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Creativity colors classrooms

Teachers show their decorative style in trying to provide an environment that will help students learn.

There is a theory that says a classroom should be stark and barren when the kids first come back to school. That way students can play a major role in decorating their rooms to reflect their collective work and personalities.

That theory doesn't hold up in Hillsborough County, where teachers spent hours last week cutting, pasting and tacking decorations to just about every open space on their cabinets, walls and bulletin boards.

The goal is to transform the starkness into a home away from home, with an emphasis on warm, colorful and inviting decorations.

As Barbara Hancock, the principal of Hunter's Green Elementary, said: "Some teachers really, really get into this, like some teachers get into producing plays and programs."

Fifth-grade teacher Susan Holland is setting the stage for her 19th year of teaching, which officially begins when students come back to school Thursday.

Decorating her room, she said, is her hobby, an opportunity to show her students the lay of the land and the rules of their "kingdom."

Laminated apples against a colorful blue backdrop hang from one section of Holland's floor-length bulletin board. That's where students will tack to their individualized apples the stickers and ribbons that reflect a perfect score, a dramatic gain, an honest effort or a respectful act.

"This is my life, I love it," Holland said, as she unpacked books and rearranged art supplies and papers. "I knew in third grade I was going to be a teacher. I was just fascinated by the teacher, thinking, "How does she get it all organized? How does she get it all together, so many things at the same time?' "

To help new teachers get their acts together, the Hillsborough School District gave them The First Days of School, a book by Harry Wong. His work also is the basis for ongoing professional training.

Wong, as a teacher, said he discovered he could be a "tool of torture or instrument of inspiration" _ that he could "humiliate or humor, hurt or heal."

He recognized that "it is my personal approach that creates the climate; it is my daily mood that makes the weather."

Wong underscores the importance of first impressions for both students and their parents, who by nature will come back to school looking for visual clues of comfort, sense and order.

Terri Evans, a former transportation planner, left her job 14 years ago to raise her children. After years of PTA volunteering, she got a master's degree in elementary education, because teaching was "her calling."

Now a second-grade teacher at Hunter's Green, she followed Wong's suggestion that a small space be set aside to display a teacher's favorite books, personal mementos and professional degrees and certificates.

"If you go to a doctor's office, you expect to see the doctor's certificates and degrees on the wall, and you always do," Evans said. "Wong says we forget sometimes teachers are professionals, and we would be treated more professionally if we act more professionally."

Her bulletin board at Hunter's Green, like many others throughout Hillsborough, includes a section devoted to discipline, one to convey the rules, one to reflect the schedule, one to outline the curriculum and one that is sparsely decorated, because it is inviting the works of students.

Kristin Tonelli, a second-grade teacher, was busy Thursday writing the names of students on laminated balloons, which she had stapled to the bulletin board above strings hanging down to the hands of cut-out clowns.

Teachers get reimbursed $100 from the state for supplies and materials. The Hunter's Green PTA gives its teachers an additional $100.

Tonelli, a 10-year veteran, said many teachers spend far more than that.

"My first year teaching, I stopped keeping track after $1,000," she said. "I knew if I saw how much the receipts were adding up, it would inhibit me from buying the educational materials I wanted for my class."

That money, though, is well-spent, she said.

"It's important for the kids to see you take what you're doing very seriously, and that you have been willing to invest a lot of time to get their rooms ready."