The art of the seating chart

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Toward the goal of teaching as much as you can as fast as you can, a well-designed seating chart can be a teacher’s best friend. The right seating chart forestalls many problems. Conversely, the wrong seating chart will kill you by degrees.

If Claudia is sitting next to her boyfriend, the game’s probably half lost. Claudia and her boyfriend will be distracting each other as soon as your back is turned. If Ezekiel’s sitting next to the girl whose cuteness renders him mute, the game’s mostly lost. The talking probably won’t start for awhile, but you’ll be lucky to capture a few minutes of Zeke’s attention during class. Exceptionally chatty girls should never be placed side-by-side unless no alternative exists. Students need to be strategically deployed with the end goal of nipping social conversations in the bud.

Some teachers begin school with alphabetical charts and that approach has advantages. Setting up structure immediately helps create a classroom tone conducive to learning. However, having emphasized the importance of seating charts, I am now going to recommend that teachers wait a few days before assigning seats. I usually let students pick their seat partners and classroom position for a couple of days at least. I learn who wants to sit near the front of the room and the teacher and who doesn’t. I learn the group and friend dynamics within my classroom. I learn where the conversations are going to break out. I learn who the quiet kids are. Sometimes, I may catch the first whiffs of bullying, giving me a chance to shut down harassment before it starts.

Once I understand the dynamics of my classroom, then I build my seating chart. I separate talkers. I use quiet students as buffers. I bring students who may need special help up front so I can help them without making them conspicuous. I separate students who are not going to focus on learning when they are seated near each other.

Charts are an art. I suppose I should add a few caveats here. Not all talkers need to be separated. On occasions, I have left friends together because they work together unusually well and help each other enough to compensate for a slight uptick in chatting that may result from that placement. If Claudia just arrived from Honduras last year and her boyfriend is translating for her and helping her learn English, I may try out the seating arrangement with the two together.

The end goal is learning.

For the newbies: Don’t let the kids talk you out of your plan. If you thought Mary and Kayla needed to be separated, you were probably right, despite Mary’s entreaties. As soon as you start flexing rules or plans, some students will begin trying to make you flex all the rules and plans. The time loss can be considerable and the benefit to you nearly nonexistent.