Creating the Cozy Classroom on a Budget

One of my students paid me the biggest compliment the first week of our new semester with one sentence, “Mrs. Shaver, you got style!” Let me tell you first hand, teenagers are not easy to impress and will tell it like it is whether I want to hear it or not. So hearing one of my sassy 16 year-old students tell me that I have style is a huge deal. I don’t care who you are, that will make you smile.

In case you’re new here or don’t know me personally, I have been a high school English teacher for five years. I’ve learned way more in these five years about dedication, hard work, and the joy of making a difference in the lives of others to better our future generations than I could ever describe. A big part of me is sad to see this chapter come to a close in June of this year as Robert and I have chosen the opportunity for me to be a stay-at-home mom to spend more time raising our own little one, but I know I can look back on these years with warm memories of the 800+ students I have taught.

From the day I set foot in my new classroom, I didn’t want to only make it a place to learn; I wanted to make it a safe haven, a place where my students felt comfortable and accepted and, nearly as importantly, where I could find an escape in my own place of work. At the same time, teachers can only do so much with so few resources as money is always tight in education. Plus, what money there is primarily is used for lesson plans and teaching resources. So after pulling every trick in the book, I think I made it happen.

The cute and decorated classrooms always seem to be the standard in elementary schools, but by the time students reach 9th grade, decor is virtually non-existent. And for good reason! With so much emphasis being placed on standardized testing and technological demands in the classroom as well as the importance of higher-order thinking skills and creativity in lesson planning for the Common Core switch, putting together a decorated classroom is the last thing on a high school teacher’s mind.
But I think it is partly because I took the time to decorate my classroom that has made so many of my students successful. At the end of every semester, I give my students a questionnaire to get their feedback on my instruction, lessons, and overall environment so that I can make changes to acquire the needs of my future students. Almost all of them said something along the lines of, “I loved coming to your classroom. It felt like my home away from home. I could think better in here, and your room makes me think that you care about us.”
Last semester, despite teaching lower-level students, I had a 100% success rate; all passed. Many, in fact, told me they got a higher grade in English in my class than ever before. Their writing vastly improved, and reading comprehension saw a significant increase as well. However, my class is not an easy A. I push them with intense, textual-based argumentative essays, and we tackle many of the great American classics. Granted, it’s a bold statement to say that my decorated classroom had something to do with higher grades considering there’s no real research behind it, but it couldn’t hurt to say it might have helped.
After all, wouldn’t YOU think better in a cozier classroom, than this before shot?
For some teachers, a simple classroom is all they can muster as their primary focus is on lesson planning, grading, accommodating to different learning types, communicating with parents, participating in extra-curriculars, adapting to technology…I could go on forever.
Here’s how I made the homey classroom happen:  
Author Wall $8.00  
For my author wall, I printed Google images of black and white photographs of the authors I would be teaching about throughout the semester. The frames were from the dollar store and the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store. This wall cost me all of about $8. And I was able to use them in my teaching to introduce authors along with their bios. By the end of the semester, almost all of my students could name each author. (Want to test yourself?)
Bulletin Board / Bunting $27
I love how cheerful my pops of yellow are. My school’s colors are blue and yellow, so if you’re wondering, that was the center of the inspiration. Colors are easy to figure out for classrooms if you want to have some spirit. πŸ˜‰  For this wall, I bought a couple yards of fabric ($16) to staple onto the bulletin board and bordered it with plain white border ($3) from Staples. With the leftover fabric scraps, I made the bunting by cutting triangular pieces and using hot glue to attach them to a long string of twine. The READ letters ($8) were on sale at Michael’s and I had a coupon on top of that. The left side of the bulletin board are just funny school-related comics that I’ve collected over the years. The “books” in the center are Google images of the novels we would be reading that semester. I “matted” them with a few pieces of plain white computer paper and laminated them. The small prints on the wall on either side of the board are funny grammar or literary device-related memes I found online that I printed and laminated too.
Student Station $41
This space is key for functionality in my classroom. My students know that this is their workplace besides their desk. If they need to borrow scissors, colored pencils, staplers, paper clips, tape, or anything else, this is where to get it (and they’re not hovering around my desk). The rules poster I designed on Photoshop and printed at Office Max ($10). That cute little lamp was $8 at the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store. It was brown and yucky, but it was nothing a little white spray paint and a piece of fabric couldn’t handle. Those little buckets ($4) with supplies were $1 each in the dollar section of Target. I made the bunting with fabric scraps, hot glue, twine, and printed the letters in Microsoft Word. The Make-Up Tub was $5 at Walmart, and I already had the folders on hand, which I numbered for each day of the month. The tablecloth is just a couple yards of cheap fabric ($10). The flower pot is actually a pen cup with flowers taped to the pens so students remember to put them back if they’re borrowed. One bunch of flowers was $1 at the dollar store. I already owned the little magnetic whiteboard that I use to post papers with no names for students to claim. The ribbon around the board was $3. The supplies I count separately in the cost since they’re for instructional purposes.
Twitter Exit Ticket Board $6
I love this little board, and my students do too. I use it for the last 5 minutes of class to check for understanding. Students write their response to a prompt on a post-it and place it on their numbered spot on the board. The numbers just help me keep track of whose is whose in case someone forgets to write his/her name in a hurry. They can ask a question about the lesson if they’re still confused about something. If there is an area in their writing they think they need assistance with such as MLA citations or writing transitions, I can find out here and address it the next day. Or I can use it as a way to assess by asking them to recall one aspect of the lesson that I taught them that day. All it took to make this board was black foam board, printed computer paper using Google images, the laminator, and hot glue.
Supply Organizer $4
This thing rocks and is so functional. I always know where all of those little junky supplies are that in a past life used to be crammed in random drawers and boxes. This is very efficient when I’m in a rush. It’s just a repurposed shoe organizer from Walmart. (Hint: They can be used to organize your junk drawer in your house as well. No more tangled electronic cords crammed in a box!)
Bragging Writes Wall $44
My students compete to get on this wall. (If they place bets, I don’t want to know about it.)  The ones who make it on the wall have told me it always boosts their confidence in their writing. Even better, this wall serves as a resource for examples so students who struggle can look at the A papers and have a better understanding of what good writing entails.
Breakdown of the cost- Fabric ($16), WRITE letters from Michael’s ($10), border from Staples ($3), party fans from Party City ($5), clothespins used to attach essays to board ($2). The side bulletin boards are actually makeshift dollar store plastic party tablecloths ($2) with printed posters about common grammar and writing mistakes that I made in Microsoft Word. The border was $6- 2 packs at $3 each. The two Van Gogh and Monet posters were cheap finds I had in my dorm room in college from allposters.com. Even then, I think they were only $4 each during a back-to-school poster sale. 
Copies and Lessons Organizers $11
This little corner gets a lot of use too. Can you guess what those two boxes are made from? They’re paper ream boxes I snagged from the copy workroom down the hall. Sneaky, I know. πŸ˜‰  All it took was a strip of scrap fabric (about $2) and some hot glue to dress them up. No one would ever know. I use them to toss in master copies and extra class copies when I’m in a hurry in the middle of a lesson. Fellow teachers, you know that mystery stack of papers that somehow grows on your desk that you have to sort through when it starts to fall over everywhere? Mine is still there, just hidden. It’s definitely not as organized as it looks. The magazine boxes on the top of the counter are from the dollar section of Target ($6 total). I use them to organize my copies and lesson plans for the week that I prepare on Fridays. The extra magazine box is labeled “911 Sub Plans” with a binder full of resources/schedules/important info, a few emergency lesson plans if I’m out unexpectedly, and a roster for attendance. I also lined the front of my bookshelves with bulletin border ($3) to dress them up a bit. The rest of the things like the books and memo board followed me through college.
Inspiration Wall $20
This is my favorite wall, and I catch my students wandering over to look at it every now and then. It has so many of the quotes I love with messages I always want to portray to my students. The quotes were printed on plain computer paper. The bigger prints were Google images that I printed through Shutterfly ($10 total). I collected random frames (mainly plain black ones since they’re so versatile) from Habitat for Humanity Re-Store and the dollar store ($10). I already owned the bigger ones since I was younger; they displayed my Nutcracker production posters back in my ballet dancing days.
The lamps were borrowed (cough* stolen *cough) from my parents’ garage. Hey, they were sitting in the garage. Don’t judge me. πŸ˜‰  Seriously, they were up for grabs. They’re funky and crazy, but I think they totally work in this space. And lamps just give a completely different feel to a room than florescents. Lighting is everything. These lamps took only a can of white spray paint, and since the shades were dusty and dingy, I spray painted them yellow. 
By-the-Door Exit Station $9
One of the procedures of exiting my classroom is for students to take the bathroom pass and sign their names out on the board and erase it upon return. That way, since I have about 30 students at a time, if the office calls into my room looking for one of them, I can glance at the board and know where he/she is. It helps tremendously for scatterbrained teachers like me. πŸ™‚  The doorknockers and wooden letters were bought from Hobby Lobby ($6). I just spray painted them and used super glue to attach the letters. The little white board was from the dollar store, and the marker is attached to the wall with a little strip of velcro ($1). That little frame around the fire exit sign was a Restore find at 50 cents! I just did my usual wave of the wand with a spray paint can.
Whew! Are you still with me? I’m throwing a lot of stuff at you. We’re almost finished.
Welcome door! ($5)
You probably guessed it by now- oh gee…more bunting. I wonder how she did that one.  Fabric scraps and hot glue- the bread and butter of bunting, y’all. I say $5 for the door since that is how much a box of bulletin board letters cost. Although, I barely put a dent in the box with only 9 letters used here.
Turn-In Trays $20
This, again, is another pivotal section that helps so much with daily routines. These wire letter trays were $5 each from Staples. I did have some plastic ones before those bit the dust really quickly, so these were much more durable. The labels I made from this wonderful site called Wedding Chicks. You can find the template here along with many more. They’re meant for wedding monograms, but I repurposed their usage. There are all sorts of free printables on Pinterest too. I like attaching them with the clothespins so that I can switch out labels as needed. To hide the lamp cords on either side of the trays, I fanned out old discarded library books to create some decoration. Librarians toss them all the time when they’ve gotten outdated or are falling apart, so I snagged them right up.
Teacher Desk  
This is just a collection of odds and ends to make the place feel more like a home. That container holding those dollar store yellow flowers is actually a coffee can that I wrapped in rope. That white “S” was a neat find at TJMaxx and was sort of a splurge at $12 considering it doesn’t have a function, but I had to have it. Those old leather-bound books were from my mother’s library after they were going to be discarded for outdated information (she is a high school librarian too). The clock was a $10 find at TJMaxx. I like having a clock at the front of the room as well as the back. Those little frames on the cabinet were craft store finds that I painted and hung up with 3M hanging tape. And the dry-erase calendar and weekly planner frame were old frames I had in college that I just cut fabric and ribbon to fit inside.
That’s my grand tour and my home away from home! To add to the “homeyness” I have an apple cinnamon Scentsy and like to play instrumental piano quietly from Pandora on the speakers. It’s the perfect writing environment. πŸ™‚  
To all my fellow teachers, I hope this inspired you in some way to try something different…because you know you have SO much time on your hands all the time, right? I can honestly say though that I’m glad I spent every minute over the summer on putting together this classroom. It gives me a bit of an escape and piece of mind throughout the chaos that comes with teaching. It’s amazing how a little decor can change your mood.
And to all of my non-teachers, I hope you enjoyed this small glimpse. I love each and every one of my students no matter what their backgrounds and personalities. It truly is amazing to see these kids blossom into adults over the course of a year, and I feel so blessed to be a part of their development as they learn about the world around them to make it a better place. They are our future, and they are worth every investment we can give them.

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17 Comments

  1. Hi from the UK, Lauren. I’m a high school Head of English in Wales and have realΕ‚y been inspired by your great ideas. I’d like to create a similar environment but with a little more masculine style – maybe to engage boys. Was thinking of a modern twist on a Victorian study theme. Would you happen to have any ideas about boy-friendly decor? Thanks and well done.

    1. Hi, Alex! A former colleague of mine actually did exactly that in his classroom! He taught British literature, so he found several posters of famous British paintings and photographs of London, framed them, and hung them up all over his room. It was very simple but had a lot of impact. His entire classroom looked like something straight out of Sherlock Holmes.

  2. Love it! I am a 25 year nurse turned Health Science teacher….the 15-16 school year will be my seconded teaching high school! I am all about aesthetics and its hard to make a science class homey but I did an ok job last year….but I am thrilled I found your site! At 253 am no less! Great ideas that I plan to utilize! Thanks for taking the time to share!

    1. Yay! I’m so glad you liked it. This really was my home away from home, and my students loved it. Definitely was worth the work to have a happy atmosphere all school year. πŸ™‚

  3. Is the brick wall a REAL brick wall , or a faux one. I’ve seen classrooms that create a brick wall look, but don’t know how. Your room is wonderful!

    1. It’s real! Isn’t it so cool? Our building was fairly old, but that brick wall was definitely a redeeming quality. Thanks, Diana! I had a lot of fun in this classroom, and my students really felt at home in here. (Sometimes to a fault. They usually didn’t want to leave. Haha)

    1. Thanks Marissa! My students enjoyed it too. I used Scotch Mounting Tape to stick all of the frames. It’s on the same aisle as Command Strips and picture hangers in Walmart.

  4. Love your room! It’s so cozy! I still remember a room in high school that I had with little lamps all over. I always felt more peaceful in there without the florescents. Bravo! Thanks for a complete tour!