NBS logo

Seeding Sustainability Early Part 1: Supporting Teachers

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 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.

Important Outcomes

  • 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.”

More Information

Read Part II of this series, Seeding Sustainability Early: Inspire youth by engaging high school students.

Share this post:


Share on activity feed

Powered by WP LinkPress

Add a Comment

This site uses User Verification plugin to reduce spam. See how your comment data is processed.

Join the Conversation


  • Chelsea Hicks-Webster

    Hi, I’m Chelsea. I have a Masters degree in Sustainability, where I studied ecosystem health. I'm also a Certified Life Coach. I used to be the Operations Manager for NBS, but now I just focus on my favourite part of that job – the writing! I also run a social enterprise, called Creating Me, dedicated to strengthening maternal and family well-being. I know first-hand how difficult it can be to balance career goals, impact, and one’s own well-being. When I’m not working on my own impact goals, I offer executive coaching and writing support to help researchers and change-makers grow their impact and well-being. (creatingme.ca/sustainability).

Related Articles

Partner with NBS to grow our impact

Skip to content