Rethinking the Physical, Part 3: Scent

After years of transforming my pedagogy, strengthening my relationships with students, and retuning content, this year I’m placing emphasis on the furniture, walls, lighting, and the many other physical elements that make up my classroom. Each post in the series details a different element and how I’m rethinking it. This is the third post in the series.

When you walk into a room, what do you notice? The furniture? The lighting? The sounds? What’s on the walls? My answer to all of those questions is yes. I’m not aware of all of those things at the same time nor am I always conscious of how I react to them, but I’m affected by them nonetheless. Rooms are complex.

What I find fascinating is how when we feel good in a room, the visual elements of it always get the most credit. The lights, the seating, the walls — these are the stars. They’re soft and shiny. They glimmer. They help us smile. They relax our bodies. They evoke positive memories and help us remember our values. We can feel them and see them. They can physically comfort us.

The scent of a room, on the other hand, plays a less obvious role when it comes to our mood. The smell of fresh spearmint is far more subtle than a comfortable chair or framed photo. The tang of lemon zest doesn’t command attention like dimmed lighting. But these types of scents soothe us and transform spaces in ways that chairs and lighting can’t. Hotels know this. That’s many of them add alluring scents to their lobbies. You can’t touch or feel the aroma of a space, but it still affects our vibe. It works in concert with our other senses to make us feel good. The impact of scent may be softer, but it’s no less important to how we experience a space.

The underrated nature of scent is even more pronounced in schools. There, being scent-neutral is the goal. A school’s sense of smell only peaks when something goes terribly wrong — like a stink bomb going off in the hallway, for example. Other than that, scent is never seriously considered. From a school’s perspective, tending to how a classroom smells is unnecessary for effective teaching and learning. (For the record, I’ve had a few stink bombs go off outside my classroom. No fun.)

For the world of academia, whose chief concern is the intellect, the air must be clean, simple, and vacant of all fragrances. This makes sense for a lot of reasons, including how we minimize allergens for students and staff. But on a deeper, more theoretical level, does this type of concern mean that we must surrender ourselves to ignoring our sense of smell? Does it mean that we mustn’t add nuance and character to our classrooms through delightful scents? Does it mean that we can’t leverage the subtle influence of scent to impact student engagement in positive ways?

Although as educators we aim to engage a students’ intellect, how we get there is through their senses, through their emotions. This is especially true for teens, who are all emotion, all the time. Their sense of smell is a significant part of their emotional makeup.

This is why, back in September, when I started generating a list of things that I wanted my “reimagined” classroom to attend to this year, I couldn’t allow myself to fixate only on the furniture and walls and lighting. Scent matters too. I have played around with air fresheners in years past, but not until now have I truly questioned the institutional assumption that my classroom need be aromatically neutral. This change has been under my nose my entire career. I’m just now acting on it.

When it came to me actually revamping the scent signature of my room, it was a piece of cake. In fact, of all the revisions I’ve made this year, changing my room’s scent has been by far the easiest. I didn’t have to borrow a ladder from the custodian or rearrange the furniture. There was no fussing with my laminator or asking a colleague for help. Maintenance has also been a breeze. All I had to do was to buy a plug-in!

The plug-in that makes all my scents come true

From eucalyptus and teakwood to mandarin and balsam, a variety of scents have found a home inside my classroom, each one providing its own distinct aura. The scents become less noticeable later in the day, but they still have the desired effect of un-neutralizing the space. I’ve generally stayed away from fruity scents out of personal preference, but that may change. Once the current refill runs out, the students will vote on our next scent.

Despite the simplicity of this change, I appreciate its reach. The fragrance from the plug-in welcomes us the moment we walk in and stays with us no matter where we are in the room. When I think about it, this is perhaps another reason why schools avoid the intentional adoption of scents: once it’s introduced to a room, you can’t escape it.

But I’ve accepted this trade-off. A few students have crinkled their noses at a scent or two. Most of my students, however, appreciate the attention my revised classroom has given to their noses. Considering what they are used to, the fragrances have been a refreshing and inviting change.

I’m no expert on scent dynamics. I only know that when a room smells good, it improves my focus and attitude. It enhances how I interact with the people, things, and ideas around me. It relaxes me. It keeps me interested and present. My hope is that my students feel similar now while learning mathematics in my room.


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