Still thinking about teaching…the walls around us

paint chips

At Home Depot, I am always drawn to the paint department. I like the small color swaths on cardstock, often snagging several to use in something my students and I will be making at some time. These little rectangles of several hues of one color are magnetic to me, and the names – graceful sea, highland breeze, mighty Aphrodite – I love them. That might be my perfect job, making up those names… I’m sure not everyone is drawn to color the way I am, but a lot of us are, our students included.

If you are fortunate to have your own classroom, make it something students want to enter. That means color. That means images. That means music. That means warmth. It’s your little house in the school, and you want to be a good host.

There’s a lot of research about what colors evoke in humans, most of it done by retail marketers. Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, FedEx, et al, want your business and have paid real money to find out what colors will attract you. We can definitely learn from advertising because let’s face it, as educators we’re trying to sell stuff to our students, be it grammar, good literature, the quadratic formula, or declensions of verbs in any language. It behooves you to create a space that fosters and encourages that learning. Without much effort or expense you can ensure more assimilation of information and a more engaged group of kids.

Here’s the basic 411 on what colors can conjure in humans – of course different cultures and personal experience can change the effect, but for the most part these colors seem to have archetypal resonance:

Blue – calmness, creativity, strength, truth, sadness

Green – vitality, youth, safety, fertility, wealth

Red – happiness, love, anger, danger

Yellow – grace, prosperity, cowardice, joy

White – purity, innocence, death

Black – power, evil, elegance, mystery

Orange – energy, warmth, demanding attention

Purple – spirituality, royalty, wisdom, arrogance

Brown – stability, reliability, endurance.

Though most colors have conflicting connotations, the positive one often prevails – think Coke ©. Their red is about happiness and fun, not danger. Also, the urgency of a red stop sign works into the psychology of using red as a marketing device – buy this now! It’s not surprising UPS chose brown to anchor its company: brown trucks, brown uniforms all send the message we are dependable; we will get your package to where you want it no matter what; we endure. Starbucks’s greenness conveys growth, wealth, and goodness.

Blues and purples became the colors of my classroom for the last several years. I just happen to love these colors and what they can convey. Choose colors you like; use the research of retail marketers – work at making conscious decisions in your classroom so that kids enjoy the space and find an environment conducive to learning.

I’m not suggesting that everyone can put in a work order (lucky you who can!) and have walls painted before school starts or for you to spend an inordinate amount of money on gallons of lavender paint, but you can create an engaging, safe, and welcoming room with a deft use of paper, posters, and some paint. (Several websites offer free posters to teachers like:,,

Images send messages, explicit and subtle. I feel strongly that I want every kid to feel included and welcomed in my classroom. I work hard to have photographs of Asian, African American, Latino, White, young, old, disabled, gay, and transgender people on the walls and in the material I use: PowerPoint presentations, books, and handouts. Faces like themselves on the walls say to kids, I belong here.

Think about a room you love in your home now or in a previous abode. What appeals to you about it? Would your students like it? If so, work hard to recreate something about it in your classroom. For me it was color (blues and purples), some comfortable couches in the back of the room for independent reading or small group work (found at yard sales), images of diverse faces, inspirational quotations (like Prejudice rarely survives experience.), and space to display student work. This last piece may seem more appropriate for elementary school, but I found that my seventh through twelfth grade students enjoyed seeing their own and their peers’ work as well. Think about the walls in your classroom as advertising. Advertising works. A daily wash-over of images (that are inclusive), color, and words that motivate and affirm good values has potency. Empty walls in a classroom are a missed opportunity.

Even if you move to different classrooms for your several sections in a middle or high school, you can still share a space with colleagues and discuss how to decorate or split up the space in a way all of you feel meets your respective needs and desires.

Once you have worked on your classroom, ask yourself, Would I like to enter this room? Would I feel comfortable, inspired, and included?

Creating a welcoming space through color, images, and words helps to eliminate fear. Know that you have kids who have experienced fear in school; commit to subjugating that destructive emotion. Fear may be the biggest impediment to learning. Given the ‘fight or flight’ response humans have to fear, we know if students are afraid, their ability to reason and think is silenced in favor of survival. Fear quells risk-taking, too. Anything we can do in our classrooms to eliminate fear will enhance the performance and confidence of our students.

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