In public education today, we make a grand show of our efforts to get the best resources for our students. School districts spend fortunes on textbooks and professional development. States pay exorbitant fees to administer and score standardized tests. Media figures and politicians pontificate about the need to reform our schools, and governments churn out policy that confounds the most meaningful efforts of educators while ignoring the needs of students.
In addition, according to the magazine School Planning and Management, the American public education establishment spends in excess of $14 billion each year on yet another critical need: our school buildings. Then, after such an outlay, we use these structures for only a fraction of their true utility. We force students into them each morning, through them each day, and out of them each afternoon. We tend to use them as little more than a barrier between our daily motions and the elements. We too often fail to see them as pedagogical treasures that hold powerful lessons–lessons that could transform the very spirit of education.
First, we need to note that any school building is a physical structure that architects have designed, that contractors have constructed, and that technicians and custodians maintain. A building consumes power. It sends heat, water, electricity, and data to its every corner. It physically accommodates students, professionals, and paraprofessionals all day long, providing space to work, eat, and exercise. Schools receive food and supplies, and they generate waste that personnel must dispose of.
Yet, for all of this, we must wonder how many students in any given school have ever seen its boiler room, or whether any have ever heard during a math lesson how many BTU’s the boilers produce and how much fuel they consume. We have to ponder the science lessons never taught regarding loads borne by walls holding up the gymnasium roof. We are left to lament what art teachers might never discuss with their students regarding the influences discernible in a building’s architecture and design.
Beyond this, few students learn in their social studies classes about when their building was constructed or how the money was raised to make it possible. For the most part, they know little about their school board, when the members meet, and what they do. They know almost nothing about the administration apart from the names and faces of their principals and vice-principals. All of this, then, indicates to us a powerful opportunity to teach children how a public institution functions and serves.
Moreover, school buildings offer active roles for students to connect even more closely with their learning community through service rotations. Light custodial work, making copies in the office, the design and upkeep of flowerbeds and landscaping, preparing the cafeteria for lunch and tidying up after, maintenance of IT equipment–all of these are activities that demonstrate to young people that they can contribute to something bigger than themselves. School personnel can scale these activities down for very young children or scale them up for older and more capable students.
Public schools in other countries, notably Japan, engage students in this very manner. People in those cultures believe that students who clean up their schools are less likely to litter or vandalize. Students who consistently serve their schools will have a greater tendency to subscribe to the ideals the schools promote. And when our children understand service as a fundamental component of their education, they can more easily apply it to their civic lives as adults.
This instruction and these experiences would add nothing to our schools’ budgets. And yet, their effect would add incalculable value on many levels. By all means, we should procure all materials and opportunities that will benefit our students–irrespective of cost. But we must also take care not to overlook the treasures already in our midst.