Two Ways to Assign Seats on the First Day of Class

How to Assign Seats

It can be hard to label permanent seats before the first day of school, because your class roster will change throughout the first week. The first week may also provide some clues about which students should sit together, and—more important—which students should definitely not sit together. If you’re not ready to assign long-term seats, here are two methods for seating students in a quick and orderly way while still leaving some wiggle room.

Option 1: Label desks with something other than student names.

Especially in higher grade levels, you often have several groups of students throughout the day; chances are, you’re not taping student names to the desks anyway. You may, however, want to label the desks with numbers. Or, you can get creative and label them with symbols that match your subject matter.

My favorite system involves two decks of playing cards. (In my experience, it’s better to use only the numbered cards, not the king, queen, or jack. You can tape the king or queen of hearts to your own desk as a clever touch if that matches your style.)

Here’s how the system works:

  1. Tape cards from the first deck onto the desks. This naturally numbers the seats and also divides the class into four teams (spades, diamonds, etc). Draw a blank seating chart with the desks labeled by card, and make multiple copies of the blank version of this seating chart. These can be filled in with names to make permanent seating charts once you know the kids better.
  2. Remove cards as needed from the second deck so it matches the cards taped to the desks. When you’re done, shuffle this matching deck; you’ll use it to randomly assign seats as students enter the room on the first day.
  3. When the kids come in the first day, have them pick a card as you greet them. “Good morning. Your seat is the one that matches this card. The rest of the directions are on the board.” (Here’s where you can find more detailed tips on the first five minutes of the first day of class.)
  4. Once everyone is seated and working on their first assignment, collect the cards. Put them back into the deck and shuffle them; you can then use the deck again to randomly call on students for the rest of the class period. This will also help you set the expectation that any student may be called on at any time to answer a question.
  5. As your students are working on their first-day assignments, label one copy of your blank seating chart with their names. This is one way to help you memorize students’ names as quickly as possible. It will also give a sense of order to the class as you’re getting to know the chemistry among students. Tell students that these will be their assigned seats until you’ve had a chance to make a more permanent seating chart.

Note: This system is not perfect. (No system is perfect.) Among other things, the cards get grungy after a while. You’ll probably have to replace them a few times a year. What I like about this system, however, is that it keeps kids from sitting with the friends they walked in with, and it also keeps them from heading straight for the seats in the back of the room on the first day.

Option 2: Strategically Place Empty Seats. And Don’t Bother With Alphabetical Order.

This is often a good option for the lower grades, where you have one group of students and also often have a classroom theme, so the kids’ names can be written on paper caterpillars (or whatever) taped to each desk. For this system, just assume that you’ll need five extra desks for students who join the class at the last minute, and you’ll also need some extra, blank paper caterpillars, and some extra tape. (Chances are, you’ll have some no-show students as well.) You can decide in advance where to locate these extra desks based on how you’ve organized your classroom. What you’ll want to avoid, however, is labeling the desks alphabetically, only to let out a long, exasperated sigh when a student whose last name starts with M walks in and messes up the whole thing.

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