Over the last year as the pandemic has grown in consequence, I’ve been listening to the open schools, keep schools closed debate. Some of it, on both sides, seemed like a proxy war about things like teacher voice, local control, and funding, but some of the debates remained focused on the task at hand which was to figure out the three dimensional chess of maintaining as much optimal learning as possible while caring for the physical and mental health needs of students. In many places, this brought creative solutions to the table that balanced the needs of all. In other places, the final decisions brought frustration on all sides.
One of the things missing from the conversations and debate though seemed to be the past, present, and future health effects that school design has had and will have on the professionals (teachers, aides, leaders, specialists) that call schools their place of work. Teacher salaries and benefits can be 70-80 percent of a school budget, but the design of the school can strip, hinder, and prevent the community from getting the best from these professionals on a daily basis. This conversation, even before the pandemic, had a primary focus on student learning including ways to maximize engagement and joy in the classroom. While this is essential, what our spaces are doing to the adults must be in full consideration as well.
To understand the negative impacts of many school buildings on the teaching force, consider this daily experience for so many teachers. They begin the day by parking their car and beginning the walk toward the building. They see buzzers and bars, and they have to ask to be let into their place of work. They stop by the adult bathroom because the student bathroom feels less clean and inviting even though the adult bathroom is also stark and aged. They head to their mailbox, a space stuffed with school supplies, a random collection of papers, and so small that everyone is queued up waiting their turn for access. When they make it to their room for morning classes, the hum begins from the overhead lights. Soon they won’t hear it anymore, but it takes its daily toll on focus and concentration. Many teachers can’t adjust the HVAC, open windows or pull additional natural light into their spaces either, so any of these micro-regulations that help optimize a work space are off the table as well. Decades old plastic furniture is also leaching volatile organic compounds into the work spaces of teachers as well.
This leaves me wondering why the already high turnover isn’t higher and why the funds needed for substitute teachers isn’t breaking the budget. It also has me wondering about how much learning loss occurs because our teachers aren’t allowed to be at their best because of their places of work. Though the concerns about COVID-19 have sparked fresh conversations about the conditions of schools, it is important to design solutions that not only meet our urgent needs, but that can be resilient solutions that care for teachers and students and also provide us the best chance for excellence in modern learning.
Begin with these five steps:
Name the Issue
Teachers, leaders, community members, and students need to speak up about the impact that school spaces are having on learning. They are a drag on productivity and possibility. Showcase the fact that bathrooms, staff rooms, and hallways are suboptimal and drain energy from the building. Share that teachers are taking work home to escape the energy vampire that is the school building. Tell the stories about eye strain due to poor lighting and breathing issues related to air quality.
Deep Clean the Space
After unpacking the situation at the individual school level, it is time to act. Deep cleaning has become a renewed part of the plan in schools to remove virus particles, but this deep cleaning needs to continue to limit dust, dirt, and grime that come from the use of a school. It is essential to continue to have attention to detail, so that teachers and students enter a space that projects its excellence through its cleanliness. Cleaning can allow teachers the energy to be more creative and innovative in their practices. Bright, energizing spaces bring out the best in all of us.
The visual noise and clutter of most schools comes from a layering of years and years of decisions around painting and color. This reality is a distraction to teaching and learning. Build a coherent color palette, and work aggressively as a leader, design team or community group to get this color coherence throughout the building. Intentional decision making in this area can transform a school and give teachers additional energy.
Schools collect stuff, and the building slowly gets smaller and smaller, and this physical shrinking of the building is often a catalyst for the thinking to shrink as well. Removing and recycling aged items should be an ongoing and planned event. This allows teachers the space that they need including space to collaborate, space to design lessons, space to communicate and meet, space to relax, and space to eat. In too many buildings, all of these areas are condensed into one small room, happen in the classroom, or take place in a bunch of ad hoc spaces. We have to give more space back to teachers to do their work, and this begins with purging the old and freeing up space.
Human beings seek fresh air, friendly light, and furnishings that meet the needs of our varied work demands. We also know that bringing natural elements inside and taking learning outside are key ways to revive the teaching and learning experience. When replacing items and furnishings for classrooms, think about the impact that plastics have and what the lifespan impacts of purchases may have on the teachers and their work.
Teachers have been asked to do so much during this challenging school year. It is time to start leaning into a larger conversation about how, through the design of our spaces, we can better honor and support those in charge of growing our next leaders and solution makers. The urgent conversation for building safety and optimization can’t end with a vaccination. There is no way to inoculate our students from school design that limits learning and there is no way to keep our current infrastructure without its needed changes from damaging the productivity and performance of teachers everywhere.
About Dr. Robert Dillon
Dr. Robert Dillon has served as a thought leader in education over the last twenty-five years as a teacher, principal, and director of innovation. Dr. Dillon has a passion to change the educational landscape by building excellent engaging schools for all students. Dr. Dillon has had the opportunity to speak and lead learning throughout the world as well as share his thoughts and ideas in a variety of publications. He is the author of six books on intentional design in learning. The latest book, The Space: A Guide for Leaders will be released in February and available wherever you get your books.