End of term: the death and rebirth of a classroom

Dismantling a classroom is a strange, emotional job – but, magically, the room will come to life again, says Emma Turner

Emma Turner

Taking down classroom displays at the end of the school year pulls at the heart strings, writes teacher Emma Turner

There’s a scene in the film Titanic where the wreck is discovered on the ocean floor and then, through the power of cinematic magic, it is restored to its former glory – all ballrooms, clinking champagne glasses and dancing down in steerage.

At the end of the school year, the opposite occurs.

Busy classrooms, alive with the excited chatter of end-of-term organised chaos, are full to bursting with a year’s worth of work and effort. Trays bulge with folders of work; pencil pots contain well-worn and slightly-too-short crayons, which have served their masters well as maps were fringed, stories illustrated and arrows on diagrams drawn with furrowed brow and tongues crooked in concentration.

Classroom artefacts

The bright backing paper is heavy with the final pieces of the year’s educational roadmap, huge strides made since the first ones of the autumn term, which were likely stapled by a slightly concerned teacher who had the memory of the achievement of the summer-term classes past still fresh in their mind. 

Artefacts from the year’s work are dotted around the room: some strategically, some just there because there is no room in the store cupboard or because the children still love them. So a model of the water cycle sits alongside an Egyptian sarcophagus, which is nestled beside a maths bead frame and a Viking helmet.

The reading-corner drapes are looking weary and ready both for the summer and for a whizz through the washing machine, and the once-plump cushions bear the hallmarks of hours of small bodies lost in imagination curled up on them.

A smorgasbord of paper

The teacher’s desk is a smorgasbord of paper. Post-its, lists, duplicate letters about trips, sports days and class-swap days; notes from the office, notes from parents, children’s pictures drawn at (yet another) wet playtime, more lists, a couple of to-do reminders and a few more lists.

The bulb in the projector is on its last legs, too, and is in competition with the mid-morning summer sun, so that everyone is forced to work either with the blinds down or without the screen. The visualiser seems to blink into life ever more wearily each morning, mirroring the teacher as they yawn, cup in hand and cast their eye over the festival of lists on their desk. 

But all this will soon be gone. Soon it will be replaced by another year’s worth of important notes and to-do lists.

Because, as the children leave on that last day, in a flurry of carrier bags stuffed with PE kits and pieces of artwork, the teacher will gradually dismantle the classroom.

A strange job

And this is a strange job. One that no one tells you about on teacher training and that every year you’re not quite prepared for.

Whenever you choose to set up your classroom, you’ll have a moment when you are hijacked by the year just gone. Looking around your room and spotting the lone plimsoll wedged down the back of the trays, or a forgotten sweatshirt, or a solitary PE bag hung on a peg, you’ll be reminded that there were so many lives, relationships and possibilities in that room over those 38 weeks. 

You’ll remember how you fretted and worried about every single one of those young people in your room. "Where should they sit?" "Have I pitched the lesson correctly for them?" "Will they find this engaging yet challenging?" "Are they learning?" "Are they happy?" "How are they feeling about what happened at breaktime, at lunchtime, at home?" You’ll think about the hours you spent ensuring that they felt as though this was a place where somebody cared, where they could have their imagination ignited and their doubts about themselves quashed.

You’ll see remnants of lessons as you tidy the scrap-paper drawer, and smile as you remember those that went well and then cringe at the ones you wish you could forget. As you take down the displays, you’ll hear the sounds of “Whoa! That’s awesome!” as the children saw their work up there for the first time, or you’ll recall the shy smile of pride from one of them as you talked about how much progress they had made and how proud of them you were.

Taking down the staples and sorting the recycling from the rubbish, you’ll be reminded of the mad rush you were in throughout the year to fit everything in, including getting this display right. You’ll restore working walls to just walls, reading corners to just corners and carpet areas to just an area of carpet. And for a while it’ll be soulless. Bare display boards will yawn back at you. Tables will be arranged haphazardly and piled with chairs as the cleaning team do the annual deep clean. The room will echo – flat, lifeless and a little bleak. And there it will sit, quiet and unloved as the sun streams in through the windows.

The magic of the great teacher

But then, just as in Titanic, it will come to life again. And therein lies not cinematic magic but the magic of the great teacher. 

Because in that room, come September, it can be anything and those children can go anywhere. With the imagination, wit and wisdom of the teacher, that room will be transformed from a desolate box filled with miniature furniture into the educational home of the next class. It will be where relationships are formed, memories are made, and children’s minds and imaginations are taken on fascinating expeditions in learning. It will cease to be just a collection of tables, chairs and boxes of trays on wheels, but will be the canvas for whichever educational picture you want to paint or vehicle for any journey in learning. 

And it will be informed by all of those who have been there before. They may have moved on to the next class or even the next school, but a little piece of every child you have ever taught will help to create the environment in which the next class will flourish. Every lesson you ever taught that went well or went awry, every seating plan you ever trialled or challenging behaviour you ever faced will have etched itself into the fabric of that room and will be echoed in the future teaching and learning of their educational descendants.

So, in the quiet of that last day, as you wave off your passengers from that year and sit in the quiet and calm of that empty room, take a moment to reflect on the course you have just charted. And, as you lower the anchor to signal the end of one crossing and the beginning of the loading of the next, as the captain of your next year’s class ship, may I wish you bon voyage.

Emma Turner is the research and CPD lead for Discovery Schools Trust, Leicestershire

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