How Desk Chairs Became a Lesson About What We Deserve in Public Schools

How Desk Chairs Became a Lesson About What We Deserve in Public Schools

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One of my rituals at the start of each school year is to clean student desks and chairs. Year after year, before students arrive for their first day of school, I scrub and shine these desks. My hands, raw from cleaner, fail to remove remnants of short-lived romances tattooed into the laminate. Profanity from past students lives on in the rubber sidings of these desks. These are the same desks I used when I was a student. As I clean, I imagine what my classroom would look like – what it might become – with an interior makeover. It is not often that we see an overhaul of the furniture in our public school classrooms, let alone in the middle of the school year. But this year, it actually happened!

Last November, there was an anonymous donation of mobile desk chairs to our school. For context, these mobile desk chairs were all the hype in the mid-2010s, popping up in every private school or innovation academy that screamed flexible seating. When I attended professional development courses or local conferences that were equipped with this furniture, I giddily rolled across the room in these chairs. I imagined what it would be like to learn as a student in these spaces with the freedom to move, spin, group and separate as I pleased.

After the school received the donation of desk chairs, an administrator asked if the teachers would like to have any for their classrooms. A few days after my administrator approved my request for five chairs, I found out there were nearly a hundred donated. Building up the courage to ask for more, I sent a long-winded, evidence-based email to my administrators asking them to test it out in my science classroom, taking the opportunity to shake up our physical space – and perhaps emit an air of fancifulness.

My hesitancy was not about the number of chairs I could get replaced for my classroom, but more about what I could live with. In this role, we often operate in what we can deal with and less what we deserve as public school educators.

Like all teachers, I wanted to give my students the world – one desk chair at a time.

The Student Response

After a suspenseful week, I received an approval email. I was ecstatic. I couldn’t wait to share the news with my students. On a Monday morning after a long weekend, I greeted the class and said, “Guess what? We are getting new chairs!”

At first, the class went silent. Some students shrugged. I continued, “We are going to get those super cool rolling chairs with desks!” hoping to latch them into excitement. I showed them a picture of the chairs. Then, to my shock, the students relented. A few exclaimed, “This is a bad idea!”

I was confused. Feeling embattled, I prodded into what they meant. The students explained that if I provided these new desk chairs to every student, I would be unable to manage classroom behavior; they envisioned their classmates rolling out of the classroom and into the walkways. While an amusing thought, I was stunned and had to reflect: was my intent to ever control bodily autonomy in class? Did they feel that I discouraged them from movement?

Next, a student asked, “Did you have to buy them yourself?” While a common question for folks in public education, I was shocked that my students wondered if I paid for classroom furniture myself. Sure, I stock up on stacks of colorful paper, crayons and pipe cleaners during clearance sales, but I couldn’t swing this purchase, even if I tried. These chairs cost $600 each online, not including shipping and freight; even the most robust teacher salary couldn’t carry the burden of a class set.

I settled their curiosity with the reminder that these chairs were donated. They weren’t brand new, just new to us, much like the laptops from industry partners and out-of-date lab equipment from the nearby college. Hand-me-down supplies are a common sight in our public school classroom, and any time we receive shiny new tech and supplies, they are usually from DonorsChoose. At this point, my students and I are conditioned to write thank you letters of gratitude, attaching photo evidence of utility.

Then, a few other students asserted, “We don’t deserve this, we can do without it.” That statement finally stopped me in my tracks. It was then that I saw the ingrained sense of worth that society has etched into our public schools. Our lesson on mitosis was put on hold, and a new lesson emerged: instead of focusing on what students need, we must ask, what do students deserve in public schools?

What Our Students Deserve

Our public school students deserve the world. Though they are students now, one day they will become the leaders and decision-makers in our communities. They represent the beautiful diversity of cultures, beliefs, abilities and gifts that come with the knowledge and appreciation of our histories. Students may begrudge the grind of notetaking, problem-solving and producing content because they would rather be elsewhere. They know they need and should learn this information but rarely do our students think about what they deserve when it comes to their education.

Amongst my students, there is an unspoken expectation of what classroom behavior looks like. Similar to what a cursory administrator walkthrough might expect, students perceive quiet and stationary behaviors as positive. The “culture of power” to keep students obedient – silent and still – is firmly fixed into our students’ perceptions of classroom protocol, yet we know this to be false. Students learn best when active, participatory and engaged in mind and body. Compliance as a pedagogy will not produce the mindful and empathetic innovators our future needs.

Our public school students deserve a quality education as much as they deserve to learn in comfort and flexibility. The joys of temperature-controlled rooms, soft chairs and ample charging stations are key characteristics of many college classrooms and office jobs – why must K-12 students wait to access higher learning for a comfortable seat? What does gatekeeping comfort and movement achieve?

What the Super Cool Swivel Chairs Taught Us

When our chairs arrived in mid-December, our class watched as the old desks and chairs were removed from the classroom. We watched as the graffiti, old gum wads, and termite droppings were escorted out. Each student happily picked out their new seat, excitedly realizing original table layouts did not constrain them. They pivoted towards the board and swiveled right back to small group conversations. We spent a few minutes learning how to adjust the desk and chairs for their comfort. They were no longer expected to accept what was handed to them. They had a sense of autonomy and responsibility for their embodied experience in the classroom.

A few months later, the students remained enthusiastic. The temptation to roll out of the classroom has passed, and students are learning to advocate for what they deserve. During an hour-long class period, we are able to move from partner conversations and whole-group lectures into independent activities quickly and efficiently. Physical autonomy for students’ sense of space has improved and classroom visitors notice consistent student engagement and the flexibility for students to opt in and out of groups. Changing the perspective from what they need to what they deserve, our students now hold high expectations for themselves, their classmates and their education. This is the public education they deserve.

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