Spring clean strategies that could make school a little less rubbishy.
A cross-curricular lesson that all students should learn is that picking up somebody else’s discarded crisp packet or water bottle will not give them cooties. Better yet (especially if this fear of physical garbage is genuine and not, as is suspected, fabricated conceptual garbage), let’s not drop things in the first place.
Littering seems to be a peculiarly British disease. Colleagues who’ve taught in Dubai and Shanghai speak in reverential tones about pristine classroom environments. Those who’ve travelled to Europe, North America or Australasia don’t note quite such a discrepancy but still admit that foreign shores tend to be tidier. In Japan, pupils engage in Gakko Soji (‘school cleansing’), which involves mopping, dusting and even scrubbing the toilets. Though it’s not a government mandate, this national trend is followed almost without exception, on the basis that it builds character and helps create rounded model citizens. In British and other western cultures, this would be tantamount to child abuse. Pupils here seem to work on an inverse model in which to damage their school environment is some kind of perverse achievement.
Shiny new-builds that surfaced before the Building Schools for the Future programme was scrapped enjoyed a honeymoon period in which their caretakers numbered in the hundreds as pupils took pride in having something new. A decade on, they’re slowly going the way of their 1950s equivalents in which the broken windows mindset – whereby we feel less inhibition about breaking what’s already broken – has long since taken hold. Grand Victorian institutions, meanwhile, might have an attractive facade but on closer inspection, you’re bound to locate Monster cans lurking behind radiators to go with well-hidden damp patches.
Whatever type of school you work in, no matter how brilliant your cleaners are, it’s odds-on that the school grounds could look smarter. So here are some tips for freshening things up:
Start small – the more people pulling in the same direction, the better, so, by all means, lobby school leaders to bring about change. But an achievable starting point for every teacher is to look after their own classroom. It’s not written into any job description that teachers should spend ten minutes of their day picking up after pupils, yet we do it anyway. It’s their space as well as yours so begin insisting that each class leaves the room as they found it. Make this more manageable by organising the room so that a group of pupils have responsibility for a particular space. This is harder if you share a space with another teacher but getting them involved too should have dual benefits.
Litter duty – similarly, this is best organised on a whole-school level but it can be done in year groups or even single forms. Crucially, don’t use it as a punishment. Pupils need to be given the message that all are expected to keep the school tidy, it is not the preserve of some underclass. That means teachers set an example by getting their own hands dirty too. Litter picker sticks can be more hassle than they’re worth but might be a necessity due to health and safety rules. Prevention is better than cure so if pupils know that it will eventually fall on them to pick it up, hopefully, they’ll stop dropping it.
Give and take – strike a deal whereby you turn a blind eye to uniform infringements in exchange for the school being kept neat and tidy, if not the shirt and tie. The simplistic view is that those who do the right things should be rewarded and those who do the wrong things should be punished; as we all know, this puts some into a cycle of disillusionment that they struggle to break free from. Pick your students and pick your battles.
Promote a recycling scheme that harnesses the eco-warrior credentials of the younger generation. Schools should be doing this already but some only provide lip-service to recycling. If you have the means to do so, provide separate bags for recyclable materials – paper and plastic being the big two – and recycle it yourself. Keep a rough tally of how much has been salvaged (don’t add to your data workload, a quick snapshot of a full bag will suffice) and use this to make children feel good about contributing. And those who step up could be tasked with developing an eco-plan to educate their peers.
Prettify the space – on the same principle as the broken windows theory, cover dents and holes with display material (Twinkl has a wide range of eye-catching educational posters). On a larger scale, re-dress unloved spaces with some cheap wallpaper, a lick of paint or even a subject-specific mural such as a bookcase on the English block. The best examples give pupils ownership so harness their creative talent and take ideas from them on what would work well. Involving parents could give access to additional skill sets and also unify the message between school and home, where bedrooms might not be the tidiest but presumably there aren’t half-eaten sandwiches festering under the furniture.
Changing a mindset does not happen overnight so take heart from incremental improvements. And next time a littering student pipes up that “the cleaners wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for us,” calmly explain what Gakko Soji is, point out that Japan has a lower unemployment rate than the UK and advise that if they don’t want to be scouring dirty toilet pans then they’d best clean up their act to avoid educators taking extreme measures.
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