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Horrible classrooms create horrible learning environments: a reflection
A college professor once stated to a class full of new and prospective teachers that the physical environment of a classroom shouldn’t affect the learning abilities of the students or the effectiveness of a teacher’s pedagogy.
“A good lesson will solve such problems,” he said gleefully. “Your students wouldn’t notice the poor conditions of the classroom, if you make the lessons interesting and fun.”
Like many prospective teachers in attendance, I believed that mantra. That was until I stepped into my first classroom as a teacher. And, many years -- and several “bad” classrooms later -- my opinion of his statement has drastically changed.
I’ve been involved in the world of public education for nearly 20 years. I served as a substitute teacher and a special education teacher in several public school districts in southern California. In many cases, I entered dilapidated and poorly maintained classrooms (especially in the urban schools I was employed at).
Sometimes, the classrooms defied logic and reason in terms of their designs. Other times, they were located near numerous distractions. In other cases, the classroom was so old and rundown that it would have been beneficial to knock it down and send the students and teachers to a temporary bungalow.
Economic hardship, exploding student population, political decisions, poor school management from administrators, and a seemingly abundant supply of neglect were just a few of the things that allowed these classrooms to exist. In either case, they proved to be major distractions for both teacher and students.
I won’t bother mentioning the unorganized or messy classrooms I entered when I was a short-term substitute teacher in Compton and Torrance Unified. The classrooms that will be described were given to me when I became a fulltime special education teacher. Also, these were classrooms with similar problems, despite being located in vastly different school settings. One was in a prestigious school and school district while the others were on struggling campuses located in an urban setting.
These rooms were so distinctive that I had given them nicknames that I felt best described their conditions. They’re also proof that the college professor was wrong.
Torrance High 90210 ?
Torrance High School is not your typical high school. Not only is it one of the oldest schools in California, it still operates in the original buildings that it was established in. If that's not impressive enough, then possibly the fact that you've probably seen the school on small and big screen. The school has been the backdrop for numerous shows such famous shows as Beverly Hills 90210 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Also, movies such as Down to You, and Not Another Teenage Movie used this picturesque campus.
The L-Shaped Classroom/Office
In December 1999, I was a substitute teacher for Torrance Unified, but yearning to become a teacher. I got my break that year when an RSP teacher with study skills courses at Torrance High School suddenly left his fifth period class after a verbal altercation with a student and never came back.
Although I was designated a long-term substitute teacher, I was, in a sense, the 'teacher" for the remainder of the year. While I grateful for the opportunity, I had inherited a dire situation. The students, for the most part were fine. The physical make-up of the classroom wasn’t
What made it horrible? It was the room’s size and shape.
The classroom was small -- way too small – to fit 10 to 15 special education students. Also, the area where the students were seated was L-shaped. It wrapped around an enclosed office that was a fourth of the size of the entire room’s space.
Students were seated in two rows of five desks. In a room that was approximately 20 ft by 20ft (if you include the office), seating area was cramped and there was barely any room to traverse the aisle.
The other section was cordoned off by the assistant teacher’s desk. On the other side was a small space that had a door to the copy room, a computer and printer, and a piano (yes, a piano that would mercifully be removed a few months later).
Finally, the classroom had a serious hazard. The room was once an administrator’s office, and not everything was removed. In the school district’s haste to provide classroom for a growing population, they quickly converted this classroom and left the wiring behind. One corner (above the students) had wires jutting out of the wall. Many were bundled but a few frayed and severed lines were visible.
Some students commented that they were afraid to sit near it.
Were there any positives? At least the office was spacious. Also, it had direct access to a well-equipped copy room. On top of that, this room had an unusual number of doors for any classroom. There were four. One opened toward the main hall of the building the classroom was located; another to the copy room; one for the enclosed office to the room; and another office door that had access to a hall leading to one of the two cafeterias on campus.
14-2a/14-2b – The Classrooms within a Classroom
Of all the classrooms I’ve had, these two didn’t make any sense at all. Two years after my stint at Torrance High School, I moved to a new district and school. This time, I was officially designated as a teacher (RSP English Teacher). The district was (and still is as of this writing) Centinela Valley Unified High School District. The school was Hawthorne High School.
It was considered a struggling school in an urban setting (although Hawthorne is merely a suburb in Los Angeles County). The students could be challenging, at times, but they were (and still are) good.
I can’t say the same for the two classrooms I had for my first five years.
What Made Them Horrible? It was a huge room that was poorly divided into two unequal parts and located in a part of the campus with the most distractions, possible (including trains).
Building 14 was one of the oldest on campus. It was also located in a nearly isolated part of the school and was near an active train track that separated the academic buildings from the stadium and field. Hawthorne High School was one of eight schools in the state (and possibly the nation) to have an active train track running through it (Torrance High was near the same tracks; however, it was located at least several 100 yards away from the campus).
Also, Building 14 was located in a part of the campus that was designated as a vocational area. The nearby building, Building 15 had wood and metal shop classes. And, Building 14 was once the site of the school’s auto shop.
Due to dwindling public school funds, the school (as did others in the region) closed its auto shop and converted it into academic classrooms. Rooms 14-1 and 14-3 were converted into a drafting technology class and a computer application class, respectively. Room 14-2, unfortunately was split into two in the most deplorable way.
My introduction to 14-2b was ominous. I had a hard time finding it because I could find were two doors listed as 14-2. I’d later discover that a third door on a hollow plastic partition wall within Room 14-2a led to my new classroom.
My heart sank when I first saw it. Besides being small, the room had been tagged with graffiti. The ink board was damaged and most of the desks had something carved into them.
Luckily these were easy to fix. However, the partition wall, teacher next door couldn’t and classroom’s locale couldn’t. The walls were thin and the next-door teacher (also a special education teacher like me) didn’t have a lot of classroom management. I could hear every curse, scream and fight that happened in that classroom.
Also, there were the periodical freight-trains. They blew their whistles and clanked down the rails at all the inopportune times. Keep in mind that I had students with learning disabilities such as ADHD or auditory disorders.
The next year I would be moved from 14-2b to 14-2a. I had other distractions to worry about. If it wasn’t the train, it was the woodshop across the hall or the temporary boy’s locker room erected in a large space between building 15 and 14. It was not uncommon for pieces of wood to fly into the classroom. Also, I had to deal with rowdy PE students who use to bang on the doors of every classroom in the 14 building (including mine)
Another problem was that somebody else took over Room 14-2b. The only way for the students in the class were to get there was to travel through my classroom. The distractions mounted, especially when the teacher for that classroom was late or was letting students go to the rest room during class time.
Were there any positives? Not much, to be precise. However, I rarely had visits from dignitaries or visiting administrators. I had some autonomy to teach. Also, both classes had a fair share of computers, which helped.
Still, I’ve had educational coaches and teachers who subbed for me during periods who often reported back to the principal that I deserved a better classroom. I wouldn’t get that until my fifth year. And, the years after that move would be some of my finest times teaching.
* Story of Principal
- A Bad Principal: How One Affected a School's Culture
He was arrogant, childish, and bullish. Is there any wonder why teachers celebrated when this principal resigned?
Room 204 – Ye Olde Classroom
All good things don’t last, and in the Fall of 2010 I had a lesson in that rule. I was transferred to Leuzinger High School. It was struggling and there were threats that it was going to be taken over by the state. The district panic and sent nearly 40% of the teachers in Centinela Valley to different campus. The mass transfer was unpopular with the teachers. It also had an unintended consequence for me.
One result was that I’d go from having a fully equipped classroom at Hawthorne to an old decrepit room that should have been gutted years earlier.
What made it Horrible? It was outdated and in dire need of repair.
I’ve often referred to my first two years at Leuzinger as being my worst. I had problems with administrators and the teaching assignments. There were times I felt like I was being treated like a first-year teacher despite all the experience I had when I arrived (as a side note, I’ve mentioned the problem I had with the principal in a separate article*).
The classroom I received my second year there was indicative of my time at Leuzinger. (I had a temporary bungalow my first year there). It was located in the oldest building on campus. The paint was peeling off the wall; there were stains on the ceiling panel; and the room was smaller than any other in the building (which seems to be a reoccurring theme for me).
It was in the main building, too. This was a problem because the principal and an assistant principal had their offices down stairs, and they loved to drop in unannounced. The principal and assistant principal had a feud with me and were always looking to find something wrong with my teaching.
Those days are gone, but some of the physical problems with the classroom remain. The wood for one of the door’s frame has rotted away. That door cannot be opened anymore. The windows are scratched or marred. Also, the class was old (hence the nickname).
Also, the school – in particular, my building – is prone to surprise searches by the L.A County sheriffs’ K-9 units. During the 2013-2014 school year, I had five visits.
The classroom shows its age in other ways: cracked linoleum floors for starters. Wi-Fi barely works in it, and there’s a constant smell that seems to linger for days.
Still, the biggest distraction for the students is the insulation. The classroom is either too cold or too hot and there’s always students complaining about it or attempting the adjust the AC in the middle of a lesson.
Little maintenance or reconstruction will not be done to building in the immediate future. A historical preservation decided that the building is just too “historical” to be torn down.
Are There Any Positive? At least the building that Ye Olde Classroom is in has a history. The school started in 1931. It would become the athletic village for competitors in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.
Also, the age of the building has inspired students to come up with some interesting and entertaining urban legends about it being haunted or having a secret swimming pool in the basement. Having people talking about the place as if it’s a legend makes the mundane days cooped up in that classroom go by quickly.
In every case mentioned, the classroom’s condition or location proved to be a huge distraction. The deplorable conditions did more than inconvenience a few students; it left a bad impression on them. Many later stated that they felt they were dumped in such a classroom because the rest of the school didn’t care about them. And many of them wanted me to fight for a new classroom.
I fight, there’s no doubt. And, despite being handed one bad classroom after another, I do the best I can…until I can get a better place for my students.
I received a new classroom for the 2015-2016 school year. This time it's in one of the new buildings. It's wide and spacious; has modern amenities; and has more windows that bring in more sunlight than the previous classroom.
Although it's not the greatest view, the windows open up to the west toward the coast. At least I don't see a busy street. Instead I have view of the baseball field and football stadium on the campus, as well as numerous tree-lined streets outside the campus (all I can see is the top of trees).
Another advantage to having the view of the west side in the South Bay? The sea breeze tends to blow in from the west, meaning I have blue skies to look at, instead of the smog hovering above downtown L.A. and everything to the east.
Also, it's located near a quiet residential area as opposed to the congested and din-riddled main-street (Rosecrans Avenue).
Update 2016: New Room and School
A lot has changed since this article was published. I received a new room at Leuzinger for the 2015-2016 school year. It was up-to-date and spacious; however, it lacked file cabinets and needed at least one more large table. Although I requested these items, I never received them (one major rule: always be a thorn in an administrator's side on these matters or seek the help of a custodian who may be able to help).
Then again, the request is now a moot point. Starting in the Fall of 2016 I will be returning Hawthorne High School. So far, the new classroom appears to be in working order. Time will only tell how my second stint at Hawthorne and in a new classroom will be.
© 2014 Dean Traylor