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!
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.