Recently I’ve been thinking about this scene, from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire:
He [Harry] heard Mad-Eye Moody’s voice, echoing in some distant chamber of his empty brain: Jump onto the desk… jump onto the desk…
Harry bent his knees obediently, preparing to spring. Jump onto the desk…
Why, though? Another voice had awoken in the back of his brain. Stupid thing to do, really, said the voice.
Jump onto the desk…
No, I don’t think I will, thanks, said the other voice, a little more firmly… no, I really don’t want to.
Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, 231-232
If you’re not a Potterhead, you should know that in this scene Harry is learning to fight the Imperius curse. The curse was one of the three “Unforgivable” curses; and this particular curse was used by Lord Voldemort and his followers as a form of mind control. Harry, who already has a certain proclivity for rule-breaking and rebellious behavior, shows himself to be naturally less susceptible to the Imperius curse, as we see in this scene from a Defense Against the Dark Arts class with Professor Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody. In the conclusion of this scene, Harry both obeys the voice and tries to fight it at the same time, with the end result that he jumps halfway and crashes his kneecaps into the desk. Moody sees his potential and continues to train him until Harry is capable of resisting the curse altogether.
As I’ve been preparing for the coming school year, thinking through classroom setup and decor, I found my way to Pinterest. So much cutesy mess! I started to feel utterly overwhelmed, not to mention inadequate, by the amount of time, effort, and money poured into the decor of some of the classrooms featured. The siren song of an adorable Harry Potter-themed extravaganza whispered at me seductively, and suddenly my search bar said “harry potter themed classrooms.” Before I knew it, I was on Amazon with hundreds of dollars worth of Harry Potter themed merchandise arrayed before me, with fourteen tabs open to the rabbit hole of organizational tips and tricks, pristine decorated classrooms, and dollar-store DIY’s. As Alice would say, “After this I shall think nothing of falling down the stairs!”
I’ve been teaching for 18 years. I certainly haven’t got it all figured out or anything, but I have a pretty good handle on what I’m doing. I know that the way my classroom looks at the beginning of the year has absolutely no bearing on how prepared I am to do the heavy lifting of turning students into readers, writers, and thinkers. I also know that there is so much more important work to be done. The rooting out of oppressive systems and practices, identifying microaggressions and systemic racism, designing more inclusive and equitable curriculum… These are much more important than setting up a classroom.
So what makes us so susceptible to the Imperius curse, especially at the beginning of the year?
The beginning of school makes us, as educators, vulnerable to many varieties of the Imperius curse. I don’t believe there’s an evil wizard pointing a wand at us and forcing us to do his bidding, but I do believe there are forces at work, especially at the beginning of the year, that it’s very difficult to fight against.
With social media feeds creating a 24/7 competition between adorable and awe-inspiring classrooms, it’s so easy to be convinced that a theme and hundreds of dollars worth of decorations is what you need to be a successful teacher. After all, what student would not want to be in a pristine replica of Hogwarts? Frankly, most of them. I love Harry Potter. I will recommend the series to anyone who will listen to me. But if I decorate my classroom to become Hogwarts, I would be doing it for me. Let me repeat that: I would be doing it for ME. Let’s not pretend that these themed classrooms are about kids you haven’t even met yet.
Setting up a classroom that can be shaped and molded by the minds that will learn in it, leaving blank space to fill with the students who will be part of the community, asking ourselves, “Will this material help students learn? How? Who will benefit from this?” and honestly considering the answers is a true starting place to fight off the Imperius curse of competition. That teacher with the amazing classroom down the hall may not have put any thought at all into how the perfectly matched and themed decorations will affect the learners she has yet to meet. Conversely, the teacher with furniture piled everywhere and books thrown helter-skelter about may have put all of her focus into reading professional texts and learning. There is no one right way. We all want a cute classroom, but if the room is perfect from day one, how can the environment change to reflect the changing classroom community? A perfectly set-up and decorated classroom communicates the expectation that students must fit into the space, not that the space will change to reflect the needs of the students in it.
It’s worth mentioning that in Goblet of Fire, when Moody first puts the curse on Harry, he describes the feeling like this:
It was the most wonderful feeling. Harry felt a floating sensation as every thought and worry in his head was wiped gently away, leaving nothing but a vague, untraceable happiness. He stood there, feeling immensely relaxed, only dimly aware of everyone watching him.
Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, 231
It’s so easy to feel completely out of control at the beginning of the year. There are always so many variables and challenges to prepare for, new restrictions and mandates thrown at us from local, state, and federal agencies, and changes in colleagues and administrations. Sometimes I go home on those first workdays wishing that someone would put the Imperius curse on me just so I don’t have to think anymore! Sometimes we are all looking for the places we don’t have to do the heavy lifting, but as we enter this school year, I’d encourage you to fight this Imperius curse. It’s easy to get focused on decorating our classrooms, finding the perfect color scheme, having the coolest bulletin boards… and so on. It’s much more difficult to confront your privilege, notice hidden sexism in dress codes and bathroom policies, root out problematic grading practices, or decolonize your bookshelves, but in the long run these will be more beneficial to your students and to the system as a whole.
That’s a hefty list, but start simple. We are beginning a new school year. Add Troublemakers by Carla Shalaby, or White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, to your reading list. Lurk a few Twitter hashtags, like #CleartheAir, #decolonizeyoursyllabus, #disrupttexts, and #ownvoices. A few helpful articles for the beginning of the year: Reimagining Learning Spaces by Tricia Ebarvia, Countering Whiteness by Tracy Castro-Gill, The First Days series by Monte Syrie, First Days of School at Ethical ELA, and Sharpening Workshop Routines at Two Writing Teachers.
When we know better, we do better. This year, let’s focus on giving our students the best versions of ourselves rather than the best versions of our classrooms. It’s the most meaningful interaction we can make.