Teacher perspectives on educating for sustainability

Published on: 
27 Jul 2017
Phoebe Beierle

Primary and secondary schools around the country are constantly experimenting with new strategies. A common approach is the move away from linear concept teaching to interdisciplinary, hands-on learning that helps prepare students to think critically and better handle a changing world.

With the implementation of this educational pedagogy, we are seeing more and more schools integrating Education for Sustainability, using curriculum on Learning Lab to meet the needs of the 21st century learner and documenting their success through programs such as the Best of Green Schools Award from the Center for Green Schools at USGBC.

For the 2017 Best of Green School winners at Prairie Crossing Charter School (K–8) in Wisconsin, Boston Latin School (6–12) in Massachusetts and Carrboro High School (9–12) in North Carolina, incorporating components of Education for Sustainability into the classroom is something they have been working on for many years, and they see it as critical to their success.

Prairie Crossing Charter School

Prairie Crossing Charter School.

Three teachers and administrators from these award-winning schools share their thoughts on how environmental and sustainability education is serving as a fundamental foundation for their work: 

What does education for sustainability mean to you?

Cate Arnold, an 8th grade U.S. history teacher at Boston Latin School and faculty advisor for the Youth Climate Action Network, believes that “educating for sustainability promotes the understanding that economic issues, social issues and environmental issues are intertwined systems that must always be considered in relation to one another. These skills and complex understandings represent the sort of thinking that that future problem solvers need to have.”

Stefan Klakovich helps his AP environmental science students at Carrboro High School use sustainability as a lens to understand and solve real-world problems by showing them that “each problem we face touches on so many different issues. Politics, economics, values. All need to be addressed to come up with workable solutions.” 

Naomi Hershiser is the Dean of Environmental Learning at Prairie Crossing Charter School, where the environment is at the center of everything they do. Hershiser explains that at Prairie Crossing, they have “always tried to teach environmentally focused, integrated units that foster critical thinking.” One of the most valuable pedagogical tools used at Prairie Crossing is environmental service learning, which engages students to help better their world.

Boston Latin School

Boston Latin School.

What challenges do you face when integrating education for sustainability into your curriculum?

Cate Arnold: According to a recent survey at Boston Latin School, over 90 percent of educators surveyed said sustainability is addressed in their curriculum. The challenge, though, is that climate and sustainability education is not yet a priority or trend at the district level. Arnold is hopeful that it is just a matter of time, as there are definitely people committed to pushing the district in that direction, including a group of active students.

Stephan Klakovich: As a science teacher, Klakovitch strives to help his students develop contextual reasoning that “takes patience to learn the problem, time to develop a solution and time to articulate.” This is a challenge because the breadth of material he must cover before the AP exam limits how much time he can devote to this kind of learning. 

Carrboro High School

Carrboro High School.

How has teaching sustainability impacted your students, school and community?

Cate Arnold: “YouthCAN students...have brought many significant green features to the school, including solar panels, a lighting retrofit, green roof, a school garden, a salad bar, a real-time building energy dashboard, a freight farm, water bottle filling stations and more...We organize an annual schoolwide teach-in on sustainability and host an annual climate and sustainability assembly for all incoming students.”

Stefan Klakovich: Environmental studies students have met their extracurricular service requirement while improving the campus through projects such as a community garden, herb garden, campus reforestation project, bee hives, pollination garden and wildflower garden. Other students have written grants to help fund these projects and organized composting campaigns.

Naomi Hershiser: Multi-disciplinary environmental service learning projects are incorporated into the curriculum. “When our 3rd and 4th grade students decided to grow and donate produce to local food pantries," says Hershiser, "they had to use research and communication skills to find and contact these institutions; reading and math skills to determine the timeline for planting and plant spacing; physical education as they prepped and maintained the gardens; and science concepts were reinforced as they chose seeds and monitored the plants.” 

Learn more about the Best of Green Schools winners