Seating Arrangements

Let’s take a trip down memory lane. Close your eyes and go back to your high school days when you peaked. Remember your hair? Your freshly-popped pimples? Jesus, you were a loser.

Now imagine one of your classrooms. If your high school was anything like mine, you sat in rows. And if you were anything like me, you sat in the back where you wouldn’t be noticed because hey, let’s face it, you weren’t worth noticing. Remember that seating arrangement? Just like this:


I won’t say that I never use this arrangement in my classroom, but it’s damn close to never. Perhaps for exams or presentations. Perhaps. This set up describes the traditional ‘teacher-center’ classroom where the teacher is primary and all eyes are on him/her. While such an arrangement was perfect for someone like me who wanted to sit in the back and do fuck all, it doesn’t suit the ESL/EFL classroom for several reasons, the most important of which is that you want your students’ eyes typically on each other rather than the back of someone in front of them.

Remember the mantra — ‘students are primary’. I’ll flesh this out in another post, then I’ll beat it like a dead horse. Suffice it to say that your main job is less about teaching and more about providing students with opportunities to use English. So how do you do that?



This is the default setup for my classroom. Do you see the first of the Cons — ‘not suitable for work in small groups’. Bullshit. [I didn’t design the picture.] The horseshoe gives students the opportunity to see each other speaking while everyone can still see the board, but also allows students to peel off into pairs or small groups with minimal movement.


Some teachers choose clusters for their default setup. The cluster is the student’s group or team, and often there’s a running tally of points kept from all the games played throughout the lesson. Students being noisy? Take a point from the team. There is an increased risk of distractions since the students are constantly focused on each other as opposed to the teacher, but there’s a possible hidden advantage to this. Eventually you’ll have a class with an absolute catastrophe of a student. One that will make you question not your choice of teaching as a profession, but the existence of God. Think Type-A, know-it-all, class clown, bully, ADHD, jock, whatever. These students have the potential to ruin a lesson if they’re a constant distraction to the whole class which can easily happen if you’re in a horseshoe arrangement. Put them in clusters, though, and these assholes are neutralized by only being able to distract their group. In your face, John Bender.

My classroom, as noted above, typically begins as a horseshoe, then breaks up into clusters of two or three depending on the activity, then again reverts back to the horseshoe. Horseshoe mode is for presentation and instruction. I want all my students’ eyes on me and the board, not a partner or group member or potential love interest. Then, when it’s time for group-work, students shift into cluster mode. This switching between the two arrangements lets students ‘know what time it is’. Horseshoe means shut up and listen, clusters mean it’s practice time.

[Confession: 75% of my lesson is in horseshoe mode. Students can easily pair off or even form groups of three without actually having to shift their desks into a cluster. Consider me a fan.]

The point is that students should feel comfortable but never completely settled. They need to know that just because they’re in one place now doesn’t mean you won’t move them later. The sooner you can play with different seating arrangements, generally the more amenable students are to changing. Don’t let them grow roots.

Other options to play with:


There’s little you can do with a runway that you can’t do with a horseshoe, but I might employ two parallel rows when I want partners face to face for activities such as speed-dating or dictation.


I’ve only ever used this for presentations.


Rare. Perhaps if some students have finished an activity before the others, I’ll group them up separately for another activity while the others finish.

In a nutshell, the type of activity should ideally dictate the seating arrangement and not the other way around, but in practice teachers are often given limited space and resources which constrains the number and type of activities we can employ. If you find yourself in this latter situation, you’ll probably have one of two possible reactions depending on who you are as a person. The first reaction is to piss and moan about how shit the school is and how ridiculous it is that poor you is forced to slave away under such abject conditions. The second is to be creative and challenge yourself to come up with activities that work within the confines of your resources.

I confess I was in this first group until a wise man told me three pieces of sage advice that have stuck with me every since. Three tenets of a philosophy not just of work, but life: 1. Shut the fuck up and stop whining. 2. Suck it up. 3. Adapt and overcome.


The Classroom

Congratulations. Somebody actually hired you. You’re well on your way to becoming an actual human being rather than just some basement-dwelling, parasitic slob living off your parents. I didn’t think you had it in you.

Perhaps you’re already in country. Have you seen your school yet? Toured the facilities? Been in a classroom? The equipment and facilities in the TEFL world are so varied that a (boring) book could be written about all the configurations. Suffice it to say that while you can change your lesson and activities, it’s much harder to change the equipment you’re given. You can only work with what you’re given and what works in one classroom may not work in another.

Blackboard or Whiteboard?

Why anyone would use a blackboard when there’s such a thing as a whiteboard boggles my mind. There’s literally nothing you can do on a blackboard which you can’t do on a white except perhaps break your writing utensil and leave cocaine-like piles of dust scattered around the area. Whiteboards aren’t only cleaner, they’re also decent media for your projector, so if you’re working off interactive software, you can use a market to write answers, highlight, underline, circle…basically everything you’ll want to do in the program.

How big is the room? How many desks?

The games and activities you plan are constrained by class and classroom size. Do you want a mingle activity? A board race? What if there’s physically no room? Can you move desks outside the classroom? Do you have enough space to move desks for pair and group work? You’ll need to see your facilities before planning a lesson.


Google images says the above image is a Thai classroom but I suspect it might be Burmese due to the shit (thanaka — a sandlewood paste) on their faces. Regardless, the above classroom isn’t atypical for the region. If you find yourself with such a setup, first slap yourself in the face for signing up for that, then quit your job and head to a real school. I jest, but in all seriousness, many teachers make such classrooms work. Just know that all the fun and games you’ll want to play are limited by the physical space.

modern classroom

That’s more like it. In the classroom above you’re limited only by your imagination. Need small groups, pair work, or maybe you need the floor wide open? No problem, just move the desks into whatever configuration suits the purpose. The flexibility afforded by the facilities here gives you far more latitude and creativity in terms of lesson planning. The room probably even has air-con so you needn’t worry about sweating through your shirt and bogging out the class with your rancid onion body odor.

The point (which I’m belaboring so even you can grasp it) is that form (facilities) dictates content (activities). So do yourself a favor and make sure you know what you’re (literally) walking into.