Improving Environmental Education by Supporting Teacher Professional Development

I always had an interest in environmental conservation and protection. I wrote about it in a previous post, "The Beginnings of an Environmental Educator". It was not until I was in the seventh grade, though, that my interest in learning and teaching about the environment began to mature. We all have a small handful of teachers to whom we feel changed how we thought about some issue or whose passion for the subject was contagious. For me, it was my Life Science teacher who initially taught me both the natural and social science of the environment. This passion infiltrated my career goals and life plans.

I do a lot of work with K-12 schools, mostly providing professional development opportunities to teachers and administrators on infusing a land and place-based educational curriculum. Working this closely with teachers gives me a chance to improve the trainings I offer because I receive direct and constructive feedback. This is in addition to my own observations I decipher as part of my self-reflection process. What I have learned is that teachers are concerned with ensuring what they teach is aligned with state and/or federal academic standards and whether they themselves have the proper knowledge, and sometimes sensitivities, to teach certain content.

Teachers understand the important roles they play in education and the communities in which they work. Their participation in relevant professional development activities is a testament to their commitments. In a society where we have placed such great emphasis on teaching to set academic standards, good professional development for teachers also will include a discussion on designing lessons that fit within these standards while affording teachers time to work in-session on lesson ideas. For those of us who do not work in K-12 education: professional development provides opportunities for teachers to enhance their teaching practice through learning new content and teaching methodologies. This training is in addition to maintaining their primary teaching responsibilities, further stressing the reality of the busy educator.

Environmental education, as it pertains to understanding the dynamic relationships between the natural, physical, and social sciences, is sometimes overlooked in current education. It most certainly is not well-represented in our state and federal academic standards. Why do you think this is the case? Teacher education programs in American colleges and universities have a difficult time including an environmental education component in any or all of their content concentrations. This is not for lack of interest; for the teaching accreditation standards are both specific and strict on what should be included in a fully vetted teacher education program. We, as a society, have not yet determined this to be an essential component.

And this is why that is a problem: our students are not given enough opportunities to understand how humans affect environmental change. That is not to say that some teachers are not covering this content because there are those who do well teaching scientifically-based information about the environment (natural and physical science) and how humans fit within the environment (social science). Non-formal student learning opportunities also have increased dramatically throughout the past two decades. These opportunities are not typically standards-aligned or accredited programs, but let that not minimize the importance of non-formal environmental education. After-school programs, summer camps, and field trips, to name a few examples, are vital to reaching diverse populations of students. At the same time, these programs should not be the only source of environmental learning.

Discovering ways of infusing environmental education throughout a teacher's state-approved curriculum can be difficult and time-consuming, but this is why professional development is so important. Nonprofit organizations like Green, Ink. offer several professional development opportunities for K-12 teachers and administrators. Consistent, workshop-style sessions designed to assist teachers in developing or adapting standards-aligned lessons strengthen our communities. As we seek to create a more informed population of Americans about the environment, let us be more supportive of teachers. It's their passion and influence that often motivates the future.