Paul Erickson

Facility Planning: Say ‘YES’ for Staff Planning Centers

March 14, 2022

A school district is designing a comprehensive high school. The superintendent has inquired about best practices for teacher prep planning space, whether to place it in classrooms or create staff planning centers. This basic question becomes a key “igniter-of-change” to shape new directions for teacher engagement and student-centered learning  teacher coaching, peer tutoring, teamwork, student movement, project-based work, internet-based research, and student presentations.

The antiquated standard of a teacher’s prep period in a classroom is not in line with new teaching and learning models. Teacher classroom ownership in secondary schools is outdated; it leads to “siloed” instruction and learning and uses classrooms inefficiently. When planning centers were introduced years ago, teachers pushed back – they were losing their classroom domain. But over time, teachers have seen that planning centers can be a “gain” for their professional growth that directly benefits student learning.

Classrooms are prime real estate. Many schools try to maximize space usage so classrooms don’t sit empty. Placing a teacher in a classroom for a prep period is an ineffective use of space.

Schools should establish staff planning centers, especially in middle and high schools. They usually are distributed throughout the facility near classrooms, with eight to 15 teachers sharing a center. Planning centers facilitate teacher collaboration and are incubators for integrating knowledge across multiple subject areas.

Certain subjects may be a better fit for planning centers. For science, art, music, industrial tech, and world language subjects, teacher prep space is usually in a lab/studio or in an adjacent prep area for quick access to special equipment. Ancillary “hoteling” stations for these subject areas can be included in general planning centers for opportunities to engage with other teachers in interdisciplinary lesson planning.

Planning centers are typically situated near a teacher’s “home base” classroom and are connected to a flexible team learning area. This design concept is frequently termed “house,” “pod,“ or “learning cluster.” Planning centers typically include teacher workstations with network access, a collaboration table with six to eight chairs, a kitchenette, an informal area for research, and storage space.

The concept of planning centers connects students with teachers in formal and informal settings, strengthening student-centered learning objectives.

Once a school decides to have planning centers, the first thought may be to organize them as a department of teachers per subject area. But a better way is to make them interdisciplinary to emphasize engagement among subject areas.

A planning center brings teachers together in a collaborative setting, freeing them from prep-time isolation in the classroom. Bringing teachers together strengthens subject integration, reinforcing real-life problem-solving activities that intertwine language arts, math, history, social studies, and reading. By distributing science labs, art studios, and industrial tech labs into “learning clusters,” integration of all subjects occurs.

Placing teacher prep periods in planning centers provides strategic advantages for teacher-to-teacher, teacher-to-student, and student-to-student engagement. In addition, with this approach, classroom utilization increases. For example, schools can be scheduled at higher utilization efficiency (e.g., 5.5 of 6 periods/day instead of 5 of 6). Even with square footage added for planning centers, having fewer classrooms reduces building square footage, construction cost, and recurring operating expenditures.

When students observe successful teacher collaboration in staff planning centers, they also are empowered to become engaged in their own collaborative settings, learning how to research, create, collaborate, and problem-solve with their student peers.        

Paul W. Erickson, AIA/NCARB/REFP, executive officer & partner, is past president of ATSR Planners/Architects/Engineers (, a firm specializing in school planning and design. He has 40+ years of experience in school planning, design, and construction, and can be reached at [email protected].

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