A desk of one’s own

It is an honor to be guest-blogging here along with Rachel Levy and Michael E. Lopez, two of my favorite education bloggers.

There’s much discussion lately (and not so lately) about what can be done to make teaching an elite profession. Some of the suggestions focus on teacher preparation; others, on teaching conditions. I will propose something that I haven’t heard mentioned: to improve conditions substantially, in a way that will encourage good teachers to stay, give each teacher a desk.

By this I mean a desk of one’s own (I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf), a desk that no one else uses, where items don’t get taken or shifted around; a desk in a relatively tranquil room, where one can work and think.

Why is this important, and why is it rare?

First, a disclaimer: I am not complaining about any particular school. Everywhere I have taught, there has been shortage of space, and teachers have had to share desks, use tables as desks, or go without a desk entirely. In my first school, one of my colleagues regularly did her work in the auditorium, in an audience seat. (It was possibly the quietest room in the building.)

I don’t think many people would question a teacher’s need for a desk–but I’m not sure they deem it especially important, either. For instance, they may consider it acceptable for teachers to share desks or to work in noisy classrooms. But many private schools have teachers’ desks in department offices, outside of the classrooms. This is both because they have space and because they recognize the importance of a desk.

Sharing a desk has all kinds of complications: your scissors disappear, your Gumby eraser walks away, your Machiavelli goes into exile, etc. Beyond that, a shared desk becomes, in the mind of the school, a shared desk. Anyone may sit at it.

Noisy classrooms can make it difficult to get work done, unless you have noise-cancelling headphones or can block out the sound. You end up doing most of your work at home.

There are also reasons that go beyond the practical. When you have a desk that’s reliable, you are able to do intellectual work–reading, lesson preparation, grading–during the school day. This affects the school’s atmosphere; there’s greater respect for the quiet work that goes on at the desk, since room is made for it. Like urban planning, a school’s allocation of space reflects its priorities.

Also, because this work does take place at school, it can give rise to interesting discussions. How different the conversation is between two teachers who have been thinking about Oedipus Rex, and two teachers who are running past each other in the hallway in search of a room or supplies. (I have had both kinds of conversations, with or without a desk, but there’s more room for the former when I have a place to work.)

Why, then, is it a rarity for each teacher to have a desk?

First, there’s the real shortage of space. Mandated to “utilize” their space fully, schools cram the classrooms, so that in a given room, there may be three or more teachers. There isn’t room for that many desks–so teachers end up sharing. “Traveling” teachers–who teach in multiple rooms–are often expected to use whatever desk is available. Gone is the sense that a classroom belongs to a teacher, and that a desk comes with it.

This often comes with rationalizations.  To justify the room-cramming, officials speak of the benefits of sharing a room or desk. Instead of thinking of a classroom as “Mr. So-and-so’s room,” we’re suppose to think of it as everyone’s room. Supposedly this will lead to more collaboration, sharing, and mutual influence.

Room-sharing can lead to all of these things; I often enjoy being in a classroom when someone else is teaching, because I get to see the person’s style and hear about a subject other than my own. But those who promote room-sharing on these grounds may not recognize the losses and drawbacks: that when you share a room, you often share a desk, and you lose a quiet place to work.

Even sitting down has gotten short shrift; where it was once acceptable for a teacher to sit at certain points in a lesson (for instance, in seminar discussion), teachers today are supposed to be on their feet the entire time. Being on the go, circulating from student to student, is associated with “active teaching,” which supposedly promoted “active learning.” This attitude spills over into the teacher’s preparation periods; many assume that teachers are working harder if, instead of sitting at their desks, they are off to meetings, planning sessions, and so on, where they would be sitting in a group at a table, not alone at a desk. Some teachers even see desks as a barrier between themselves and the students.

A barrier it may be, but there’s something to be said for it. Many teachers need to retreat frequently–into books, thoughts, writing, and so on–in order to bring something to their students. There are many reasons why this solitude isn’t honored, but it remains important, no matter what the solitude-non-honorers say.

So the widespread desk shortage comes from real shortage of space, but it turns into a loss of regard for working alone. If schools wish to retain teachers who devote thought to their lessons, they should give them a place for such thought.


  1. Jerry Doctor says:

    After 40 years as a teacher (teacher – not educator) I believe that there is no way you can make this “an elite profession” without getting rid of a third to half of the current teachers first.

  2. It’s pretty silly to even pretend teaching can be an “elite” profession. It’s too big. But it’s also silly to pretend that teachers are stupid, or that we aren’t getting smart enough teachers now.

    I think that’s an utter waste of a proposal without lots of evidence showing that many teachers don’t have rooms. I find that hard to believe. These days, teachers are getting laptops anyway, so a lack of a room isn’t a catastrophe. Go to Starbucks during prep.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      I think Cal is right.
      For some context, the number of a few professions in the US:
      Doctors: 830,000
      Lawyers: 1,200,000 (my projection from 2007 numbers)
      Nurses: 2,725,000
      K-12 Teachers: 3,500,000+ (3M in public, 0.5M in private)
      Is nursing an “elite” profession (not asking if nurses are respected or valuable)? Probably not …
      I’m not even confident that doctor is “elite.” Neurosurgeon, sure. Cardiac surgeon, yep. But generic doctor? Again, valuable, respected, etc. But not elite.

      • Well, it’s certainly worth asking whether there’s any point in trying to make teaching an “elite” profession–and whether it’s remotely possible.

        I was starting with the premise–of which I am not convinced–that some version of it is a good idea. (At the very least, one should create conditions that would help retain the teachers one is trying to attract.) From there, I made a proposal–mainly to draw attention to the current prejudice, driven by practical constraints and ideology, against the idea that teachers need a quiet place to work.

        As for the rest, laptops do not replace a desk, nor Starbucks a quiet room.

        • Mark Roulo says:

          I think you can provide good (or at least better) working conditions without needing to make an argument for “elite” status. The company for which I work is going in the opposite direction (smaller cubes, lower walls, more noise … because engineers work best in cramped, noisy conditions …) which I think is a mistake. As part of the last floorplan redesign, I lost a lot of cube space (and, with it, bookshelf space). A lot of my technical reference books now live at home, rather than at work. I doubt this is a net win for the company (though, depending on the cost per square foot for office space, maybe it is).
          I feel much the same way for teaching. A nice working environment signals a perceived level of importance, which is nice, but a certain amount of quiet also signals that thinking is considered important. I expect that this sort of thing is cheaper than big pay raises …

      • Medicine is becoming less elite, as docs are increasingly employees of hospital/clinic organizations, as opposed to being independent practitioners, in control of their work situation. The former began with primarily primary care types (family practice, pediatrics, OB-GYN, internal medicine), but is spreading to other areas and the latter are disproportionately surgeons – although Obamacare is accelerating the pressure on private practices. The fact that more physicians are now women, that women tend to choose primary care and that they choose to work fewer and more predictable hours is accelerating the trend of physician employees and changing the traditional model. As in most areas of endeavor, those who accept longer hours and more risk – surgeons, in this context – are likely to be paid more (if successful; hence the risk) and to be male (and Asian or white).

  3. Apparently a new study says that employees are more productive in meetings when they stand. (I have yet to dig it up; things are busy.) My favorite of the three Onion responses: “I don’t know about that, but it does sound better than ‘we don’t have enough chairs.’”


  4. I think that Cal’s more right than wrong, but it’s not really because of the number of teachers, at least not straight-up. It’s because large-scale institutional teaching the way we practice it doesn’t *need* to be an elite profession. You don’t need years of training and +3-sigma intellectual ability to babysit a bunch of kids and effectively deliver a pre-packaged curriculum.

    It’s like saying that we need to make, oh, I don’t know… bus driving an “elite” profession. We don’t. We need people who can drive the buses safely and effectively. The job doesn’t call for much more than that.

    Now, there are certain types and methods of teaching where the sorts of training, experience, and talents that we associate with “elite” professions certainly can come into play. You’ll find a lot of that in the more exclusive private schools, and you’ll even find some of it in the classrooms of some of the more effective teachers in public schools (when they are given the latitude they require).

    But it doesn’t scale well, because there’s no real uniformity to it. It’s more art than science, more talent-dependent than training-dependent. And it’s also, very often, student-specific.

    That’s not what we need on the larger scale. We need someplace to stash a few million kids every day, where they aren’t just left to their own devices but are presented with the opportunity to learn something useful. That’s what makes us happy as a society.

    So that’s what we get. And we hire the sorts of people — not at all stupid, not at all uneducated, not incompetent, but certainly not *as a group* any sort of intellectual or professional “elite” — that we need to get that job done.