Written by Tom Griffith - High School Teacher
When you’ve been teaching for a while, you get used to your working environment being a bit shabby, uncared for, uncomfortable and possibly even unsafe. It may be a broken latch on the classroom window, a door which doesn’t quite open without a hearty kick or a mass of power cords leading into an overloaded electricity outlet. I’m sure we can all conjure up an image of the dodgy work space or classroom we, and our students, have had to endure.
Schools often do their best with their limited budgets. They employ cleaners and janitors to maintain the scant resources they do have, and every now and again, a classroom gets a new carpet, or some new chairs are delivered to a faculty, or the 1980s arts desks are replaced with something a bit more 21st century.
One environmental problem which bedevils our classrooms, and requires more than a bit of spit and polish for improvement, is the heating, or cooling, or more often, the lack of either. And, more so than a threadbare carpet, the climate of your room directly impacts the quality of teaching and learning that occurs there.
We live in a part of Australia where the climate dictates activity and can veer from frostily cold to energy-sapping hot.
On very hot days in Canberra, it is normal for classrooms to be so hot that students and teachers are unable to concentrate. On my first day of permanent teaching in the ACT, I was so alarmed by the heat levels in my classroom that I promptly went to Target and bought two pedestal fans, with my own money. Just so that my kids could learn on their first day of school.
It’s not just extreme heat. I have taught in a classroom where the heaters didn’t function, and the temperature dropped below 10 degrees. Shivering students don’t learn very well, so we had to move to a teaching space reserved for special needs students, as no other classrooms were available.
Solutions from the Directorate and from the ACT Government in general have fallen somewhere between the completely obvious to the faintly ridiculous. Sensible suggestions include reminding kids to fill up their drink bottles and not running classes in direct sunlight.
Less helpful ideas include: rotating classes through cooler areas of the school (if it’s that hot, why should any class not be in a cooler part of the school? And does this mean running multiple classes in a gym or hall, or even in corridors, as one primary school did last year?); installing ceiling fans in classrooms, or awnings over external windows (very useful advice when delivered on the extremely hot day itself); monitoring children for signs of heat-related stress (suggesting that we teachers are also experts on what such signs may be); advising parents to give their kids more fresh fruit and veggies; and avoiding student crowding in schools on hot days (while at the same time rescheduling all outdoor classes indoors).
Whatever advice is offered, the ED and the ACT Government undercut their own suggestions with statements such as this: “Physiological differences in children compared to adults puts children at a greater risk of suffering from heat-related illness. Children have immature sweating mechanisms, fewer and smaller sweat glands, and a greater surface area-to volume ratio that results in greater heat gain on a hot day.”
By stressing that our students are more prone to being adversely affected by the heat, our employer’s own Chief Health Officer makes an important point: our classrooms need to be refuges from extreme heat and cold, for the wellbeing of our students. If we are having to shuffle classes around the school, or put pedestal fans into rooms, or encourage students to eat more fruit and veg, then our education system is using a band-aid solution to fix the fact that our classes are not adequately climate controlled.
Our union has made the eminently reasonable request for teaching spaces to sit between 17 and 30 degrees, temperature limits that I’m sure few non-school based public servants would be happy to endure.
It is a sad fact that some of the people writing memos about how to care for heat-stressed students are doing so from air-conditioned offices where overcrowding is not an issue.
In a city and country where temperatures are on the rise, overheated classrooms are only going to become more of a problem. It is essential that our employer meets their obligation to ensure our teaching spaces are thermally comfortable. Putting the burden back onto teachers and resource-scarce schools is neither realistic nor helpful.
Politicians also play a role. Governments keep reminding public educators that we’re competing for enrolments with private schools. At the same time, some private schools with closely clipped lawns are demanding government money above the Gonski allocation. All while our kids are sweating and freezing.
We need all of the parties to commit to delivering a school infrastructure funding boost of at least $10 million per year.
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