Research Summary

It’s about time: perceived barriers to in-service teacher climate change professional development

Lack of time is teachers’ largest obstacle to participating in climate change professional development

Environmental Education Research
2021

Due to the political polarization of climate change, training teachers on climate change principles and solutions can be difficult. Environmental education may see greater outcomes from educating children in K-12 settings; however, many K-12 teachers feel ill-prepared to teach about climate change and sustainability. Professional development may help teachers feel more confident, but systematic barriers exist the can prevent teachers seeking professional development. No research has studied how these barriers apply to climate change professional development (CCPD). This study focused on middle school teachers that opted out of participating in a two-day CCPD workshop at a local public university. The researchers used surveys to understand the perceived barriers of teachers to CCPD, and the extent to which each barrier was perceived as most significant compared to the teacher’s confidence level.

The researchers randomly selected 60 public middle schools among North Carolina’s coastal counties. In total, 349 science teachers were randomly selected from those schools, and the researchers invited those teachers to participate in the CCPD workshop. The researchers administered a survey via email and phone to the 279 teachers who did not respond to the invitation, of which 62 teachers responded to the survey, and only 54 completed it. The survey listed eight potential barriers to participation in the CCPD workshop and asked respondents to rate their level of agreement for each as a barrier on a scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree. The survey also asked whether teachers believed climate change was happening and how confident they were in their answer, using a multiple-choice question from the 2011 “Six Americas” Survey that categorized Americans into six groups based on their attitude towards climate change: alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful, or dismissive. The survey was then analyzed.

The researchers found the teachers ranked lack of time to attend as their primary barrier for participating in the CCPD workshop. About 65% of teachers were confident that climate change was happening, with 31% not confident (6% chose not to answer). On average, both groups of teachers disagreed that lack of support from parents and administrators, lack of interest or knowledge in climate change, or the controversy around climate change were barriers to attending.

There were limitations in this study. The sample size was small and restricted to the coastal region of one state, which may skew the results. For example, coastal areas may see more immediate climate change impacts such as sea level rise and saltwater intrusion as compared to other areas of the state or country. The survey contained no demographic questions, preventing cross-demographic analyses, meaning it may not be representative of the overall population.

The survey results indicated that barriers to CCPD are similar to the barriers teachers face for all professional development: a lack of time to participate. Teachers did not feel that climate change was too controversial or that they lacked knowledge to teach the subject. Therefore, the researchers suggested that CCPD organizations keep their programs as minimally time-consuming as possible (perhaps by integrating them into regularly scheduled school training) and advertising the time saved in future lesson-planning by participating. They also recommended cooperating with local school administrations and communities to intentionally reach out to teachers who might be less confident about climate change.

The Bottom Line

Many K-12 teachers in the United States feel ill-prepared to teach about climate change and sustainability. The researchers used surveys to understand the perceived barriers of teachers to climate change professional development (CCPD), and the extent to which each barrier was perceived as most significant compared to the teacher’s confidence level. They found that teachers ranked lack of time to attend – not controversy or lack of knowledge – as the primary barrier for participating in the CCPD workshop, regardless of their personal beliefs about climate change. The researchers suggested that CCPD organizations work to keep their programs minimally time-consuming (possibly by integrating them into regularly scheduled school training) and advertising the time saved in future lesson preparation by participating.