The three most dreadful words a teacher can say are “Pop quiz today!”
A close second is “New seats today!” Following this declaration, a tangible sense of suspense hangs in the air as your teacher calls out the names from the new seating chart. You pray to get seated next to your one friend in that class, but instead are met with an audible groan from the person you are about to sit next to because they just found out that you’re their desk partner for the next six weeks.
In order to avoid situations like these and enhance student education, Paly teachers need to stop assigning seats and instead let students pick where they want to sit. Already, some teachers let students choose, but in other classes, seats are assigned and changed once a quarter or before every new unit.
For example, Advanced Placements (AP) Chemistry and Physics teacher Ashwini Avadhani lets students pick seats. She said students are old enough to make their own decisions, and thus trusts them to choose their seats and lab partners.
“If the overarching goal is for the kids to feel safe in your class and feel that their opinion matters, allowing them to pick their own seats is one of easiest things a teacher can do to respect their choices.”
“If you’re going to sit next to somebody and waste time, they need to learn responsibility by this age,” Avadhani said. “If they make a wrong decision, they end up getting a bad grade.”
In the time she has let her students pick their seats, Avadhani said she has seen growth in responsibility in students, as well as students who are more engaged in class.
“I’ve always seen that if [students] feel they are getting distracted, many times they get up and move,” Avadhani said. “I find my classes happier, more receptive, and I have never had class management issues ever, because I let students pick their seats. “
Avadhani also advocates for identity safety, the concept that a student should feel safe in a class.
“You want to sit with somebody because you know that person, you’re very comfortable [with them] or you work better,” Avadhani said. “Whatever the reason, I completely believe in identity safety. There’s nothing wrong with people feeling good about sitting next to someone they are familiar with. If the overarching goal is for the kids to feel safe in your class and feel that their opinion matters, allowing them to pick their own seats is one of easiest things a teacher can do to respect their choices.”
Avadhani is not alone in her way of thinking. English 9A and Reading Between the Lines teacher Craig Bark also allows students to pick seats.
“By letting them choose where they want to sit, it enhances my relationship with them,” Bark said. “If they get a little bit of choice, they trust you and they work better when they know I trust them.”
According to Bark, showing that you trust a student and that they are going to have a say in how the class works encourages them to participate and be more attentive students.
A 2016 PBS article citing research conducted at Stanford and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows when students feel respected and trusted, they perform better. In some cases, even small acts of increased empathy and respect may reduce suspension rates. While reducing suspension rates is not the primary focus at Paly, imagine what the effect of simply allowing students to choose where they sit in the class can be.
For example, having more teachers display trust towards their students by letting them choose their seats may lead to a more positive social-emotional state.
Not only will students feel surrounded by trusted and emotionally closer peers, but they will believe their teachers trust and respect them and their opinions.
Although choosing seats has its advantages, some teachers refrain from letting students from doing so. French teacher Carla Guerard assigns seats in her classes because she likes to match students to create the ideal combination for learning.
“I like to have them help each other, so I have some strong students and some who might need more help sit together in groups of four,” Guerard said.
Teachers arguably have the students’ best interest in mind, but the evidence shows that it’s time to switch to a model of open seating because it benefits students more than a fixed seating chart does. At the same time, getting to choose seats is a privilege that students must recognize and value. Choosing seats is not a one-way ticket to total chaos in the classroom, but rather a tool to create a better learning environment while maintaining a level of control and decorum.
Allowing students to choose seats comes with a set of expectations that include not talking to your neighbors, being respectful and productive as well as being engaged learners. In addition, teachers will still have the power to move students who take advantage of this privilege.
But by giving them a chance to pick their seats and showing them that their teachers trust them, not only will we see better results, but we will also see more engaged, motivated and successful classrooms.