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Tips to Start Off Your School Year

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Originally appears in the Fall 2017 issue

As a high school science teacher, I learned that the first few months of the school year set the tone for the rest of the year. I now work as the Executive Director of Ontario EcoSchools but I’ve never forgotten how those first few months of school are key to success.

I have learned that whether it be as simple as students making environmental pledges, or as complex as creating a school garden, planning and goal-setting are essential to getting your green journey going. This means not only connecting with students, but working with other staff and administration to make the process easier for eager students.

In this article, I’ve compiled some top tips on how to start the school year right, based on my classroom experience and what I’ve seen in my last eight years working with Ontario EcoSchools. These tips are simple and engaging enough to be adapted across curriculum requirements, grade levels, and borders.

Build a Super-Powered Team

Why establish a green team? Having a formalized group allows schools to build on their efforts by setting targets and monitoring practices. A green team can help schools stay motivated and accountable while bringing green practices to the forefront.

It’s always a good idea to start early. Form a green team in September or October to involve students, educators, parents, and school administrators in planning for the year ahead. For a strong green team, strive to have at least three adult participants and representation from each grade level. You’ll also want to think about planning for succession: encourage students from a range of grades and age levels to allow for mentoring and continuity from one year to the next. One of the most rewarding aspects of being on an EcoTeam is this peer-to-peer learning and mentorship.

Once you’ve assembled a keen green team, decide on one or more focus areas for your eco-activities. Get a sense of what environmental issues students get excited about, and then think realistically about what your school can do to make a difference. For example, many students feel passionate about the effects of climate change on animals and habitat loss. Work together to come up with a combination of classroom learning, daily practices, and school-wide campaigns that will allow you to make a difference on the local scale in the face of these global concerns.

Next, create committees! Assign roles and tasks to individual team members based on interests and grade levels. For example, younger students can make sure waste is being put in the right place by acting as “Recycling Rangers.” Older students can write weekly announcements to highlight upcoming campaigns. You can also establish committees to run different aspects of your green team; for example, a “Greening the Grounds” committee can take the lead on school garden projects, while a “Lights Off” committee can be in charge of monitoring daily practices related to energy use. Committees are also an excellent way to divide the work involved in planning key campaigns like Earth Month — tasks which can also offer leadership opportunities for more senior students.

Plan your Actions

After creating your green team, start your plan of action by deciding on the actions, campaigns and learnings that can take place throughout the year. Campaigns that engage the whole school can have a big impact in a short time span, which builds momentum and rationale for future initiatives. Campaigns can also be the first step to a longer commitment: for instance, an Earth Hour celebration can become daily Lights-Off lunches for a larger impact.

The fall has many well-known environmental events, including Walk to School Month, World Food Day, and Waste Reduction Week. Try developing a campaign connected to these environmental events to kick-start the year. For many of these popular environmental days and events, promotional materials and activity ideas are already available, making them easy campaigns to implement. Use the name recognition of these campaigns to get your school community on board, and perhaps start a friendly competition between schools in your region.

After these initial kick-offs, consider what you can do throughout the year. If you have a larger project that needs funding, a fall kick-off will make it more achievable. Make a list of grants that your school qualifies for, and work as a team to submit one or more applications. You can also reach out to like-minded community organizations and individuals for donated items and volunteers.

Annual campaigns can be further targeted to grade level. Elementary schools can plan fun campaigns like Sweater Day that make a clear link between good environmental practices (like turning down the heat) and being part of a team effort. Secondary schools can connect environmental concerns to students’ personal passions for local and global issues — survey older students to understand their interests and build your green program from there.

Communicate your Green Efforts

While creating a green team and planning actions, consider how to connect with the rest of the school community to build momentum. The beginning of the year sets the tone and gets everyone keen to get involved with upcoming projects. Take advantage of what students are already doing, like skits in assemblies, morning announcements, or managing social media accounts. Here are some additional suggestions:

  1. Start with a creative presentation at an early staff meeting to get key staff, including the principal, vice-principal and custodian, on-board. Identify action items and understand all needs and interests in order to collaborate well.
  2. Get parents and the wider community involved: consider presenting at parent council meetings to make quick connections! Researching local green organizations can be a great classroom project, followed-up by outreach to build partnerships.
  3. Spread the word! Share overall goals in the fall and maintain consistent communication for each new project. Bulletin boards, social media, assemblies, announcements, and newsletters are a great way to introduce the green team.
  4. You can also incentivize and track individual campaigns: collect metrics, record progress, create awards, and share results widely so that each member of the school community understands the impact of their actions. From weekly “green challenges” to monthly assemblies where progress on a key metric is shared (like the number of plastic water bottles saved after installing a water refill station), there are many creative ways to engage the entire school.
  5. Network! Sharing ideas, best practices, and challenges with other schools in your area is a good way to stay motivated. This can include informal and formal sharing with other educators through workshops, webinars, and inter-school events.

Establishing a culture of environmental leadership does not have to be done in one year. In my experience, schools build on their successes year after year until green practices are adopted into the whole school community. However, through careful planning and starting the year off right, schools can really take hold of their green initiatives and make a big difference in their communities. I wish you all the best in your great green journey. Remember: small acts can have big impacts!

Ontario EcoSchools

The following ideas and resources found at are applicable to educators everywhere.

Get Inspired resources: The “Get Inspired Gallery” is a rich curation of actions that certified EcoSchools have done over the last decade plus. While the content emerges from the certification program, the initiatives and learning ideas can be adapted and adopted widely.

Campaign Kits: Ontario EcoSchools have also developed Environmental Stewardship and Climate Leadership Campaign Kits that include environmental learning and action suggestions, fact sheets, and lesson plans. Click “Tools & Resources,” then “Resource Library” to find “Campaign Kits.”

Certification: If you work in Ontario, consider getting involved in Ontario EcoSchools certification program.

Elanor Waslander
is the Executive Director of Ontario EcoSchools in Toronto, Ontario. She would like to thank her 2 collaborators in the writing of this article: Melissa Benner, the Communications Director at Ontario EcoSchools, and Sarah Bradley, the Communications Coordinator.If you are not already a subscriber, please subscribe to read the full article