Confessions of an unrepentant (yet slightly defensive) unskilled user of the whiteboard

My boardwork could most charitably be described as crappy.*
There, I said it. I feel better already.

My handwriting is generally horrible on paper and is even worse on the board.A student recenly told me I hold the board marker “funny.” She is probably right. I hadn’t given much thought to how I hold the marker. In fact, don’t really give much thought to the board at all.

Some might even say that I revel in my craptastic boardwork.  What is wrong with me? How dare I think such a thing, let alone brazenly admit it and even brag about it here? What kind of nefarious reason do I have for taking pride in what is commonly seen as an extremely important part of the English teacher’s job? What kind of perverse pleasure do I extract from watching my students struggle and ultimately fail?

Actually, I don’t get any pleasure from watching such struggles because I don’t see them. I  don’t think my students really mind and I don’t see much in terms of boardwork related struggles. I think at first they are surprised at exactly how crappy my boardwork is but they get over it and they get down to business. I don’t think it handicaps my ability to teach or their ability to learn.

One amazing thing I have noticed this year is that many of my students take exquisite and extremely well-organized notes in their own personal notebooks. I am continually awed by how much they make their own sense of the cyclone of information splattered across the board.

Perhaps from my chaos comes their order? I can’t help but think that my atrocious board work might  be one of the first things to draw judgment and comments from an outside observer of my class. I wonder if they would have noticed the immaculate notes my students took in spite of the fecal material strewn about the board. Why would would their eyes be drawn to this? Because it is messy and it flies in the face of what they believe and what they have been trained on, I suppose.

If I am being honest and not too optimistic I would probably have to admit that sometimes I have to re-write a word or clarify that the strange letter I have written is actually supposed to be a ‘u’ even if it slightly resembles a ‘c’ and doesn’t have any semblance of a line or anything on the right of it. Now, obviously, requiring students to frequently ask for clarification about what the teacher has written on the board is not ideal, nor is it very efficient. Maybe I have made up for this inefficiency by being lightening fast on things like setting up pair and group work. Another, and probably more ridiculous theory is that my weak boardwork is endearing to students because it helps them see me as the real and idiosyncratic human that I am. Maybe if I were to unveil my perfectly planned and organized boardwork each class it would detract from the organic feeling I am currently enjoying in class. Or maybe I am just a lazy bastard who never learned or forgot how to write a lower-case ‘u’ properly. (I am a boss with a capital ‘U’ though.)

I am not necessarily encouraging teachers to try to be as messy and disorganized as possible on the board. I might encourage teachers to think a bit less about the board if it means they will think more about things like, I don’t know…, students and learning. This not to suggest that the boardwork professionals and believers don’t think about these things. I guess I am just wondering aloud if boardwork is really as important as some folks seem to think it is. I am also wondering where these beliefs come from and how tied to reality they are. I don’t think I am advocating a massive research study  on the relative impacts of orderly and disorderly boardwork.

Thanks very much for reading and sorry if I have disappointed you or shaken your world view.
As for being crappy at board work…Sorry not sorry.


Pretty, pretty messy
Photo by @michaelegriffin
Art by @michaelegriffin

Bonus Round

*(Stronger wording might be in order depending on the day, criteria or one’s choices in descriptive language.)


  1. Martin Sketchley

    Michael. I wonderful blog post and thank you ever so much for the mention. I do always try to get learners to take photos of my board work so that they keep a record of vocabulary and language that has emerged during the lesson … or I am so vain and love the attention my whiteboard gets. 😉

    I believe that the messier the board, the more language has emerged chaotically and is not a poor reflection on the teacher. As long as the board work is legible and learners can read your writing. However, I do have learners asking a few times “What is this teacher?” or “Is that a ‘v’ or an ‘r’ teacher?”. I think one underestimated aspect of the whiteboard is art. I love trying to draw and including illustrations on my whiteboard. It helps those students who need to see a picture to ‘get’ the concept of the phrase or lexis.

    Finally, I am very keen on displaying aims and objectives on the whiteboard and crossing them out when they have been achieved (at the end of the lesson) or saying to students “We didn’t manage to do the planned writing today, so I am setting up as homework”. Learners see what is expected or what is achievable and shows students that we, as teachers, plan their courses rather than run-in ad hoc and see what happens (unless you are doing a more explorative lesson such as Dogme ELT). I also try to add margins: one side for aims/objectives and the other side for vocabulary emerged, leaving the centre of the board to add pictures, flashcards, wordclouds, etc.

    Finally, I believe that there should be further research in the use of the whiteboard and a comparison between tidy and messy board work: does messy board work result in messy lessons? It would be a very interesting project.

    • mikecorea

      Hey Martin,

      Thanks for the comments…
      And also thanks for the inspiration for my most recent post (on aims) as well.

      One thing I didn’t mention in the post and sort of danced around is this idea of how “well formed” the objectives we share with students need to be. I mean, from my view simply saying, “We are going to play a game to practice present progressive” might be very helpful for students to know where they are and what is coming and what the teacher expects them to be focusing on. Yet, on the other hand I don’t think students need to hear or see the SWBAT type objectives. Just my view, maybe.

      I think the research you suggest would be pretty interesting. I brought it up in the post as something I was not interested in but the more I think I about it the more I think it would be cool.
      It’s funny, I disagreed with you statement that the whiteboard is often overlooked (as my initial take is that it is overemphasized) but now I am not sure.

      Finally, I am glad you brought up illustrations. This is the board related area I would like to improve. I think this is a good way for crap white board users like me to improve their craft quickly.

      Thanks once again for commenting and for the inspriration to blog these posts.

  2. DaveDodgson

    Boardwork is not one of my strong points either. I tend to use the board as a large notepad for jotting down vocab that comes up or writing homework assignments. The only ‘organised’ way in which I use the board is to write up quesitons or charts that I want the students to copy.

    I used to divide the board into three – scribbles and notes on the left, homeowrk/annoucements on the right and the middle for anything I wanted the students to write down but that has been scuppered this year by the repositioning of the projector to shine right into the central seciton of the board….

    Still, I’m not very fussed – my students like yours seem to cope somehow. 🙂

    • mikecorea

      Hiya Dave,

      Thanks for commenting.

      Your (former) system sounds a bit like what try to do. My sort of default system:
      I have the far left side as the business side with what is coming that class as well as reminders and the like. Lexical items on the right and whatever in the middle (sentences and comparisons and whatever else comes up).

      Your comments reminded me of something that has been in the back of my mind for a long time… It seems like very few people who design rooms are teachers! If we use the projector that often means the whiteboard use is severely limited or impossible. These systems don’t seem like they are intended to be used at the same time or even on the same day!

      anyway that is the end of my little rant!

  3. eflnotes

    in some rooms able to have board and projector so comes in handy to highlight stuff on board from projection of text;
    and also handy to as davedogson above mentioned for text you want students to copy; i.e. two uses related to doing less photocopies 🙂

    a great use is of course getting students to come up to use board.

    i used to be a board disbeliever but now not exactly a born again boardist but do definitely see their unique advantages;
    you theory about messy boards being helpful is possibly reflected in that study which showed that engaging lectures breed overconfidence in students; similarly perhaps great boardwork breeds poor notetaking skills in students 🙂


    • mikecorea

      Hi Mura,

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Your comments got me thinking of a few different things.

      One is that in a previous job I had students at the board all the time but this is a rare move for me lately
      (tend to use poster paper and smaller groups more these days)

      I guess I am not really a born again boardist (haha) but I am seeing the benefit. There are some unique advantages as you say. It is really quite handy to have an open space to create whatever needs creating at any given time.

      Hightlighting projected text is a good one.. and something i don’t do so much of for whatever reason. these days it is more just board or just projector for me. Another great part of blogging is to get a chance to think about this type of thing so I appreciate the comments!

  4. Mike Boyle

    Don’t worry, I’ve seen boards far messier than yours. Or even worse, boards with nothing on them.

    I think this all just depends on the teacher’s level of experience. The board can be a life raft for new teachers, e.g., writing the lesson goals on the board is a great way of ensuring that you plan a lesson which in fact has goals. And when a class is bombing (not that it’s ever happened to any of us!) it is great to have something on the board to refocus and reset the lesson.

    • mikecorea

      It is good to know I am not alone in my messy boardism. I have been receiving messages of support from all over the globe and it is really heartwarming.

      Thanks for adding your thoughts here…I like the life raft idea..teachers can fill the board up and can be sure they will not run out of material. I also like your point that writing objectives on the board is a way to ensure objectives are present (though i am not certain it guarantees they will be good!)

      Thanks for the reasonable and helpful comments, Mike!

  5. eltcriticalmoments

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for linking to my blog post about TIDY boardwork, if only in the interests of balance!

    I started out as a messy boarder in the days of chalk, sometimes by the end of the lesson I would be covered in white dust, looking more like a plasterer’s mate. I benefited from some good coaching, my main problem (I was told) was rushing to the board and trying to dash things down while still half-facing the students and keeping up the talk.

    Nowadays I tell students when I am going to write something up, and if necessary apologise in advance for turning my back. Actually, I now talk and listen with my back turned, and students get the idea that my time spent at the board is value to them. I think that what students (actively) copy down from the board into their notebooks has greater relevance than what they (passively) receive as handouts.

    Anyway, my tuppence-worth!

    Best regards, Tom.

  6. Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

    I would argue that what and how things go on the board / projection factors in to teachers thinking about students learning, actually. What they see can leave quite the lasting impression, but also be the reminder of what was talked about in class, should they look at their notes or photos of the board later on.

    Having said this, there’s something to be said for having crappy boardwork in that the questions students ask about it for clarification itself is a language practice. Yes, that’s it.

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  8. RebuffetBroadus

    Hi Mike,

    Looks like we’re all a bunch of closet bad boarders! My boardwork tends to reflect the direction the lesson goes and I mostly board things as they come up. If I see that Ss need a lot of vocab boarded, I tend to start the list on one side (generally the right, not sure why) of the board and then reserve that space for vocab and expressions. The only time it actually looks like it has been thought about is when I get Ss to the board to do a task like writing words for specific categories, marking word stress, etc. I suppose that I feel I need to give them a structure for the board because they’re less ‘experienced’ at board work. A bit like how a novice cook needs a recipe, whereas a chef works from experience, not a structured recipe.

    Like you, my Ss take meticulous notes with ruler-guided underlining, different color inks, and big titles in red marker. It’s impressive. And like you, they never seemed very disturbed by the lack of perfection in my boardwork (except the occasional “is that a ‘v’ or an ‘r’?) that being said, note the use of ‘seem’ there. I would have to ask them to be sure. Maybe there’s an idea of a professional development project there…

    I’m curious, how many of you board lesson aims systematically? I have to admit I nearly never do it, despite havong being taught to do so on the DELTA. I like the idea of boarding aims and then crossing them out at the end of the lesson. That’s a great way to round off the lesson, which I always do, generally in the form of a round-table discussion where I ask Ss to tell me one thing they take away from the lesson (even if it isn’t dictly related to language). Maybe I’ll add that technique to my teachng toolbox. Plus it’ll get me boarding those aims at the beginning, which I really should do more. Thanks for the idea!

  9. Laura Adele Soracco

    Funny to see those notes going sideways! While I don’t think how we use the board is a top concern in ELT, I do find myself paying a lot of attention to where I will write things and how I organize ideas. My handwriting isn’t the best and I often have to stop and think about spelling (terrible, I know, but I also feel much better admitting it now). However, I do take pride in keeping in an organized board. I always write objectives and activities on the right, I write the time we’ll finish a task I set in class, I add new vocab to one side of the board. I basically try to group things together and write in a straight line, hehe. Nothing new or crazy. Now, I find this useful for myself because in my ADD mind, it helps me remember what’s going on and what we’ve covered. It keeps me on track. Last week I took your idea on student feedback (please consider doing, please keep doing…) and guess what? a considerable amount of students commented that they liked seeing my notes about what we will do on the board. Maybe not everyone needs it, and I’m definitely not saying it’s a crucial element in teaching, but I personally do find an organized board to be super helpful, both as a student and a teacher.

    PS: Have you looked online for YouTube tutorials on how to properly hold a marker? hehehehe

    • mikecorea

      I have no idea why I didn’t respond when you wrote this but I can say that i think about your comments here a few times a month, when pick up the board marker in a (presumably) improper way. 🙂

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