Education Opinion

It Isn’t Easy Being Green

By Susan Graham — June 10, 2011 3 min read
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Is your school system green?

Ours is.

We sort our trash: blue is recyclables, gray is garbage. We print on both sides of the paper. We have separate newsprint and cardboard dumpsters.

In our old building, every classroom had an adjustable thermostat. In our new building, while every room has a thermostat, temperature can only be adjusted from a locked maintenance closet. So why then, if the temperature is set the same fo all rooms is Classroom A an icebox and Classroom B a sweatbox? It’s a mystery! But at 4:00 things even out because our HVAC system for classrooms cuts off automatically, leaving only the office, gym, and auditorium areas to be controlled on demand. I understand the importance of conserving, but sometimes it’s hard to teach in a room that’s way too cold or way too hot. And it seems to me that if teachers are expected to take responsibility for the welfare and learning of children, they are trusted with control of the thermostat.

A few years ago we had a consulting firm come in to do an energy conservation assessment. They recommended that we go to lighting system that saved energy and money with motion activated light switches and estimated that we would recoup the investment in energy costs in about three years. Every switch in our building is now wired to motion sensor. If the sensor doesn’t recognize movement during a 10 minute time period it turns off the lights automatically. Consequently, when I sit at my desk grading papers during my planning period, the room goes dark. I have to get up, walk to the middle of the room and wave my arms. The light comes on and I go back to work. It’s probably good for me to get up and move, but it is distracting. When I go into the large L shaped storage area of my department, I have 10 minutes before the lights go out and I’m groping around in pitch black darkness. And then there is the bathroom---let’s just say that the alignment of that sensor is strategic and accurate and it’s a little disconcerting even if the observing eye is a blind eye. Again, I get it. A school where every light blazes through the night may be wasting energy. But the metaphor of a classroom plunged into darkness in order to lower energy cost could be turned into a rather dramatic symbol of how school policy can become distorted.

I know it’s important to have green schools, but it occurs to me that while we are busy being intentional about conserving natural resources, we are sometimes rather cavalier about human resources. The cost of recruiting a teacher runs into the thousands, but sometimes it seems school districts put more thought into maintaining school plants that they do in retaining teachers. It’s true that it may be easier to be systematic about conserving electricity, but it might actually be more productive and even cost effective to invest more in personnel conservation.

Wasting natural resources is short sighted. Wasting human resources is ineffective and inefficient. But what concerns me even more about our current fixation with using industrial and commercial process to shape school policy and management. A recent National Council on Education and the Economy report states

Part of the price paid by the American education system for being built on the mass production model is that we tolerate an exceptionally high rate of wastage. Only in our case, what is being discarded is young people."


I’m not as green as I should be. I sometimes thrw soda cans and newspapers in the trash. I let the water run while I wash my hands. And I probably didn’t remember to turn off the lights when I left my room to go to a meeting during my planning time. I’m not proud of that and I know I need to do better. But you know what? In 28 years I don’t think I’ve ever looked at a child in my classroom and said “Oh well, this one is really not worth trying to save.”

Investing in kids one at time isn’t as easy as remembering to turn off the lights and it’s harder to estimate the return on investment. But maybe it matters more.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.