Sustainability. It’s such a ubiquitous word these days that it risks eliciting an eye roll and a tut from even the more eco-minded amongst us.
Nevertheless, I have been wondering lately. Are my lessons sustainable?
To give you my two cents on the topic, I’ll have to invite you back to 2019, and a typical pre-pandemic day of teaching ESL, which for me meant running around Milan to get from course to the next, when the notion of teaching online was still super-niche and unthinkable for most of my students.
Regardless of the level, topic or type of course I was teaching, one thing was always a staple in my lessons. Paper, and lots of it! (I trust the staple pun wasn't lost on you...)
As a freelance teacher my lessons are mostly to individuals or small groups (if there are 10 students, that's a lot for me) but still, between the inevitable absences of some students and the SOS activities I always had ready in my arsenal of prepared material, just in case I'd completely misjudged my timing, I'd always get to end of the week with a pile of unused printouts.
“What's the problem? Just save them for next time!”
Yeah, of course, I archived this material as much as possible for future use, but as any busy teacher can appreciate (or at least I hope, desperately seeking empathy for what's coming next) I have to admit that lesson preparation was much quicker if I just printed them out again when I needed them.
I felt a pang of guilt every time that pile of unused worksheets hit the bottom of the recycling bin, but rummaging through folders of printouts was simply not time efficient.
I've had limited experience in what I would consider a real classroom, like a k-12 group of 20-30 (even more?) students, but during the few courses I did teach as a resident mother-tongue speaker at a couple of middle schools, preparing material for 25 kids at a time resulted in me getting through an astronomical amount of paper. (I’ll tell you my story about the nuns in one school that guilt-tripped me into paying 25 cents per copy another time)
I sheet you not!
According to recordnation.com, a typical teacher uses anywhere from 25-75 pieces of paper every day. If you multiply that nationally, the same site estimates around 34 billion sheets of paper are used annually in the US alone.
How much paper does one tree produce? About 80,000 sheets (thank you science.howstuffworks.com)
So, every year in the US, the business of teaching gets through an estimated 425,000 trees. Yikes!
I haven’t extrapolated my google-fuelled guesstimates to a global scale, but you get the picture.
Great news for Dunder Mifflin, but a little out of sync with the ideal of sustainability and low impact living most of us are striving for.
Wait, this better not be a sales pitch!
Full-disclosure. I'm the CEO and co-founder at thinkio.it so I don’t blame you if your cynic-senses are tingling:
"Ok Dan, we get it! This is where you tell us to digitise our material and use Thinkio to make awesome interactive worksheets, all while saving the world in the process, right?"
Well, if you put it like that, I’m certainly not going to stop you. 😂 But fast forward to 2023 and most of my teaching is now online, and even when I am in the classroom, I do try to use digital worksheets as much as possible (especially when assigning things like homework).
It certainly feels better not racing through the same reams of paper I used to on a weekly basis. So, problem solved then, right? Well, it's not quite that simple.
According to 8billiontrees.com, global internet usage in 2022 accounted for 3.7% of all carbon emissions. To put that into perspective...that's the same impact as the entire aviation industry.
Sky high numbers, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Cool your jets though, it's not all doom and gloom in the classroom. Benjamin Storrow of Scientific American reports that 2023 could see the beginning of an "emissions plateau", as some of the world's most prominent polluters experience slow growth, and invest more in renewable technology, helped in part by the ever-growing global ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) initiatives, and even regulations in some sectors.
So, perhaps we can pin our dreams of zero-impact lessons on the march of technology, and future breakthroughs in the field of clean energy, or maybe they'll come up with a tree-free paper alternative. Who knows!
Flexible, easy, modern
On a more personal level, I much prefer the flexibility and ease of sharing worksheets via links, rather than having to print everything in advance, and even in face to face lessons, it feels like a more modern approach.
But that's just what I think. What do you think?
Do you teach in a paperless environment or is the copier your most loyal teaching companion?
Could a K-12 classroom ever go completely paperless?
Do you think it’s up to us teachers to consider the environmental impact of our lessons, or should schools and districts be taking the lead?
I’d love to know your thoughts. Leave a comment or send me a message 😀
Thanks for reading and, as always, happy teaching!
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