What Matters Most: Relationships over Things

I admit, I have not always been a less-is-more sort of person.

In middle school, my bedroom was filled with posters, color, and random objects that I collected. One night, though, the objects in my room felt as if they were closing in on me. There was too much stuff and it needed to go!

You might feel this way in your classroom, with lesson planning, or with all the teacher tasks scattered throughout the day.

Maybe you’ve inherited the classroom of a veteran teacher, and it feels like you can’t get rid of anything because you might need it…eventually.


Teaching doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, when I look at how Jesus taught, it is so counterintuitive to the educational systems we’ve put into place.


Relationships were the heart of everything He did. Material, stuff, even a consistent place to teach were not high on the priority list.

How do we model our classrooms after the God of the universe, someone who created teaching, modeled it for us, and placed us in our teaching context?


We are going to start, one step at a time.


Start with a blank slate…for a bit

At the heart of teaching is relationships. What if we treated our classroom setup as if we really believed this?

For me, this looked like having the room neat and orderly for the first day, but that was it!

Bulletin boards…EMPTY.


If we truly believe in a co-created space WITH our students, then the first day should signal to them, “This is your space, too. What you create will fill these walls because it is valued.”

There was one bulletin board, though, that wasn’t empty. This was filled with students’ family photos and pictures of loved ones. How beautiful it is to enter a room and see your family, your name, and know that this is your space, too!

If you have district or school required displays, see about including students in the creation of those displays. Older students could create sound or word walls, younger students can trace teacher-created templates. If this isn’t an option, put up the displays and sprinkle student work throughout. 


Be quick to purposely fill the blank space

In your first week’s plans, be sure to include meaningful work that can be displayed right away! Having a blank classroom for too long feels sterile and uninviting. It’s okay for the first day, though!

Here are two meaningful activities that could fill blank walls and bulletin boards:

Self-portraits: give students construction paper, yarn, glue, colored pencils, and other craft supplies to create a self-portrait. Pose the question: how could you use these materials to create a self-portrait? What students create is open-ended and a beautiful representation of who they are as individuals! This activity works great for any age. Older students have a lot to say about themselves through open-ended creation and might enjoy the relaxing nature of art projects.

All About Me/Who am I writing assignment: This would be perfect for older students; especially as high schoolers reflect on who they are and who they want to be in the coming years. In secondary classrooms, you could have different sections of a wall for each period. That period could decorate their section, then fill it with their writing. Illustrations are welcome in this assignment!


Go crazy with class building activities the first week…but not too crazy

The first week is all about building rapport with students and their families. For a few years, I’ve used Spencer Kagan’s “Silly Sports and Goofy Games” and other Kagan structures to build community and trust.

Select 3-5 silly games to play throughout the week. Play them 2-3 times to build familiarity and routine.

Then, select 3 or 4 cooperative learning structures to teach using non-academic and academic material (review from the previous grade).


Here are four structures that go well with the first week. You can use general get-to-know-you questions and academic review.

4 Corners: Each corner has a different answer to the question. Students decide on their answer before moving. After moving, they discuss their reasoning with others at that corner. Then, they could pair up with someone from another corner to share their thinking.

Find Someone Who: I’ve created my own for math review (ex. Find someone who can solve 3×12), or you could search TPT for Back-to-School ones.

Inside Outside Circle: Have students get into 2 circles. The inside circle faces the outside circle. Ask a question (academic or not). Decide which circle shares with their partner first (inside or outside). Then, have one of the circles move 1 or 2 people in a different direction. Perfect for review or getting to know others!

Quiz Quiz Trade: Create cards with different get to know you questions or academic review (answers are on the back for academic questions). Each student gets a card. They partner up, quiz each other, trade cards, then find another partner who has their hand up. Later in the year, you could have students create their own questions as part of a unit review or retrieval practice for previously learned material.


As with all structures, the first week of school is the time to model, practice, practice, and practice. Once students get the hang of a structure, it’s easy to use it throughout the year with any academic material.


Keep what matters, ditch the rest

Slow down, pick what really matters, and throw away the rest (or put it in the teacher’s lounge and label it “Free!”).

Here’s the caveat” If this is your first year in this grade, talk with your teammate to ensure you don’t throw away things you might need in the spring. Multiple copies of 1 worksheet can be recycled, outdated or broken materials can be thrown away (don’t fall into the “maybe I’ll fix it one day” trap). As you get familiar with your grade, you will need to begin ditching clutter. It’s totally normal for this process to take 1-2 years!

For everyone who’s been in the same grade for at least 1 year, here are some useful summer tips to get you ready for the fall.

Put a time stamp on materials: If you haven’t used something in 6-8 months, donate, recycle, or trash. If you’re worried you might need it in a few years, take a picture or scan it so that you have a digital copy that won’t take up space.


Ask yourself, “Is this more for me than the kids?” and “Would I even notice if this item ever left the room?”: This applies to anything that clutters a classroom. Since the heart of teaching is relationships, classroom décor and materials should be for the benefit of everyone in the room. There were some items I found in my cabinets that I had totally forgotten about and never even missed. They could have benefited someone else or been easily recycled.



As with all things teaching, this takes time, and NO ONE will be perfect at it! My hope for you is that this year will be a reset. That relationships will not get lost in extra stuff and noise. And, if you need someone to walk with you through this, please reach out to us! We’re here to help with organization and planning so that you can set up relationship-based systems in your classroom that help you and your students to thrive.