Professional development for primary and secondary school teachers equips them to teach sustainability. Fairleigh Dickinson University shares its approach.
Want to inspire the next generation to lead sustainably? Start early.
That’s the approach of the Institute for Sustainable Enterprise (ISE) at Silberman School of Business, Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU), United States.
ISE reaches upstream in two ways: (1) it engages high school students directly through applied sustainability challenges, and (2) it offers professional development for primary and secondary school teachers, equipping them to teach sustainability. Joel Harmon, ISE Executive Director, shares ISE’s processes, outcomes and advice in a two-part series.
Part I: Magnify your impact by teaching teachers (see below)
Part 1: Magnify Impact by Teaching Teachers
If you really want to magnify your impact, consider teaching teachers. If you train ten primary and secondary school teachers to add sustainability to their curriculum, and each reaches 25 students per year, you’ve helped inspire 250 students. And that’s precisely why ISE hosts an annual Teacher Education Program.
The 2-day program helps kindergarten to grade 12 teachers develop problem-based learning units on real sustainability challenges. Teachers learn to:
Identify engaging sustainability problems with local relevance, including biodiversity loss, water availability and neighbourhood revitalization.
Develop grade-specific curriculum plans that use sustainability problems to stimulate critical thinking and meet government teaching standards.
Collaborate across disciplines and grade levels to create multi-year learning experiences on similar topics.
The Case for Reaching Upstream
For ISE, empowering primary and secondary school teachers is largely mission-driven – it is a clear path for creating positive societal impact. Another compelling reason to reach upstream is fundraising. Corporate donors often want to create local impact. Advancement staff can make the case to perspective donors that working with local schools is a effective means for creating such impact.
Building Critical Mass
Teachers must apply to the program in teams – ideally three or more teachers from the same school. This approach allows team members to support one another in teaching the unit they develop. Teams also have the critical mass to inspire other teachers at their school, spurring broader sustainability education.
All team compositions are welcome. Members can teach the same or different grade levels and ISE encourages multi-disciplinarity in secondary school teams. For example, a math, English and social studies teacher can sign up together and co-create a unit relevant across all three subjects. Such coordination allows students to explore a challenge from many angles, encouraging systems thinking. It also helps students appreciate the relevance of individual subjects as they see how each contributes to solving a challenge.
Tapping the Right Expertise
ISE devised the concept for the Teacher Education Program, but Harmon recognized the need to involve someone with deep expertise on the local school system. So he approached the Fairleigh Dickinson School of Education. The School of Education engaged, and eventually its Director, Vicky Cohen, assumed program leadership, supported by ISE. This partnership also had a side benefit: Cohen has embraced the value of sustainability in cultivating problem-solving skills and civic responsibility. She is currently embedding sustainability within the School’s own Bachelor and Masters of Education curricula.
Teacher empowerment: More than 60 teachers from nine New Jersey schools have participated. Following the program, teachers overwhelmingly reported being much more likely to teach sustainability in their classrooms (rating the likelihood at 6.5 on a 7.0 scale).
Demonstrated student engagement: Participating teachers have reached a collective 1,500 primary and secondary school students and report notable increases in student engagement, enjoyment and learning.
Building collaboration: Teammates support one another in delivering the units. This collaboration is important, as most are teaching sustainability for the first time and will have questions and concerns. Harmon believes that “the scarcest resource in most schools is community time. There’s little time for teachers to talk about common problems. Our program gives them a unique opportunity to build those collaborations.”
An Example: Tenakill Middle School
An eight-teacher team from New Jersey’s Tenakill Middle School included teachers from language, math, science, social studies and special education. Their unit focused on the decline in the local Monarch Butterfly population.
Each teacher integrated the topic into their respective subject. For example, language literacy students wrote an essay about strategies to increase butterfly populations.
“Besides practicing their language skills, my students were exposed to concepts that I hope will inform their practices as adults,” writes the literacy teacher.
The math teacher had her students analyze annual butterfly census data. Because the teacher did not fully understand the ecology underlying fluctuating population data, the participating science teacher provided coaching and support. In the end, the math teacher delivered the unit effectively and was amazed at the outcomes. “Even students who struggle with basic math skills were able to draw conclusions about data, argue a conclusion…and make connections between visual representations of data and real-life situations.”
Each teacher felt the unit was a great success, reporting that “students thoroughly enjoyed the variety of activities used to implement the Monarch Butterfly project.”
Read Part II of this series, Seeding Sustainability Early: Inspire youth by engaging high school students.
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