Research Summary

“I have a little, little, little footprint on the world” and “I’m not political”: feelings of low self-efficacy and the effect of identity on environmental behaviour in educators

Assessing the effects of identity on environmental behaviors in educators

Environmental Education Research

Environmental literacy (EL) is a key step to encourage individuals to be concerned about the environment and provides them with the knowledge needed to address this concern through actions and behaviors. Educational experiences, in both formal and informal settings, play a critical role in developing EL. Though studies have shown that educators influence their students’ EL, there is not much research assessing educators’ EL. Environmental behaviors, whether on a personal level, such as recycling or picking up litter, or systemic level, such as advocating for laws that create change, are influenced by one’s EL. This study evaluated the EL of K-12 educators by determining their engagement in environmental behaviors, and explored the role of their identity and self-efficacy.

Researchers recruited K-12 educators from formal and informal settings in the United States to complete the Teacher Environmental Literacy Assessment (TELA). Participants were recruited via social media platforms, email list-servs, and word of mouth to complete the TELA, which uses the contextual perspective to evaluate EL. The contextual perspective of EL incorporates elements frequently used in definitions of EL such as dispositions, knowledge and environmental behavior, while also including socio-political aspects such as environmental justice. The TELA features seven scales: knowledge, integration of nature in self, environmental self-efficacy, environmental identity, environmental behavior, issue identification, and strategy selection. Questions were either multiple choice, Likert-style point rankings, open responses, or ranking strategies. Once educators completed the TELA, they had the option to provide their email address if they wanted to participate in the study by doing an interview, for which they received a gift card for completing. A total of 46 educators participated in semi-structured in-person or phone interviews lasting 40-90 minutes. During the interviews, participants were given their TELA responses and asked to expand on their answers. The researchers then conduced a thematic analysis of the interview transcripts.

Three major themes emerged during analysis: (1) personal behavior only goes so far in addressing environmental issues; (2) there is discontinuity between systemic and personal-level actions; (3) negative beliefs about politics and activists can act as a barrier to systemic behaviors. While most participants responded positively to the question regarding their self-efficacy, or one’s evaluation of their ability to successfully participate in or complete a task, roughly 20% indicated that they did not feel confident they could enact environmental change. They felt that their actions were relatively small compared to environmental issues, that other harmful behaviors outweighed positive ones, and that more systemic change was needed. In response to questions evaluating behavior, participants identified legal, political, and persuasion as the strategies they would most likely use to address environmental issues. Participants felt that systemic-level behaviors were more effective in addressing environmental issues than personal-level behaviors. However, the interview responses also revealed that participants had doubts in the political system, lacked confidence in their abilities to use political or legal options in addressing these issues, and didn’t identify as political or activists. Despite identifying political and legal options as powerful tools, educators didn’t feel as though they were the people to engage in these types of actions. Educators with these negative responses may be less likely to use environment-based education. This finding emphasized the importance of providing educators with an EL foundation that equips them with content knowledge and allows them to feel confident when engaging in environmental behaviors.

This study did have limitations. Participants opted into the interview stage following the completion of the TELA, so the sample was not random and is not representative of all educators. Also, the researchers noted that one of the authors did have professional connections to some interview participants—though the researchers made efforts to maintain the integrity of the study, this may have affected the results.

The researchers emphasized the importance of determining how to improve educator EL, which would in turn support their students’ EL. Enhancing EL through professional development programs focused on content knowledge and skills will help educators teach the next generation of environmentally conscious citizens.

The Bottom Line

Though educators play a key role in supporting the development of students’ environmental literacy (EL), few studies have focused on the EL of educators themselves. This study examined K-12 educators’ EL by assessing the environmental behaviors they engaged in and why, and explored the role of self-efficacy and identity. Formal and informal educators were recruited to take the Teacher Environmental Literacy Assessment (TELA) and given the option to participate in an interview afterwards. Forty-six educators from the U.S participated in interviews. Analysis revealed three major themes: (1) personal behavior only goes so far to address environmental issues; (2) there is a disconnect between systemic and personal-level actions; (3) negative beliefs about politicians and activists can be a barrier to systemic behaviors. The researchers emphasized the importance of improving educator EL, which would provide educators with the content knowledge and skills to effectively enhance student EL.