At the start of each year I ask my first-year English class to prepare presentations about people who inspire them. It’s a nice way to start the term, and helps me to get to know the students’ personalities. This year, a new figure took her place among the usual athletes and the popstars: that softly-spoken teenager from Sweden, Greta Thunberg.
Thunberg’s impression on the consciousness of today’s youth cannot be overstated. Not since Malala have teenagers followed one of their own quite like this.
I work at a small school. Instead of advocating a mass pupil strike, we decided to create greater impact. By remaining in school and dedicating the day to learning about climate change. Instead of abandoning lessons, teachers designed them so we could work together on this shared crisis.
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Fresh-faced pupils arrived in the September sunshine, uniforms adorned with flashes of green – ribbons in their hair, garish socks, neon bracelets. The green symbolised hope, and pupils’ £1 contribution is being donated to environmental charities.
Staff embraced the theme, with lessons dedicated to climate change: the plight of the polar bears and saving the bees in Primary 1 (when most pupils are aged 5), analysing statistics in maths, the greenhouse effect in geography, renewable energy in physics. In primary classes, light bulbs were off for the day, recycled card was exclusively used for displays, and "recycling managers" were appointed from among the students.
Of course, climate change is for life, not just for a sunny Friday. Our "eco-group" and student eco-captain are planting the seeds of brilliant initiatives which will bear fruit all year. We are embarking on a litter-picking and plant-potting campaign around the grounds. There is talk of a butterfly garden being established to increase pollination. Palm oil is to be eliminated entirely, and plastic cutlery is being replaced at lunchtimes by stainless steel.
Teachers increasingly rely on the internet, and there’s no reason our digital footprint can’t be eco-conscious. One colleague brought to my attention a brilliant alternative to Google, called Ecosia. This search engine plants trees using over 80 per cent of its profits, made possible through user searches – a simple, sensational switch that everyone can make, with a massive impact.
When I was studying for my PGDE to become a teacher, I remember a lesson discussing the core skills of literacy, numeracy and wellbeing. My tutor argued that wellbeing was the "golden thread" running throughout the Curriculum for Excellence. Without it, everything falls apart. We need to think of climate-change education in a similar way, as part of our school’s ethos and focus rather than a gimmick, as something that needs to be planned, assessed and even timetabled. Something that cushions and carries every other educational principle – a golden bag for life, if you like.
It’s no bother to schedule these climate-themed lessons for a one-off day; much trickier to implement sustained change through our teaching and facilities. But, thanks to Greta Thunberg, the message is global. Maybe, instead of pupils going out on strike, schools should lead the way, by striking back at climate change.
Alan Gillespie is principal teacher of English at Fernhill School in Glasgow