Research Summary

Supporting K-12 teachers in the context of whole-school sustainability: four case studies

Collaboration, professional development opportunities, and slow lesson integration may be key for sustainable development education

Applied Environmental Education & Communication
2021

Environmental educators can make significant changes regarding sustainability education and meeting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Teachers in the United States are subject to a system that has not yet prioritized education for sustainable development (ESD), which ultimately hinders students from learning valuable information that helps build sustainable futures. The researchers in this study looked at four school-wide sustainability programs. Each school integrated sustainability into: the entire campus by using buildings and structures to demonstrate sustainable design in practice; the curriculum through place-based and project-based learning in which both help students think critically about sustainable solutions; and relationships within the community by providing an opportunity for students to apply environmental skills to real-life situations. In particular, this study aimed to understand educators’ perspectives on sustainability education principles in the curriculum, how teachers in school sustainability programs develop their skills for teaching in this framework, and the ways school-wide sustainability efforts support educators teaching sustainability education.

The researchers evaluated four schools in the United States with school sustainability programs. They were Discovery Elementary in Arlington, Virginia (Pre-K through fifth grade with 540 students total); Prairie Crossing Charter School in Grayslake, Illinois (kindergarten through eighth grade with 432 students total); Whole Life Learning Center in Austin, Texas (Pre-K through eighth grade with 125 students total); and Spokane International Academy in Spokane, Washington (kindergarten through eighth grade with 189 students total). At each location, the researchers took one formal school tour to contextualize the curriculum. A total of 26 teachers and 9 administrators were interviewed with both open- and closed-response questions to understand the teachers’ experiences. The interviews were analyzed for themes that highlighted educator values, skills, and support.

The results revealed that teachers most often associated “passion” and “hands-on” as the leading values in teaching and learning. Other descriptors of these values also included words associated with interdisciplinary, place-based, and project-based teaching methods. Administrators most associated “passion,” “innovation,” and “experiential learning” as their values in teaching and learning. Regarding teacher skills, the general lack of time to integrate sustainability education into the school day was the biggest challenge for most participants, whether it was a lack of time to plan sustainable-based activities or limited time in the schedule for sustainable education topics. In addition, other skill inhibitors included the standardized curriculum, lack of familiarity with sustainable education topics, lack of resources, and low parent support. Finally, teachers found it helpful when administrators supplied support staff in the classroom to aid them in teaching sustainable education topics. Professional development opportunities were cited most frequently as being important and included peer-to-peer presentations on sustainable topics, specialized activity and lesson planning support, and opportunities for teachers to meet with an interdisciplinary group to combine sustainability with a variety of topics. The most important components of support included the time to discuss ideas with grade-level colleagues and the opportunity to implement the ideas in the classroom immediately.

There were limitations in this study. The schools chosen for the study had sustainability as a part of their mission, meaning that teachers and administrators may have more confidence in or awareness of ESD than schools that do not include sustainability in their mission statement. The sample size of interviewees was small, and it was not clear how the participants were chosen to interview. Therefore, the results are not generalizable.

Based on what the researchers learned from the interviews, they suggested the following to implement sustainability in schools. They recommended schools involve students in the facilities maintenance process, including water, waste, and energy management. This practice could involve before or after school programs as well as lunch-time programming. Educational signage for sustainable structures or systems was also recommended to supplement student learning. The researchers acknowledged that the integration of sustainable education should be done incrementally to be realistic toward teachers’ requirements and subsequent time constraints. They also suggested administrators should carve out time for teachers to collaborate on sustainable topics with fellow teachers that teach the same grade. Finally, the researchers recommended that schools host monthly or annual themes like “Two-Wheel Tuesday” from Discovery Elementary (which focused on green transportation) to highlight sustainable education principles. Schools should engage a group of teachers, parents, students, and administrators to lead special event efforts like these aforementioned programs. Overall, the researchers stressed the importance of time for teachers to collaborate on and implement sustainable education lessons, opportunities for professional development, and intentionally adding lessons into the curricula for students to problem-solve on sustainability issues.

The Bottom Line

Teachers in the United States are subject to a system that has not yet prioritized education for sustainable development (ESD), preventing students from learning the valuable information and skills that build a sustainable future. This study aimed to understand educators’ values on sustainability education in the curriculum, how teachers develop their skills for ESD, and the support system for educators teaching sustainability education. The researchers evaluated 4 schools around the United States and interviewed 26 teachers and 9 administrators between those schools. They found that teachers value passion and hands-on learning, lack the time to consistently develop and implement sustainability lessons, and need more professional development opportunities to be successful in ESD. Overall, the researchers stressed the importance of time for teachers to collaborate on and implement sustainable education lessons, opportunities for professional development, and intentionally adding lessons into the curricula for students to problem-solve on sustainability issues.