The Starbucks Protocol: Designing a Nurturing Classroom

An article by Richard James Rogers

Illustrated by Sutthiya Lertyongphati

It was a sunny June morning when they paraded us in. Beams of sunlight hit the aged oak of the tabletops, and colours of all varieties jumped out of happy childrens doodles that were covering the walls. Eyes glared at me through glass jars, as rainbows danced on an LED circuit board. I was in heaven.

Too many of us shade our childhood in the greys and gloom of ‘bad experiences’. I know I had my fair share of those, like we all did. But I was lucky, very lucky. I was 11 years old and being shown around the Science labs of my new high school: St. Richard Gwyn High School, Flint. It was magical – that’s the only way to describe it. This was the best school in the history of all schools ever created.

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How many of your students feel enchanted when they enter class? That’s how they should feel – like this is magic. I call it the ‘Starbucks Protocol’, for practical reasons. Let’s examine why.


I am writing this blog post in my favorite place I like to go in my free time. As bland and as staple as some may think, I’m at Starbucks in Chongqing, China. This is the perfect place for me to work and be inspired whilst I work. But why?

Teachers and schools can learn a lot from Starbucks. Despite their beverages being priced slightly towards the higher end of the market, every single branch I’ve been to around the world attracts crowds in their multitudes. People love coming here. The demographics of the local population don’t seem to matter. People flock to their favourite place to relax and enjoy a caramel macchiato, a flat white with low sugar or their preferred speciality beverage. It’s personal to them. They connect with this space. It’s part of their identity. It’s woven into the fabric of their memories.

Starbucks Banan Wanda Plaza
A photo I took of my local Starbucks at Banan Wanda Plaza, Chongqing, China, at opening time on a Sunday morning. A beautiful and inviting workspace, from which teachers and schools can learn so much.

Starbucks offers an enchanting and practical environment for its guests. In my humble opinion, I believe this is due to the following parameters, which can all be applied to an educational setting:

  1. Staff always know your name, remember your preferences and are friendly and happy
  2. The physical space is clean, uncluttered, varied and attractive
  3. Resources are freely and abundantly available (tissue, sugar, milk, stirrers and paper cups in the case of Starbucks)
  4. The opportunity to further your association with the brand is available through merchandise and products such as cups, coffees to take home and even water bottles and tins of tea
  5. The environment is conducive to working as well as being a place to relax. Sockets to plug into are numerous, and wifi and workspace is usually abundant and suitable
  6. Space is bright and well-lit
  7. Promotions and special events happen regularly, allowing guests to gain more for their money – both in terms of products and experiences.
  8. Products are tailor-made to the guests’ preference. If they want no sugar, low sugar, extra whipped cream, a medium-size or even a mixed-blend, it’s no problem
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I believe the secret to amazing educational experiences that magically and profoundly enchant and embrace wonder in our students has been hidden under our noses for a number of decades. I suggest that the Starbucks Protocol is this secret.

1. Staff always know your name, remember your preferences, are friendly and happy 

It’s amazing and staggering the number of teachers who don’t fully know their students. When teachers do not show a genuine interest in the whole life of their students, they are not able to fully engage with them and build trust, which allows for a comfortable learning experience.

At Starbucks, staff are specially trained to remember their customers’ names, and to engage in conversation with them. Staff become your friends, and they always remember your beverage preferences if you’re a regular customer. I believe this to be a major factor in the genius and global success of Starbucks.

alphabetic mat

The first chapter in my debut book deals with the issue of student rapport – the professional relationship that is the foundational groundwork of all good teaching. Nothing else works in education without good teacher-student rapport, just like a cup of coffee at Starbucks would be most unpleasant if the baristas were grumpy and aggressive.  I write a guest blog about building student rapport at The Cornerstone for Teachers site here. An important extract is given below:

#1 Take a genuine interest in the ‘whole life’ of your students

Charlene was an experienced and well-liked teacher of secondary science. She got on very well with her students, and parents would often mention that they appreciated her ‘special attention’ to their children. She was liked by her colleagues, and she enjoyed her work. One day, her physics student came to school with a broken arm in a plaster cast. John, a keen gymnast, mentioned that he had fallen very hard in a training session two days ago. Charlene immediately knew that this was golden information for her lesson planning.

In John’s next physics lesson, Charlene was teaching the class about forces and motion. As John entered the class, she presented him with a starter activity revolving around the forces that act upon a gymnast when taking off and landing on a springboard. She also asked John how he was doing (and she was sincere in asking). He said he was healing well, and Ms. Charlene mentioned that, “We can use your experience to help the class today, would that be okay?” John said sure.

After completing and peer assessing the starter worksheet, Ms. Charlene asked John to tell the class what had happened to his arm. He gladly told his story, and Ms. Charlene asked for everyone to clap after he had finished. Using humor and good teaching practice, she said, “So using John’s story to help you, what do you think one of today’s objectives could be?”

One student mentioned a funny comment about how you should always land on your feet and not on your arm like John did, which Ms. Charlene responded to with a smile and a giggle. After this, and with some prompting from their teacher, some students spoke about the importance of gravity in determining the force upon impact, and the speed of free fall. At the end of a very interesting and varied lesson, Charlene allowed her students the opportunity to sign John’s plaster cast, if they hadn’t done so already.

Let’s examine what Charlene did that made this lesson (and her rapport/relationship with students) so special:

  • used the hobby of her student to generate a lesson activity (the starter worksheet)
  • showed a sincere care and concern for her student
  • was genuinely interested in the whole life of her student (as she was with all of her students)
  • used student ‘expertise’ to enhance the lesson content (she asks John to talk to the class about what had happened)
  • was tasteful in her humor, and made sure that John is happy to share his story before she asks him to do so.
  • rewarded the class for their good work by allowing them a few minutes at the end to sign John’s plaster cast; not only did this subtly reveal her caring and ‘human’ nature, but it also bonded the class together as a whole

So follow the Starbucks Protocol and take a genuine interest in your students – their learning preferences, their hobbies, their ambitions and their abilities. You will immediately see an enormous transformation in your professional relationships with them.

2. The physical space is clean, uncluttered, varied and attractive 

Various studies have shown that colorful. attractive and uncluttered learning spaces have an enormous impact on the willingness of children and young adults to engage in the learning process.

What does your classroom look like? Is it a place where kids want to be? How often do you change your displays? Does fresh content go up on your display boards regularly?

box seats

Consider the following upgrades you could make to your classroom:

  1. Put good student work on display for all to see. This motivates the students who did the work, as well as providing a benchmark for others by association. You can often use this work as exemplar material when setting similar projects in other topics too.
  2. Keep all resources (e.g. scissors, pens, coloring pencils) in one part of the room so that they are easily accessible and tidy
  3. Get your students to tidy up their workspace at the end of each lesson, or before each break time. Clutter can be created throughout the day through loose pieces of paper, litter, pencil sharpenings and poorly stored textbooks. This can be a particular problem in the high school.

Starbucks branches are always clean, tidy and fresh. That’s because staff regularly go around to clean up and tidy, and because litter disposal is easy for customers too. Displays are changed regularly (particularly displays of products and promotional material), and many Starbucks branches will even be specially decorated on special events like Christmas and Halloween. Resources are freely and abundantly available (tissue, sugar, milk, stirrers and paper cups in the case of Starbucks).

3. Resources are freely and abundantly available (tissue, sugar, milk, stirrers and paper cups in the case of Starbucks)

Do you want to know the best way to create disruption and bad behavior in a lesson? It’s easy: set your kids a task, and then make it difficult for them to get the basic resources they need to complete the task. Many teachers will blame the poor behaviour on the kids in this scenario, when it was actually lack of planning on the teacher’s part that created it. 

One of my favourite stories I tell is from when I was an NQT in the UK way back in 2008. I was asked to cover a lesson for an absent teacher, and the class I was covering was notorious for bad behaviour.

I booked the computer lab, and the kids worked brilliantly. No problems at all, but one thing concerned me. The students were working on their GCSE Science coursework. Over the previous few weeks, they had completed some written work on paper, which was rather messily kept in a tray in an unorganised way by the previous teacher. I later learned that students would start being disruptive when they were searching for scraps of their work from this tray, and complaining that pieces of paper were missing. No wonder they were playing up – it was difficult for them to find the work they’d been working on.

Later that day I organized their coursework into a folder, with each student’s name on a plastic wallet. The result – teacher’s were telling me in the ensuing weeks that the kids had calmed down a lot because of my simple act of organizing their work so that they could find it easily.

It seems so obvious, doesn’t it? How often do you get frustrated when you can’t find your keys, wallet or phone? I know it drives me mad at times. Think about this when organizing your learning space and resources for your students. Are essential items, such as scissors, paper, pens and pencils organised and ready in the classroom for kids to use?

4. The opportunity to further your association with the brand is available through merchandise and products such as cups, coffees to take home and even water bottles and tins of tea

I love this about Starbucks. They offer so many great products that are really collectible and special. Take this special Chongqing mug, for example:

Chongqing Mug.jpg

So how do we use the Starbucks Protocol to create collectible and special experiences for our students that allow them to further their association with the subject we are teaching? Normally this is achieved through exploration.

Is your classroom set up well for exploration? Can groups of students easily work together on a project, such as model building or poster making? Does the opportunity exist for students to take home their ‘merchandise’ (the things they’ve created in class)?

Don’t be afraid of rearranging your desks and tables to make them more conducive to special activities. Even in a Science lab, I have rearranged the space to allow for drama, movie making, experiments and even relay games and competitions. All of these experiences enrich student learning and allow them to take home a great association with the subject. Consider ways in which your students can take home physical items too, such as models they’ve built, movies they’ve made or even project folders they’ve created. They’ll look back these items regularly and feel more connected with the experience, and the subject – another key to the genius of Starbucks.

5. The environment is conducive to working as well as being a place to relax. Sockets to plug into are numerous, and wifi and workspace is usually abundant and suitable.

Are your students hunched up together with no room to move or do they have plenty of space? Do you book technology in advance, such as tablets and laptops, so that students can effectively engage in the learning process? Are your desks clean and tidy, or covered in graffiti?

Starbucks have mastered the art of creating effective workspace. It’s easy for me to get out my laptop and plug-in, as well as listen to music and charge my phone at the same time. In fact, very few other coffee shop chains can offer such amazing facilities, which is why they are not so popular.

6. Space is bright and well-lit

Have you ever noticed how a rainy day affects your students? You’ll often find they are less engaged on a cloudy afternoon when the pitter-patter of raindrops fall. Poor lighting can even make students lethargic, resulting in lack of focus.

Art class

Every Starbucks branch I’ve been to around the world is well-lit. Light creates happiness, and many branches have very large windows because natural light is the best at creating alertness and happiness in the moment.

Happy students learn better than unhappy ones, and the simple process of letting the sunlight come into your classroom (as long as it’s not too bright) can have an amazing, transformative effect on the mood of your students.

Put all of your classroom lights on on gloomy days, and let the sunlight in where possible. Keep the learning space bright and fresh, and watch your students become more focussed.

7. Promotions and special events happen regularly, allowing guests to gain more for their money – both in terms of products and experiences.

Are you just following the predecessors of your curriculum and going through the motions, or are you being innovative with your space?

Only two weeks ago I was teaching a group of 12-year-olds olds about weathering and erosion. I could have used my classroom space in a traditional way – by showing a PowerPoint or letting the kids do some web research when sat down at laptops. However, I decided to move all of the tables and chairs into the middle of the room, and my students became ‘living rocks’ and moved around the room in different stages, effectively modeling the process with their bodies.

High five

This kind of variety can really serve to lighten things up mentally for the kids. Starbucks understands the power of variety, which is why they often host coffee tasting parties, change their products and services to match different seasons and key events, and even change their furniture around from time to time to create freshness. It works well, as people know that they are always getting a unique experience whenever they go along.

8. Products are tailor-made to the guests’ preference. If they want no sugar, low sugar, extra whipped cream, a medium-size or even a mixed-blend, it’s no problem

How often do you use your class environment to tailor-make the learning resources to meet the needs of your students?

In pedagogy, we call this ‘differentiation’. There are many ways in which we can differentiate our teaching (see my earlier blog post here), but one way in which we can manipulate the classroom environment to do this is through ‘styles tables’ and ‘what’s in the box’ activities. I did a YouTube video about this, which is given below. Extracts from that differentiation blog post that pertain to manipulating the physical environment of the classroom are given below the video.

Learning Style Tables:This is such a great activity for engaging a wide variety of learners. The idea is that you produce the same information or lesson instructions via pictures, audio, in writing or in clues that need to be solved or through some some other style, such as tablet PCs linked to online simulations. Students can go to the table that best suits their learning style or you can direct themto one. This takes some preparation but its well worth it.

What’s in the Box? Have a ‘help box’ at the front of the class or place one on each table. Put tips, pictures, word glossaries or advice inside. Students use the box as and when they feel they need more help.



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High School Science and Mathematics Teacher, Author and Blogger. Graduated from Bangor University with a BSc (Hons) degree in Molecular Biology and a PGCE in Secondary Science Education. Richard also holds the coveted Certificate in Mathematics from the Open University (UK). Richard is the award-winning author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management: 45 Secrets That All High School Teachers Need to Know

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