The ever-moving puzzle board: The Seating Plan

Seating Plans. Whether they are for a wedding or for your classroom, they can be a nightmare that keeps on coming and can never feel complete. Seating plans are like ever-moving puzzle boards – constantly shifting and changing with every minute of a lesson or from lesson to lesson. One lesson a seating plan may work, the next lesson it may result in chaos. Ultimately, they are all about trial and error but ensuring a modicum of consistency.

Over the last three years as a teacher, I have had very different experiences of seating plans. In my first year, I didn’t have my own classroom and had to work with various room sizes, shapes and table arrangements. In my second year, I had my own classroom; where I was able to arrange the tables how I wanted and had the benefit of it being a large classroom. In my third year, COVID-19 meant I had to go back to moving from classroom to classroom with the added caveat that I had no control over the seating plan, which was created by the form tutor for each class. And, now, going into my fourth year of teaching, I am finding myself back in my own classroom – albeit a smaller room which I have to consider how I furnish and arrange to maximise the space and suitability for teaching in.

Over this time, I have had various different pieces of advice when it comes to seating plans: some of it was pertinent, some of it was useless. Some of it down right ridiculous. Recently, I saw a couple of threads on #Edutwitter which discussed seating plans, here and here, and it got my thinking about what advice I would give others coming up with their seating plans for the first time, or for those of us, going back to having to think about seating plans again.

A new class – how do I arrange them?

When it comes to your first class, or starting with a new class, there isn’t really any hard of fast rule to follow. I remember in the summer school I did ahead of my teacher training that I was asked to consider where I would put my LPA, HPA, SEND and EAL students, without having a feel, understanding or knowledge of the students. Obviously, that information comes with time and comes from experience being in the classroom with your students. To be honest, that exercise baffled me and confused me. I needed to be in the room, in the thick of it with the students, rather than planning a theoretical seating plan for students who weren’t real.

My top tips for starting with a new class are firstly, don’t speak to the teacher who had them before. I know this may seem counter-intuitive, as the experience other teacher have had with those students can help inform you. But that is just it. It is their experiences with the students or class, not yours. You must ensure that the students feel they have a fresh start with you, that they know despite all the problems they might have had with a previous teacher that they won’t with you. Obviously, if you do come into any issues, then do approach other teachers and get the lo-down.

Secondly, there are so many guises of how to place students in a classroom. May it be boy/girl, let them sit where they want (advise strongly against this one) or alphabetical. The latter is the one I lean into the most. It is easy to do, avoids any head clangers of there being gender imbalances in the class.

That last part happened to me once. I found myself doing boy/girl and came to the last girl in the class and had to sit all of these boys at the back of the classroom together – about 7 of them. It did not end well. With seating students alphabetically, be mindful that other teachers may be doing the same – so switch it up, go from Z to A instead of A to Z. Those students who are at the end of the alphabet will always end up at the back of the classroom and may get resentful going from class to class and being at the back.

Switch it up, be inventive with it.

When seating students for the first time in the new seating plan, make it clear to them it is your seating plan, you decide where students sit and if they move. I usually do my first revamp just after the October half term, if needed. But if there are any issues (students falling out, safeguarding issues, student can’t see the board from where they are sat etc.), then explain to them that you are happy to discuss it with them after the lesson, during break time, rather than in the middle of the lesson. For those students who find themselves keen on moving seats, they will find a way to speak to you about it.

Arranging for SEND/EAL

I would say that this is the most important aspect of your seating plan, where do you sit the students who ultimately need your support the most. There are two scenarios with this one: if you have a TA in the classroom and if you do not have a TA in the classroom.

If you do not have a TA in the classroom, then make it priority to have those students at the front of the class, nearest to where you situate yourself at the front when teaching. This could be next to your desk, if that’s where you base yourself the most, or at any point in the classroom. That way you can keep an eye on them and go to them first when students are transitioning into a student-led task.

If you do have a TA in the classroom, then this is where you can have SEND/EAL students situated at different points in the classroom. You could have them scattered amongst other students in a certain zone in the classroom or you could have them at the back of the classroom with the TA so that they can be supported more discreetly. Be mindful here of not isolating those students from the rest of the class if they are at the back of the classroom. Ideally you want them to be integrated into the class and not be too identifiable to other students, despite having a TA sat next to them working with them.

Another aspect to take into consideration with SEND students is their EHCP or SEND profile. There are some SEND students I have taught who have explicitly said on their profile that they do not want to be at the front of the classroom, but would rather be in the middle to the one of the sides, so as not to have too much focus on them from the teacher or the rest of the class. I have had some students who have said they want to be as close to the teacher as possible. It varies from student to student, so be mindful of this when working with your classes – get to the know the kids and what works best for them.

The gold mine – the TA in the classroom

If you are lucky to have a TA in your classroom, then they are primarily there to support your SEND students but I like to utilise them for the whole class. One it removes the stigma for the SEND students and also allows the TA to be another adult in the room to support all students.

I have the utmost time and respect for TAs, and always go to them for advice or trouble shooting about a lesson or a seating plan. Seek out their views on seating plans if you think they’re not working – they see things that you might not.

The one thing that I would avoid is having all of your SEND students at the front of the classroom. If not possible, not near your desk, as this can make it very crowded with you and another adult around the desk area trying to support students. Have them in another area of the classroom, so as not to be on top of each other.

Where to sit your Pupil Premium students?

My current school is a heavily PP school, and the classes that I have taught have been predominately PP heavy, so this hasn’t featured much on my radar. However, when it comes to LPA PP students I have always aimed to sit them closer to me or at various key vantage points on my routes around the classroom. This helps ensure that I can offer support and they are easily accessible to me when it comes supporting them in the classroom.

Another aspect is supporting MPA and HPA students, though not necessarily PP, I have tended to put some MPA students next to HPA students to help bolster the MPA student with their learning, and I have had some success with this. However, the point to be wary of is making sure that the HPA student still feels stretched and challenged to keep up their work – rather than falling behind.

The Big B – Behaviour!

A lot of where you put students in the classroom – especially in secondary school – will fall down to how they behave and how you want to mitigate or minimise any disruption that might come up in lessons. This isn’t a fool proof way of dealing with behaviour, but having a seating plan that factors in behaviour is crucial to your behaviour management in the classroom.

One thing I have found that works for performers in the classroom or the ‘alphas’ is to have them at the front of the classroom. Not only does it keep them close to you to manage better, but it also removes the issue of them performing to the rest of the class as if they are their audience. Though you do have to be mindful that all eyes will be facing in their direction as you will have them looking to the front where you are. I have found that this works and it has seen students settle and be more focused in my lessons.

Also, split up friendship groups that do not help cultivate a positive learning environment. We all know the ones – the disruptive, talkative friends who will not focus on any work if they do sit next to each other. Have them at polar opposites of the classroom, preferably where it is hard for them to catch the eye of each other. Another helpful tip is to separate them by placing quieter students between them. This is one that myself and a few of my colleagues have trialled and found the louder students soon quieten down when they know the student next to them isn’t going to give them the time of day.

With behaviour, and any of the other aspects of a seating plan mentioned above, make sure that you don’t see it as the end product on your first go. It may need changing – even in the middle of a lesson. Do not be afraid to move a student who is being distracting or disruptive to another part of the classroom. It is your classroom, your space, your in charge of it, so own it.

There is so much to consider when creating seating plans, as this blog can attest – there was so much more to consider (table arrangements etc.) but they can be saved for another day. Seating plans can be head wreckers and never feel like they have been perfected. But don’t beat yourself up about it, just think and adapt for the next lesson. You can change your seating plans as many times as you like. Just remember the very nature of the beast is that they are ever-moving, ever-changing and ever-surprising. Enjoy the challenge of trying to overcome them, don’t let seating plans defeat you.

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