My passion for elegance springs from my experience as a classroom teacher. I saw how something as simple as a vase of fresh flowers on my desk could affect the performance of one tired teacher and hundreds of pubescent students. I learned there is wisdom and power in elegance.
For nearly thirty years, I spent most of my days in a typical classroom teaching language arts, literature, and social studies to eighth graders. Over the years, I paid increasing attention to infusing as much elegance as possible within the walls of my classroom and witnessed the positive effect it had on everyone who entered.
I discovered that a more elegant classroom culture improved student behavior and academic performance. Although less measurable, I saw how simple touches of elegance affected the well-being of everyone who came into my classroom. Equally important, working in an elegant classroom helped me avoid burn-out and remain motivated to be the best teacher I could be.
Although the public schools where I taught weren’t considered elite, my students and I worked together to make our class an elegant community. There are four words that led the way to a more elegant classroom – simple, wise, attractive, and nice. These words just happen to form an acronym for the word swan.
SWAN ~ Simple Wise Attractive Nice
Let’s take a closer look at how I used the swan acronym in my classroom and how it might be used in a broader applications.
Simple – Chaos can reign in a middle school classroom, but there were ways to simplify the environment to bring more calm and serenity. Physical clutter can be distracting and over-stimulating. Organizing supplies and establishing logical systems made the classroom flow more smoothly. A concise curriculum and thoughtful daily lesson plans provided a sense of clarity and direction. Keeping things simple provided a level of serenity that reduced student anxiety and conflict and helped them focus on the tasks at hand.
Simplicity can be achieved in any community including a home, a small business, or a large corporation. We can bring more organization and tranquility to almost any environment which can lead to better outcomes. Bruce Lee said, “Simplicity is the key to brilliance.”
Wise – Time in our classroom was spent elevating our thoughts by reading, discussing, and writing about high-minded ideas, as well as increasing our knowledge and practicing basic skills. Students were encouraged to do their best and to value their education. My hope was that long after leaving my classroom, my students would make wise decisions and develop a lifelong love for learning.
No matter our age, every day is a chance to learn something new. We can gain wisdom by reading quality literature, attending lectures, seeking out the arts, trying new things, and listening to others. The more we are individually informed and empowered to make wise decisions, the more elegant our communities will become. Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The real safeguard of democracy is education.”
Attractive – Our classroom environment included beautiful things such as fresh flowers, classical music and artwork, subtle fragrance, and occasional delicious treats. More than once I was allowed to give my classroom a fresh coat of paint in a pleasing color. I also found my students and I performed better in every way when I took the time to dress and look my best. All of these extra touches made my students feel special and important.
Attention to beauty is not frivolous or unimportant. Beauty can be inspiring, and an effort to make things more attractive for others can make people feel valued, respected, and motivated. Thomas Jefferson said, “Communities should be planned with an eye to effect on the human spirit of being continually surrounded by a maximum of beauty.”
Nice – Respect for self, others, and property was really the only rule our classroom needed. It all came down to being nice. Although I sometimes fell short, I understood the importance of modeling this behavior if I expected the same from my students. I realized a kind word and warm smile were rare in some students’ lives. While misbehavior still occurred, it was far less frequent when the classroom culture was firmly rooted in kindness.
Being nice might seem incredibly simple, but it is also incredibly powerful. Imagine how our communities would benefit from more respectful, tolerant, and polite behavior. Coretta Scott King said, “The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.”
If an ordinary middle school classroom, filled with raging teenage hormones and a diverse student population, can benefit from attention to these words, I believe they can help create more harmony, prosperity, and success in our personal lives and in all of the communities in which we live and work.
To remember the acronym that helped me create a more elegant classroom, simply picture a swan gracefully floating on a sparkling lake. Simple. Wise. Attractive. Nice. These four words hold the remarkable wisdom and power of elegance. §
“I realized if you can change a classroom, you can change a community, and if you change enough communities you can change the world.”
Erin Gruwell, teacher who inspired the 2007 movie Freedom Writers