When I was 18 I started volunteering for the Lifecycles Growing Schools Program teaching children from kindergarten to grade 7 how to grow food. Like many recent high school graduates in Victoria, I was still figuring out what to do with my life and taking courses at UVic. In the midst of theoretical and frequently confusing lectures in Political Science and Environmental Studies, I found my mornings in school gardens deeply satisfying. I could handle the post-modern political theory and the dire articles about species extinction because I was making tangible change: I was teaching children to get their hands dirty and to have the skills and knowledge to grow their own healthy food without spraying it with chemicals and transporting it halfway around the world. If every school does this, I thought, there’s hope for us yet.
Now, 16 years later, almost every school in our district has a garden, many of them created by Lifecycles. Some schools, like Esquimalt High where I teach, even have native plant gardens with camas and other key foods grown by the Lekwungen-speaking peoples. All over the district schools have turned great ideas into reality. For myself, I was so inspired by my early experiences in school gardens that I became a teacher. I still firmly believe in the transformative power of growing food with children.
I have also, however, come to believe something else: that it is not enough.
Sixteen years ago when I would go into classrooms with Lifecycles, we were often the first lesson the students had ever had about this nebulous phenomenon called ‘climate change.’ We spoke of it in simple and non-threatening terms to kindergarteners, likening it to a “blanket” warming the earth. Today I teach sixteen year olds who have significant anxiety as a direct result of their fears of the future. Their sports camps have been called off due to polluted air from wildfires, they fear rising water levels, and their newsfeeds bring them horrifying images of floods, droughts and famines. They have been told by the world’s leading scientists that the world will be a disaster by the time they are 28. These sixteen year olds are no longer so easily pacified by getting out of class for a morning of playing in the dirt. They are anxious, uncertain and deeply angry at the adults who allowed this to happen to their futures. And they have a right to feel that way.
As I write this, children and youth around the world are organizing themselves to take action on climate change at an unprecedented level. The last student-led Climate Strike saw over 1.4 million youth participating in more than 1,400 cities around the world, including here in Victoria. The root of the word “to educate” means “to lead,” but right now it seems that the students are leading the educators.
Their dedication, organization and bravery is truly inspiring. But it too, is not enough.
All the marches and all the gardening lessons in the world are not enough to confront the challenge of climate change if they are not accompanied by meaningful and fast-acting policy change. It’s time for teachers to follow our students’ lead and take action on climate change outside of our schools and into the streets, board rooms and legislatures of our communities.
What can teachers do to help safeguard our students’ futures?
- Support Global Climate Strikes
September 20-27 is a key week of global climate action that will start the school year off with a burst of activity. The student climate strikers are calling for a student strike on September 20, and calling for a general strike on September 27. In Victoria, the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association has organized a Rally & Teach-in for Climate Justice on September 23rd, where teachers can meet with students and parents and environmental groups to talk about how will work together for the climate.
As teachers we can use this week to galvanize colleagues and students alike to get organized and experience success early in the year so the energy to make change has a strong start. Even if we cannot all walk off the job, we can use this global week of action for in-school events, climate-focused lessons, professional development opportunities and to support our student climate leaders.
The main day of action in BC will be September 27th, and we should do everything we can to join students on this day calling for action on climate change.
- Lobby School Boards to Declare a Climate Emergency
On June 24, 2019 the Greater Victoria School District trustees voted unanimously to declare a climate emergency and committed to developing a Climate Action Plan “that establishes targets and strategies commensurate with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s call to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.” Our district was the first school district to follow in the path of municipalities, universities and even countries globally who are declaring climate emergencies. Students, parents and teachers organized to submit the motion and gather widespread community support and media coverage that resulted in this encouraging change. If every school district in B.C. committed to real improvements in our operations and transportation we could substantially reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
- Integrate Climate Education in our Lessons
Ultimately our main job as teachers is always first and foremost to educate our students.
As a province we have committed to the cross-curricular integration of Indigenous ways of knowing and learning, as well as diversity education to fight racism and homophobia. We need to integrate climate education in the same cross-curricular way in order to prepare our students to meet the future with knowledge, courage and responsibility. This means a similar push for professional development and current teaching resources to help educators achieve this goal without reinventing the wheel. Much is already available in this vein, but further resources and Pro D opportunities are needed to make sure every educator feels confident and supported in broaching this huge topic with students. Ask the Pro D committee at your school or district for workshops and resources on climate change.
Climate change can feel like an impossibly complex and daunting issue to take on. As I write this I am expecting my first child and I have serious anxieties about what their future world will look like. But instead of giving in to these anxieties or the apathy that helps me forget them, I am trying to pick one tangible action at a time: Yesterday I attended a school board meeting. Today I will write an article. Tomorrow I will shop for cloth diapers.
Like teaching a child to plant a carrot seed, real change is about one small action that you can do right now. With careful nurturing, collaboration and time, that one small seed will grow into tangible change that we and our students can be proud of.