How we’re rethinking teacher development for sustainability

Education for sustainability starts with how we train and develop our teachers, writes Charlie Simmans

Education for sustainability starts with how we train and develop our teachers, writes Charlie Simmans

26 Jun 2023, 5:00

In January 2023, I took on the role of head of teacher development and quality improvement at Suffolk New College. I’m determined to think differently about the teaching landscape to empower my colleagues to be innovative for our learners, and for me, one of the key factors driving us towards a new paradigm of education is the desperate need for more sustainable lives.

When the ETF announced the new teacher professional standards in 2022, an amendment caught my eye. PVA2 called on teachers to ‘promote and embed education for sustainable development (ESD) across learning and working practices’.

I was bemused. What does this even mean? Is this about using less paper? Recycling bins in classrooms? More digital lessons? And how could I teach this authentically to trainee teachers and my peers if I didn’t know? And with that I went on a journey.

I’m still on that journey, but at this juncture I have concluded that ESD isn’t just about green skills, climate change and the environment. It’s about developing, promoting, and eliciting the knowledge, skills, values and attributes we need for a different society altogether.

That sounds like a big ask, but the truth is that the solutions are mostly already here. We just need to tap into them, and that’s a question of engaging everyone in the effort. Our staff don’t need CPD on sustainability for their subject specialisms; they are already living and breathing their industries. They don’t need external ‘experts telling them what they already know. They need time to connect with each other to develop what they do.

To deliver sustainability education, we have to deliver education sustainably, starting with teacher education. So my team and I have been planning a whole day of CPD activity to model that.

We have a floor full of escape rooms for staff to crack, aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and exploring themes such as poverty, health and education. Staff will be able to make artistic sustainability pledges to display to students. There’s a workshop dedicated to gamification tools to use as building blocks to engage individuals in solving problems and drive sustainable behaviours. And our last workshop has definite Mission: Impossible vibes, but the message it delivers will be most definitely not self-destruct.

To deliver sustainability education, we have to deliver education sustainably

This is about long-term change, and creating a culture of change. The solutions we develop now can’t become a new status quo. They will need to continuously evolve and refine, and the biggest challenge to that is that humans are creatures of habit.

Sadly, this includes some educators for whom inertia is comfortable and who meet change with resistance. The measure of our success will be whether our sustainability-led approach to teacher education and CPD can bring them along on the journey.

Sustainability demands that we experience the world in a different way, and that means teaching in a different way. In other words, teaching itself must become more sustainable, and what could make it more attractive and enjoyable than to systematically empower teachers’ critical thinking skills and their problem-solving prowess.

After all, how else can we expect them to elicit these same kinds of skills in our young learners? We have a responsibility to teach in such ways that our learners have the knowledge and skills necessary to live responsibly. Designing a curriculum for sustainability involves reviewing the content knowledge we impart, but that’s only part of it. We have to model what we teach to have any hope of truly affecting their perceptions and behaviours.

So I’m grateful to the teacher standards for putting me on this journey and I’m excited to be taking this next step on it to bring more of our staff along on the ride. I hope other colleges and institutions will join us in thinking differently about shaping the next generation of students and teachers to meet the challenge of climate change.

How we go about that will vary across regions and contexts, but the core aims will be the same: creating enabling environments and fostering a culture of change. And the way I see it, that starts with teacher development.

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