desks and where I put mine when the desk went away. Honestly, it was just stuff that anyone could easily move to a cupboard or the closet. I really didn't miss anything that used to occupy my desk -- especially when I found the changes that I made to the classroom benefited not only my students, but benefited me as well.

Do you have any stories about how changing your classroom or ditching your desk worked out for you? Please share them in the comments below.

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John Thayer's picture
John Thayer
Teaching is a revolutionary act.

I was forced to give up the teacher desk for a couple of years. None of the teachers had them. In fact, we didn't really have our own classrooms either. Nothing seemed to be "ours." It was chaotic and uncomfortable and scary and I loved it. I'm starting a new school in a new state this year and I'm going to take your advise. Thanks!

Trish Scoble's picture

I have also made HUGE changes in my classroom - the first was The Desk. It isn't gone but is the hub of the technology with desktop computers, chrome books, IPad's, and tablets based there. The students love the desk and spread out on it with groups or just for themselves.
Next was the desks - no money just took the trays out and grouped the desks - my husband painted some book cases and boxes in bright colours for the students to put pencil cases, books, etc into. We do have a couple of tables that I managed to get - one is round, the other rectangle with the legs cut short. Students have around 30 cushions, a tent, an area they call the 'Family room' with couch, bookcase, etc. We love it!

Rob Higgins's picture

Well done Nicholas,
We've had as desk free school, 30 classes, for nearly 5 years. All teachers in the learning spaces, or the learning street, what used to be a corridor and now break out spaces, are involved in learning , not sitting behind a desk isolated from the students.

magalibrutel's picture

I got rid of my desk last month. The first reason is I wanted to have more space in the classroom! No regrets at all! All the students noticed it and appreciated it. That's really their room.
I kept however a corner for me with computer and resources needed. I can't leave papers and books etc on this corner. So at the end of the day everything goes on shelves.
And I found others benefits described in your post like more steps/ day...
Thanks for this great post!

MarcyWaldner's picture

Thanks for sharing that experience. It sounds like it excites you and that will have a great impact on your students. For me, I've just done the opposite. I recently moved back to traditional classroom teaching after mostly developing/teaching in online format for 7 yrs. I had a new-to-me classroom and mine was going to be the first homeroom class again - owned/used by a single teacher instead of shared by several. I used a table for the first 6 months - wanted the openness of a table workspace rather than a desk that can become cluttered. I struggled to stay organized. I'm an active teacher as well - always rotating between the pairings and groups. I've focused more on collaborative groups this year so added three smaller (sort of 2 person) tables at the back of the room, added a shag throw carpet near the door/in front of my desk (yes I gave in and put in a desk), and took the far row of desks and faced them towards the room instead of facing forward like the rest. There's been a distinct change in my classes as a result. I had to establish new norms / expectations - ss can move to wherever in the room to work Once We're Released to the Task, but to start they're in desks just so I've got full attention to remind them of their learning project and purpose. The spaces get used in different ways and there's fewer disruptions / more on task work done by most. They seem more comfortable too, several taking the lead in their learning. There's been several comments about the space, preferences, comparisons to the work space vs other shared/traditional classrooms. I don't feel at all that I'm unapproachable at my desk, like mentioned in the article, since I go to them in their learning groups or we'll mini conference at a table at the back or they submit online work (email Word docs or share Google docs) for e-feedback and comments. I couldn't maintain my homework folders, planning booklets, course binders w texts etc without some tc space but I admire your conviction in giving up your professional space to offer it to your large classes. I just couldn't function/perform as well without that space. Cheers - thanks for sharing.

Nicole's picture

I wanted to get rid of my desk for a long time! The only time I sit at my desk is before my students arrive, sometimes planning, and after school. The classroom is supposed to be a place of collaborative learning and sharing. Working in a personalized learning school has motivated me to make the classroom a reflection of my students.

Tracy Evans's picture
Tracy Evans
Teacher/ Learning Leader

Love it! I also ditched my teacher desk! I kept a filing cabinet in the corner to keep all of my stuff and it meant that I never left for the day with a messy desk because I had no place to leave a mess!

Mr. Gonzalez's picture

Last year I rarely had a chance to sit in my desk. Many of the times I would work with an intervention groups, small learning stations and coteaching in the classroom. The only time that my desk was used is for Reader's Workshop. I would rarely use it, but when I did it was for grading papers or reading information that was placed in my mailbox. The desk that I is old and worn down that I had to think of ways to decorate it to cover up all the scratches, dents and imperfections on it. If I had a choice I would've gotten rid of it a long time ago. Unfortunately, we have to request permission from the building principal in written form then has to be approved by the board of education. For me to do that it takes away from my primary of my teaching duties.

Mary H's picture

I finally ditched my desk at the beginning of last year. Many years ago I traded in my gargantuan school-issued desk for a smaller one, then traded that for a very small table. Each one, no matter the size, was nothing more than a storage unit, and a messy one at that. I never ever sat there, and the physical clutter made my teacher brain feel cluttered, too. My students probably felt the same. Even though my motivation for ditching my desk was for my own peace of mind, I realized immediately how much better the room worked for my 2nd-graders. And it freed up space for moving to flexible seating later in the year. Now I'm teaching Project-Based Learning in my elementary school, and I knew there wouldn't be room for a desk in my new classroom, either. The space is all about the students!

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