Winning at sustainability

Advice from the Teacher of the Year on how to make sustainability part of your school culture.

ResourceSmart Schools is an award-winning program from the Victorian Government that helps schools embed sustainability in everything they do. Established in 2008, more than 1400 schools have participated in the program, saving millions of kilolitres of water, diverting tons of waste from landfill, planting millions of trees and reducing greenhouse emissions.

Across twelve categories, prizes are awarded every year, acknowledging individuals and schools for their impressive visions and practical solutions for promoting sustainability. School News was proud to speak with Rowena Archer who was named the Teacher of the Year and whose school, Braybrook College, won Secondary Community Leadership School of the Year for its innovative approach to environmental action.

School-wide approach

Braybrook College, located in the western suburbs of Melbourne is a government school for years 7-12 with around 1300 students.  Rowena has been working at Braybrook for more than twenty years and her dedication to sustainability and the environment has been part of the school vision since then.

“I initiated the role of Environment Co-ordinator many years ago.  I have been an active member of the Environment Committee and have assisted with big projects such as the new 99 kw solar installation. We have an Elective program for Year 9 and 10 students which allows students to learn with others who have a specific interest in this topic [and] a Year 10 program where students work as a class on practical environment-related activities.  They are currently learning about real projects and how they can contribute locally, such as to the Friends of Kororoit Creek.”

Making sustainability part of the culture of the school has been an essential aspect of the school’s success, incorporating programs across all year levels and inspiring parents and the school community as well as students.

“Where possible, it’s great to have the additional help of parent volunteers to support the work going on with sustainability.   These people bring their own skill set and enthusiasm to get tasks done,” says Rowena.  

It’s also vital that sustainability ideals and projects are owned by the entire school community and not just an individual teacher or staff member.

“It’s important to have a number of people involved because it makes the task easier overall.  It’s also a way of ensuring that projects will continue into the future.   Having student groups is great as they can provide enthusiasm for current projects and get involved, but the staff are often there longer so you need to get them on board also.” Rowena Archer. 

Rowena Archer, Braybrook College Teacher of the Year (secondary), image provided

What makes a winning approach?

While Braybrook College was a finalist in the Curriculum Leadership category, it also took home the gong for Community Leadership. Meaningful experiences that inspire the entire school community including book exchanges, recycling stations, and participating in events such as Ride2School Day and Earth Hour, all contribute to an embedded culture of sustainability.

Part of having a school dedicated to sustainability is ensuring the sustainability of the programs themselves, which means ensuring that the workload is shared, even small wins are celebrated, and there is always someone to call upon to help.

“We have a number of people involved which allows for us to work together,” says Rowena. “It’s easy to run out of energy taking on extra tasks, so having others to work with makes it easier (and more sustainable!). 

Rowena’s advice for other schools wishing to start a sustainability program is to start with something small and attainable.

“Start with a task that’s achievable. Ensure you can do it. Finish it and report on it. For example, do the Mobile Muster, [it’s] easy to arrange and the results are easy to publicise. Have a celebration to say what a great job you’ve done. The Resource Smart program allows you to work on tasks gradually and achieve goals. You might have a Star fairly quickly. We’ve also enjoyed being involved with SWEP, as a way of noting our water and electricity usage.”

Braybrook College, winners of the Secondary Community Leadership School of the Year, image supplied

The importance of the long game

With students constantly moving and staff turnover also an issue, it can be tempting for schools to focus on short-term tangible wins at the expense of the long game of sustainability. As Rowena says, “It’s important for students to see that their efforts are making a difference. Doing a small project with a specific timeframe can be great, so that the students can see the finish.”

However, for a school to be successful and to inspire students who take a culture of sustainability home with them at the end of the day, not to mention longer-term goals that impact far beyond the school gate, it’s important not to neglect the bigger projects such as carbon neutrality.

Rowena suggests: “Staff or older students may find a longer term or possibly larger project useful as something that they can really get involved with.” At Braybrook, staff members hold regular meetings to discuss sustainability and environmental initiatives and what improvements can be made around the school.

She adds: “Share your wins. Take a moment to write up the results for your school newsletter or website. And always report back to your School Council or other governing group.” 

Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a freelance writer and the author of "Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed our World", now available in all good bookstores.

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