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The need for meaningful sustainability conversations: Inside & Out

As the wave of sustainability education begins to take shape at international schools and the awareness of both its purpose and its value increases it it slowly taking shape as a field of its own accord. A greater number of schools, for example, now include a member of faculty/staff whose job it is (often among other things) to somehow assess sustainability indicators and, simultaneously, educate the community (often both adult and child) in sustainable practices, decisions and management. But considering how new the field is there is often a great big gap between the needs of a school and the skills and abilities of the person(s) in charge of such structural change.

Part of the concern is that, once in the world of sustainability, one recognizes just how all pervasive sustainability is and needs to be. This is sometime ‘missed’ by other members of the professional community who see it as a small topic with increasing relevance. The generation of those who are currently teaching and administering in schools around the world have not been privy to a formal education in sustainability and, as such, they sometimes view the issue as topical, to be dealt with as a side note or dealt with in some “eco” event. These arguably superficial impressions can be somewhat typical in schools that, understandably, are trying to do their best to keep up with the best practices of teaching and learning. But truth be told sustainability is part and parcel of everything that schools do, whether that is in the curriculum, facilities, whatever.

To put that burden on one person – say an advisor of an eco club – is a huge expectation particularly if that person is also trusted to teach students full time. Though sustainability education is best infused into most all curricula, and is very pertinent regardless of grade level, it is quite complex for someone who wants to do a good job at it. Perhaps there is also someone in the facilities department who is focusing on ensuring that sustainable solutions are providing a school with a beneficial return on investment.

Life for such a faculty/staff member can be lonely, even if rewarding. The resources, though increasing, are still rather scarce, their quality unknown. Experiences are short. Opportunities, even with a plethora of good will and enthusiasm, can be thwarted by budgets, lack of expertise, time and/or energy. Of course with this work environment it becomes essential to team up. But with whom?  Sometimes the curricular connections to facilities seem reasonable (and, indeed, preferable). After all, why not involve students in the study of energy, for example, in real time?  Sometimes this comes within a department, particularly if there are like-minded people available to bounce ideas off of. But even then the ability to move forward can be slower then hoped for. But sometimes it seems like one is “on their own”.

The good thing these days is that, as schools start hiring sustainability coordinators, or service coordinators, or create expectations for engagement (which they generally do), so too do cross-overs exist with people in similar positions in other schools. Certainly people in other schools won’t have the same take on things but therein lies its big advantage. It’s good to have people on the inside for the practical application of ideas, but it is equally as important to have people on the outside – who share the experience in different settings – to collaborate with, to share ideas, to brainstorm of share resources. This turning of an often lonely experience into a more professionally social one opens doors, allows for divergent and highly creative thinking, can provide authentic discourse for both students and teachers and ultimately allows for the professional conversations that need to take place.

So, if you are one of those sustainability people, either formally (by title) or not, considering joining communities of practice online, in your school or across town. Much like a support group these people will give you authentic feedback on your thoughts, provide you with tools and resources, and generally do everything that you might find difficult to do on your own in your school. If your school or city doesn’t have such a group, why not start one?  Formality need not be a requirement and even with two people such groups can be hugely beneficial for you, your understanding and skills involved with sustainability education, and certainly for the kids whose future we’re building.

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