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The art of classroom decor for older students: making your space inviting and inspiring

Having a beautiful middle or high school classroom is not about being Pinterest- or Instagram-perfect; it’s definitely not a contest; and it has nothing to do with your worth as a teacher.

However, we do spend all day in our classroom, and many of us even spend more time there than we do inside our own homes. So, there’s nothing wrong with putting some effort into decorating your classroom to make it a beautiful, comfortable place that you love coming to every day, and that your students love coming to too.

I always had students who would actually thank me for decorating my classroom or tell me that my classroom was so cozy. Students do notice little things like that, and it might be the difference that helps you reach a student that you otherwise might not have reached. They do appreciate the effort you put into making your classroom a welcoming place for them to come to every day.

groovy retro trendy classroom theme for middle school high school classroom decor
I love creating fun and unique printable classroom decor for middle and high school teachers. It saves them time and money, and makes having a beautiful classroom so much easier! Check out the wide variety of options in my TPT shop.

But definitely don’t think that you have to spend a bunch of money to do this or that it’s going to be really hard. Everybody can have an attractive classroom, even if it has no windows, even if you’re not a decorator, and even if admin assigned you the ugliest room on the hall! 

Here are all my best classroom decor tips to help you transform your learning environment into an inspiring, motivating space that you love.

Oh, and a quick note: I help middle and high school teachers, so I’ve geared these tips toward decorating the secondary classroom, but teachers of littles, you are welcome here too!

Use paint where possible

If you’re allowed to paint, there’s a lot you can do. If you get assigned to a classroom with weird cabinets or shelves, strange wall colors, outdated furniture, or even a big ugly desk, ask your administration to see if they would let you paint any or all of it. 

Before you grab that Barney purple, though, hold on! Decide what feel you want your room to have and consider your lighting (more on this shortly). If you don’t have windows, or if your lighting is harsh, you’ll probably want to go with lighter, more muted tones of paint.

An old decorator tip (that I learned the hard way after I painted my bedroom an eye-popping lime green) is to find the paint chip for the color you *think* you want, then actually buy the color that’s a shade or two lighter, and slightly softer. It’s never steered me wrong.

high school classroom fantasy theme
These gorgeous fantasy forest printables are available here.

Improve your lighting

Another thing that will make a massive impact on your classroom is your lighting. Most of us are stuck with those awful fluorescent lights that are bright, uncomfortable, and unnatural.

Fluorescent and LED lights flicker constantly (even if we don’t perceive it), and it’s actually quite problematic. Studies have shown that fluorescent and LED lighting can cause “eyestrain, double vision, headaches, migraines, stress, poor concentration, reduced visual task performance, fatigue, repetitive behavior in autistic people,” and more (source). 

So really, changing your lighting is actually less about aesthetics and more about whether you’re hampering your and your students’ abilities to do your best work.

Unfortunately, I’m not aware of an alternative type of light bulb that would fit in the typical tube lights that most schools have. If you still need your overhead lights, consider using covers like these available on Amazon. They’ll at least reduce the harsh glare, and a bonus is all the fun colors and prints that you can choose from to go with your classroom theme (more on that in a moment!).

In my classroom, my solution was to use the overhead fluorescents as little as possible. I had lamps in my room, and I was blessed to have two big windows. So, I just always kept the blinds open and turned the lamps on and let students work in the softer light. After a while, students would even request to turn out the big lights if I forgot.

I know fire codes at some schools can really restrict your lighting options, but if you can, try to use lamps. Thrift stores are always a great place to find floor lamps especially. Place as many lamps around your room as you need for your students to be able to see and work comfortably.

String lights are of course a fun classroom trend lately. If your fire codes allow, I always recommend a couple good strands of decorative string lights. You could use something kitschy like these cute paper lantern string lights, something techy like these remote-controlled color-changing rope lights, or something classy like these lantern string lights (that would be completely drool-worthy with this coastal theme classroom decor).

Add some textiles

In addition to your lighting, another major thing that goes such a long way in making a classroom more comfortable and less sterile-feeling is any type of textiles: tapestries, curtains, banners, rugs, pillows, etc. Textiles also help to absorb sound. So if you don’t have carpet in your room, they will make your room a little bit quieter during class discussion time and transitions.

Think about where you might be able to put some type of rug, even if it’s a really small decorative rug in front of a bookshelf or a really big area rug.

Curtains in a classroom are a fabulous idea. They don’t have to be anything fancy. You don’t have to make your classroom look like a living room, but curtains do give a cozier, homier feel to your space, and they can be a much-needed pop of color

If you have really ugly walls, and you’re not allowed to paint, hang some curtains that are a softer, more neutral color that doesn’t clash with the ugly walls, but draws attention away from them a bit. 

If you know someone who enjoys sewing, even if they’re a beginner, curtains are usually a simple project. Don’t hesitate to ask! Many people love assisting teachers, so reach out and inquire if anyone is interested in making curtains for your classroom. You can even ask your students if any of them sew; they might be happy to create curtains and see their work in their classroom every day.

fabric banner secondary classroom teacher DIY project
Fun fabric banners like this one are a great way to soften your classroom space using textiles. Here’s the super-easy tutorial for how I made this one to match my coffee-themed decor.

Along the lines of the textile options, something else that you can do to make your classroom a little more attractive is to reupholster your desk chair

Now if this is a school-issued chair, obviously, you want to ask before doing this. Personally, I went and bought a really inexpensive chair at the thrift store to recover. 

Then I went to Hobby Lobby and bought a sturdy fabric. You wouldn’t want to use thin fabric, or any kind of stretch fabric; you want to get something sturdier from the upholstery or home decorating section in the fabric store. If it has a weight and feel similar to denim, it’s probably a great option. If you think you might want to reupholster your desk chair, here’s a great little tutorial from The Mermaid’s Den.  

alice in wonderland classroom decor

Get students involved

Speaking of student handiwork, of course, it’s always a great idea to decorate with student work, but sometimes if you teach a subject like English, there’s not always a lot of student work that is eye-catching or attractive that you would want to hang on the walls. 

But consider just putting the request out there to your students. You can ask them if they would like to volunteer to make something to hang on the walls of your classroom that’s related to your subject, or matches your decor. 

If you want a more laid-back or relaxed feel to your classroom, you can have an eclectic collection of student art that you display on the walls.

boho high school classroom decor

Don’t forget the photos

Photos can be another fun way to make your classroom homier and to build connections with your students. Your students love to know about your personal life and they are interested in you, your family, your pets. 

So it’s usually a good idea to put a photo or two around your desk or your workspace, of yourself doing an out-of-school hobby, with a close friend or two, your children or significant other, and definitely of your pets. 

Another great way to incorporate photos into your classroom and to connect with students would be to take photos of the students throughout the year doing different things in your class or even snap some in the hallway or at their extracurriculars and hang them up around your room or make a bulletin board of memories from the year. Students can also submit photos if you’d like. 

I wish I remembered who to credit for this idea, but I’ve seen some teachers actually have an area in their classroom dedicated to photos of all the students’ pets, and so each student brings in a photo of their pet, and the teacher adds it to the wall. One teacher even cut out the photos of pets and made magnets with them and used the magnets around her classroom. 

Grow some greenery

Plants can really make a big difference in a classroom. In addition to adding visual interest, they also can help clean your air, and as we all know, the air in a classroom can get pretty stale. Now obviously, before you get live plants, you want to consider the available sunlight in your classroom and your ability to care for them.

If you’re new to plants, or haven’t had much success in the past, try plants that are very low maintenance such as Golden Pothos, snake plants, and aloe

This golden pothos is super easy to care for and looks great with my steampunk ELA decor!

But if your classroom gets little or no sunlight, you definitely want artificial plants, which are easier all around since they don’t need any care. 

Whether artificial or real, you can put plants on your desk, on top of cabinets, (trailing plants especially would be pretty growing down the side of a file cabinet!) on bookshelves, and if your fire code allows for it, you can even get some decorative macramé plant hangers and hang a plant or two from the ceiling

A faux fern in a galvanized bucket is the perfect compliment to this one-of-a-kind steampunk decor.
You might not think of sticks as “greenery” (or even classroom decor!), but they’re just right with this fantasy forest theme.

Welcome the seasons

Something that I felt like always made my classroom more homey, and that students always said they loved was decorating a little bit for each season

I bought inexpensive leaf garland from the dollar store and hung it above my whiteboard every fall. You can place a wreath on your classroom door or wall, changing it seasonally. Consider having students create wreaths for you, if they’d like. For Christmas, I adorned my whiteboard with a garland and lights, alongside seasonal posters. I refreshed bulletin boards a few times yearly, using spring colors and themes. Displaying new items periodically celebrating holidays or seasons can keep things fresh and engaging in your classroom.

Want a seasonal touch with hassling with garlands or party stores? Grab these seasonal banners that you can just print and hang!

Embrace a theme 

A major element that can really help your classroom feel… classier (no pun intended!) is a classroom color scheme or a classroom theme

Now when we say classroom theme, usually people automatically think cheesy, babyish, and elementary, but you can definitely have a classroom theme in middle or high school. It’s just all in how you execute it! In fact, I have a whole post dedicated to classroom theme ideas for middle or high school that aren’t babyish, so be sure to check that out.

Carry your theme and/or color scheme throughout your room with your curtains, with your lamps, with your posters, with your bulletin boards, with maybe different tapestries or rugs that you hang up or the art that you have your students create for you.

Creative classroom themes for older students is my jam, and I have a ton of printables in my TPT shop for you to help you create a cohesive and beautiful learning space on a dime. 

You’ll find everything from a vintage coffee shop motif, to Lord of the Rings and 70’s retro. Or there’s nature themes like coastal, floral, and camping… and more! Check them out here. 

If a theme doesn’t really appeal to you but you’d like a more cohesive look for your classroom, consider decorating in your school’s colors. This can promote unity and school spirit and would just be a fun and easy classroom theme to have. And I even have a few sets of school colors classroom decor available in my shop as well.  

Don’t be scared of wallpaper

Wallpaper has actually come a really long way in the past couple of decades since it was last popular. It used to be that wallpaper was a death sentence for a wall, but now so many brands make wallpaper that is truly removable

So that might be an option for you if you have a narrow strip of wall, a big filing cabinet, or big ugly metal desk that you want to make look either brighter, more in style, or just more interesting

Check into the removable wallpaper options on Amazon. Just remember to always read the reviews and look to see if people had any problems removing it. 

And just to play it safe, like with the paint, it probably doesn’t hurt to check in with your supervisor or admin to be sure they’re cool with your putting wallpaper on walls or furniture (even if it is removable)!

Brick-look wallpaper can transform a wall or under cabinet area in your classroom to look like a cozy coffee shop.

Consider mirrors

Another way you can brighten up your classroom, especially if you have a few windows or even no windows, is to find a place to incorporate a mirror or two into your classroom

Now you want to be careful with this to make sure that it’s not positioned so that students are sitting there staring at themselves or each other while you’re teaching. 

But if you could pick up an inexpensive mirror or two at the thrift store and hang them around your classroom, they’ll reflect light and make the room feel bigger and brighter.

There you have it… 10 ways to transform your classroom from drab to fab. Even if your classroom has no windows, or is the ugliest room you’ve ever seen, you can turn your space into a bright, inviting haven for learning. Your students will appreciate the effort, and you’ll enjoy a more positive and energetic teaching environment. Here’s to a classroom that radiates warmth and light!

For more classroom decor tips for your middle or high school classroom, don’t miss this post with time-saving classroom set-up tools!

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