Friday, November 30, 2007

Wasai--- A Legion of Miniature Janitors

The bell rings after 6th period and the 20 minute break begins. All day the kids have sprinted out of the classroom with every 10 minute break to start up a quick game of dodge-ball, jump-rope, hula hoop, catch or toss, and so on. They don’t waste a second of play time at Gong Jheng Elementary School (公正) in Yilan County.

But this time, something is different. Like the marching mops and brooms from Mickey Mouse’s magical escapade in Fantasia, 15 red handles waltz by my office window. It’s an army of little cleaning soldiers! . I walk out of the office and look up at the 1st grade hallway on the second floor, there’s a girl with a window squeegee, standing on the windowsill and whisking away the Windex. Two little munchkins run around below her, one sweeping loose dirt and trash into a dustbin, another doing a spotty mopping job. Continuing down the hall, two kids sprint past me, laughing, a large trash bin held between them. Two young girls with small trash cans and long tongs pick trash up out of the plants and out of the courtyard. A loud laugh causes me to look up towards the 1st floor boys room, just as 3 boys and girls come running out, tossing sudsy water back in and on the floor. The whole building is being cleaned by a legion of minature janitors!

This is different from the US, where you can normally find a crew of one or two sometimes pleasant, sometimes grumpy looking janitors, emptying all the trash bins, vacuuming all the carpets (of course, there is no carpet here with the amount of rain and obvious risk of mold and mildew – instead, almost every surface is ready for a soap and water scrub, and set up to drain water out of the way), and spreading sanitizer over any evidence of a sick second grader. Here the kids clean everything at break, and do so happily! They all smile and laugh and treat it like a game. This I find is a wonderful contrast to US culture. This isn’t child labor, but school instilling a sense of responsibility in kids from a young age. It took me a long time to realize that if I throw my trash on the ground, someone is going to have to pick it up! Children here are given a great degree of autonomy during free time. Recess means a break for kids to run in the halls, laugh and yell, and play whatever games they want. There is less supervision in my school than in US schools during recess, and the whole school, classrooms and hallways, all become a jungle gym. But there is no need to worry about the children behaving irresponsibly and disrespecting property, for the most part. They know the value of putting your trash where it belongs, because they’ve picked up what someone else has thrown down since 1st grade. I wonder how well this behavior carries over to the household. These are values I hope to instill in my children someday as well.

Submitted to Wasai Taiwan by: Dale Albanese
(Yi-lan county, Taiwan--- the U.S.)
related post:
Cleaning in schools
At my Taiwanese public elementary school of around 200 students, there are no “janitors” – at least not in the same capacity as in the US. Instead, students arrive 10 minutes before class officially starts and clean the school to cheery, upbeat children’s music. I will never forget the surprise I felt at 7:50 in the morning on my first day when I arrived to a school swarming with children toting brooms, mops, and squeegees, accompanied by a spunky Chinese version of “Old MacDonald.” There are also cleaning breaks during lunchtime and again at 3pm, right before the last class period of the day. I regularly have to jump over piles of debris and squeeze by students sweeping and mopping in order to enter or exit the teachers’ office. Even the tiny first graders can be seen wielding squeegees nearly as big as they are as they wash the classroom windows. Sure, sometimes it seems like the students do just as much gossiping and horsing around as they do cleaning, but that way no one seems to really mind. The mindset among students here isn’t that it “isn’t their job” or that “someone else” will do the cleaning. Instead it is just an established norm that the students will take a break from their day of sitting in class and spend a few minutes doing routine cleaning every day.

This concept of “cleaning up after yourself” applies to the lunchtime routine as well. While lunch as its own entity is also very different from its counterpart in the US in ways that extend beyond on what lunch is served, lunch dishes are the responsibility of the individual students. Instead of eating with school dishes and utensils, the students bring their own dishes and chopsticks. The students fill their bowls with school lunch, eat it, and then either pack their dishes back up to be taken home and washed, or wash them at school in the large sinks located at the end of each hall.

The reason for these differences is probably mostly centered around practicality. It is less expensive to operate a school without a staff to take care of daily cleaning, serving lunch, and washing dishes. However, I think that putting the students in charge of these tasks has a greater benefit than saving money alone. When it is the students’ own agency that keeps the school neat and that gives them clean dishes to eat from, they are learning valuable life skills. I remember throughout my time as a student in the US seeing signs that read “Your mother doesn’t work here. Clean up after yourself.” Besides the problematic implication that it is the mother’s job to do the cleaning anywhere, this sentiment is actually not reinforced by the way schools operate in the US. What might seem so shocking to Americans (putting the students in charge of cleaning) is just a mundane part of daily school culture here. However, it represents a great level of autonomy and personal responsibility that young Taiwanese students take on as contributors to the operation of their school. And I have to admit that I am impressed.
Submitted to Wasai Taiwan by: Julie Goshe
(Yi-lan City, Taiwan-- Tiffin, the U.S.)


Anonymous said...

Oooh, I remember this. I like how it feels when we change the classroom for the new school year and clean it up for ourselves. Especially skating on the waxed floor, or even sitting on it like we were at home. :) I miss that.

mazenko said...

Thanks for writing about this. I remembered this from teaching in Taiwan ten years ago and living across from a school. But I wasn't sure if I remembered correctly.

I shared this story with my high school students the other day, and we discussed the benefit of instilling some personal responsibility in kids.

However, I am amused by the paradox of how the kids clean the school, yet the rest of the city and country is strewn with garbage.