Culture Shifts: Personal Reflections on fostering Education for Sustainability & Change in Schools

by  Lara Gleason

Shifting a culture requires a tremendous amount of patience, persistence, and collaboration. Prior to four years ago, I only witnessed or knew of such shifts; never was I a generator or trigger. In retrospect, it all seemed so natural: gathering the right people together, pursuing manageable projects, being vision-oriented and action-driven, educating myself and others, and ultimately, maintaining a positive attitude.

The truth is, there were many days when my exhaustion or frustration clouded the successes. Those days were countered by times when I was tremendously invigorated by projects and progress. What remains a certainty is that I am now a believer that it is indeed possible to shift a culture.

Seven years into my teaching career, I decided to tackle a master’s degree. While being an English teacher (primarily in a middle school) was rewarding, it was not enough. I had contemplated graduate school many times throughout the years, but I could not find a program that inspired me. That was until I learned about Antioch’s MEd program, Educating for Sustainability (EFS). The title alone revitalized me.

Before I started my master’s program, “sustainability” was not only a nebulous term but also one that meant little to my Graland School community members, science teachers and environmentalists aside. It was not for lack of caring, but more that such thinking – systems thinking – was not part of their paradigm.

Why would it be? The American educational system is not designed to teach about the interconnectedness of systems. Rather, for generations we have been taught to compartmentalize. Like many teachers, I too, had a somewhat superficial knowledge of systems. Over the two years of the EFS program, my understanding deepened, and I relished the opportunities to share my changing perceptions with others – colleagues, friends, students, and strangers. As a result, a slight shift began.

It was barely noticeable at first, but people began approaching me about ideas and sharing problems they saw on campus. The hitch was that they just wanted me to “deal with it.” I quickly realized that collaboration was the only way to engender true change. Together with the Director of Facilities, my greatest ally, we established a Sustainability Committee with representatives from all stakeholders in the Graland School community (i.e. Board members, students, parents, teachers, alum, etc.). I am convinced that it was this remarkable collection of passionate, selfless, and multi-talented individuals who spurred the change. One of our first recommendations was that the position of Sustainability Coordinator be created. With the support of the Administration, I enthusiastically assumed that role and our work as a committee continued. As a result of this group and the School’s support, the momentum accelerated, and the community commitment increased each year.

A year after I finished my degree, there were initiatives, inspired by various groups, happening all over campus and even reaching into the local community. We evolved from a school that occasionally recycled to one that, among other accomplishments, built the LEED Gold certified dinning hall, had a composting program, and included sustainability in the curriculum K-8!

Anschutz Commons LEED Gold Certified Dining Hall

After being open for only a few weeks, I ate my last meal in the new Anschutz Commons Dining Hall. It was a bittersweet moment. The school had finally made a highly public statement and commitment to more “Green” practices. I, however, was leaving for a new job. At our end of the year celebration, the Head of School shared that the dining hall should have had my name on it. I laughed and gently redirected the compliment. Like all buildings, the final product represented the work of many. It was not, by any means, my building. It truly was our collective building.

While I believe that one person can make a difference, I believe more in the power that individuals have to bring people together to make enduring change happen. In the case of Graland, while there was still much work to be done, the cultural shift that occurred during that time will ensure that “sustainability” continues.

It was not easy leaving my professional home of nine years. Graland was indeed a remarkable place to work. For my personal sustainability, and in an effort to decrease my footprint, however, it was important to move. Finding the ideal job was more difficult than I anticipated. Spring 2011 was not a favorable time to enter the job market.

One school, it turned out, was the right match. Coming from the more urban setting of Denver, the quaintness of Southborough, Massachusetts was a bit of a culture shock, but when I walked onto campus, I knew Fay School would become my new home. To my extreme delight, I learned that two dorms and the Primary School building were all LEED Certified. But it was the people who struck me most. Students and adults were genuinely welcoming and interested in who I was. Now, seven months later, I can assuredly say that this is a special community.

Clearly Fay School has an investment in sustainable practices, and like Graland, it has room to grow. Being new to Fay School, I am back to the proverbial drawing board, assessing the best way to do the work about which I am most passionate: collaborating with people to envision a just, healthy, and safe future and then taking steps to turn the vision into reality. As I did four years ago, I rely less on a title (e.g. Sustainability Coordinator) and more on modeling behaviors, seeking opportunities to develop partnerships, and engaging in conversations about increased understanding of the interconnectedness of our many systems.

In my English classroom, conversations about social justice are common. As a dorm parent, I remind my boys of the proper uses of the recycling bins and draw their attention to ways in which they can reduce their waste. Our boarding community represents a wonderfully diverse population, so I seek opportunities to talk with the boys about issues of equity and socio-economic status. On campus, I model reducing my footprint through using reusable products, turning off lights, taking recyclable items out of trash cans, and composting our household food waste. I reach out to colleagues, such as Fay School’s Sustainability Coordinator, and seek ways to support and partner. These are all small steps, but they are a starting place.

I will focus on building partnerships, maintaining a steady but gradual approach, seeking natural points to weave sustainability into all aspects of my work, looking for win-win solutions to campus problems, and sensing when we, all of us in the school community, will be most receptive to change. Above all, I will remember that there will always be more work to do, to celebrate small successes, and to persevere.

Schools, by nature, shape the future. By being an Educator for Sustainability, I ensure opportunities for positive change. I will always aspire to foster a culture that values environmentally sound, economically viable, and socially equitable practices. As I look towards next year, I am energized and excited to work with my new community.

 

6 comments
  1. Kasie Enman said:

    Go Lara! So great to hear where the past few years have taken you. EFS is everywhere 🙂

    • Lara said:

      Kasie,

      Great to hear from you! I can’t wait to learn about the ways EFS is present in your life! Now that I am back on the east coast, we will have to collaborate on a project!

  2. Lara, thanks for sharing your successes. I find it sometimes easy to be weighed down by inaction and downright failures. Do you have any thoughts on the need to transform the whole education system? I worry that time is running out for small steps, that we need huge leaps — especially in curriculum transformation — so that our students will graduate with the skills, understandings, and habits of mind and heart that they’ll need to create the best possible future out of the chaos we are bequeathing them (http://grist.org/list/climate-scientists-its-basically-too-late-to-stop-warming).

    These days, I’m thinking that food growing, soil building, rainwater collection, and local energy generation are more important even than systems thinking, critical thinking, creative thinking — and certainly more important than adverbs and the War of 1812.

    What are your thoughts on “fomenting” a full-scale transformation of the education system?

  3. Lara said:

    Thank you for your response and for your questions. While I wanted to respond right away, I actually needed to reflect on your post. Now, while sitting in the common room of the dorm with my twenty eighth-grade boys settled in their rooms, I will tackle an answer.

    Yes, I do believe that we need to radically change our education system. I agree that learning to be self-sufficient is more valuable than memorizing facts. In fact, I am in the midst of reading Cradle to Cradle (1), which raises even the value in recycling, or “downcycling” products, because of the energy it requires. The book calls for a total re-envisioning of how we make products. That being said, it physically pains me to take a product that can be recycled or reused and throw it away. I just cannot do it.

    To that end, I refuse to accept a defeatist approach. While I am not sure if it is indeed “too late” as your resource suggests, as an educator and for my own personal sanity, I cannot buy into that. Every day I look at my students and imagine their futures and what they will do to make it better than today. Just tonight, one of the boys came in the dorm and said, “You know what? I think that I can do better, be better.” True that statement does not mean and end to poverty or deforestation, but what if other people were inspired to do better and be better? No matter how terrible or overwhelmed I may feel due to the truly colossal social, political, and environmental problems we face, when a child feels empowered, I do believe that there is hope.

    To your question about the full-scale transformation of our educational system, I wish that I had an answer. While I was in Colorado, I was part of an Eco-Curriculum group, a collection of representatives from schools (private and charter), architects, and various consultants, all inspired to tackle to question of how to change the educational system. It was connected to the USGBC’s Green Schools Initiative (2), and our vision was “By 2015, all new and remodeled schools in Colorado will be high-performing green schools, making out state a national model and resource.” Unfortunately, I moved after only being a part of this remarkable group for six months. During our debates and contemplations, we acknowledged the complexity and monumental challenges we face in trying to change this system. That group, like many others around the country, is still working. I am in touch with one group member, Eric Wilson, co-founder of 2nd Green Revolution (Check it out! 3). We have been talking about possible next steps for the group – no answers, just thoughtful questions and conversations. Every day I mull over the big questions and then return to what I can control – my actions and bringing awareness to others so as to change their actions.

    I wish that I had answers. Thank you once again for your comment.

    1. http://www.mcdonough.com/cradle_to_cradle.htm

    2. http://www.centerforgreenschools.org/usgbc-chapters.aspx

    3. http://2ndgreenrevolution.com/about/

  4. eric2ndgreen said:

    Lara,

    Thanks for sharing your insights. An anthropology professor of mine as an undergraduate (Peggy Barlett at Emory University in Atlanta) would agree that it is people who make the difference and facilitating them is key. She co-edited a book called “Sustainability on Campus” (http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=10095). I’m always amazed that so many anthropologists, though I shouldn’t be, spearhead sustainability initiatives. Although written from a higher education perspective, I think it is an important read for those who were in similar positions to what you had at Graland. In fact, I think your post here would be a wonderful addition to a K-12 version of the book. To my knowledge there isn’t one, but I would love to see it. I think it could help address some of the issues that were brought up in the previous comment.

    As a doctoral student in education, I believe that groups like the Eco-curriculum sub-committee from USGBC’s Green Schools Initiative represent an important collaboration. The Green Ribbon Schools program from the Department of Education is great, but it’s only one component. I have to disagree with your reader who said “I’m thinking that food growing, soil building, rainwater collection, and local energy generation are more important even than systems thinking, critical thinking, creative thinking.” If we don’t have the latter, the former are less valuable. Systems thinking is a key component of a sustainable system. If we don’t consider the ramifications of our actions, then we are no better off than before. I realize that paralysis by analysis is a real and worrisome possibility, but we cannot eschew the system entirely. There was a recent post on FaceBook by a local company (who is very forward thinking in their sustainability, not just environmental, but social and economic) looking to open a new outpost in North Carolina. While they were asked if they would reconsider in light of the ban on same-sex marriages, they said that to change the system, one must work from within it.

    With this idea in mind, we must work from within schools. EIC is a fascinating way to approach this. The Environment as an Integrating Context (http://www.seer.org/pages/eic.html) represents a wonderful way to think about education as a step forward. I had an opportunity to visit a school in Southern California recently that is taking a unique approach to education (http://2ndgreenrevolution.com/2012/05/08/site-visit-muse-school-ca/). While I question the ability to “scale up” this approach, it is a model that we can work toward.

    I wouldn’t pursue my doctorate in education if I didn’t think education were unable to solve some of the problems that it may have created. However, in further response to GreenHearted’s post, the answer isn’t an either/or, it is a both/and approach. We must work with educators and within schools. We must work with industry and within it. McDonough and Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle is a great work, but it only represents one way to solve problems. Until industrial manufacturing is considering the complete life cycle analysis, we need to educate the next generation on its importance. This is a systems view. A necessary view.

  5. eric2ndgreen said:

    I wrote a response this morning that seems to have vanished into the 1s and 0s so I’ll do my best to recapture the essence of that comment.

    First off, thank you Lara for sharing your experience. Your narrative reminds of many of the stories from Sustainability on Campus (a higher ed compendium) edited in part by Peggy Barlett, an anthropology professor under whom I had the honor of taking a class an undergraduate. Professor Barlett and a number of the contributors to the work (http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=10095) are from anthropology backgrounds, which shows the importance of understanding people. As you mention, facilitating is perhaps the most significant job a sustainability coordinator has. I do not know of a similar compilation of stories at the K-12 level, but would love to see it (and work on it if anyone out there is interested, hint, hint).

    In response to the previous comment (from GreenHearted), I would have to disagree that we can forsake systems thinking. I am a doctoral candidate in education and believe that education is the answer. Yes, the current system of education, public school especially, faces innumerable challenges, however, as a local Colorado company that is deeply entrenched in sustainability recently posted on FaceBook, we believe that you change the system from the inside. Education plays an important role in preparing future generations. Every little bit helps. While there is a need for systemic change, and it does not appear to be coming soon enough, there is evidence out there. EIC, Environment as an Integrating Context (http://www.seer.org/pages/eic.html), has demonstrated some nice results in terms of student gains given the milieu in which we find ourselves. The comment in particular that “I’m thinking that food growing, soil building, rainwater collection, and local energy generation are more important even than systems thinking, critical thinking, creative thinking” loses sight of the big picture, which is exactly what systems thinking engenders. If we forgo critical thinking, we will fail to grow as a society. Creative thinking is needed to get us out of the mess in which we find ourselves.

    Lara mentioned McDonough and Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle. This is a wonderful example of industry and what they can do. However, education also needs to play its role. What we have is a both/and situation. We need both education and industry to make progress toward sustainable and regenerative economies. I had the opportunity to visit a school in California recently that is making great strides toward sustainable living (http://2ndgreenrevolution.com/2012/05/08/site-visit-muse-school-ca/). While the school is small and not endowed with benefactors who support it with their financial weight, they are doing work that is doable at any and all grade levels.

    The group that Lara mentioned, USGBC Colorado’s Green Schools Initiative (and the Eco-curriculum subcommittee) are another example of private industry working to better schools. There are people out there and a groundswell of sorts that will make changes. Some efforts are bottom up and other top down. Both can be and are effective. There are amazing strides being made, but it is just a drop in the proverbial bucket. That should only serve to further motivate those that are emboldened and believe fervently that EfS is the way forward. I do.

    Eric Wilson
    co-founder of 2ndGreenRevolution.com
    PhD Candidate, University of Colorado Denver
    School of Education and Human Development

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