We have to practise what we preach about sustainability

Influencing young people to make greener choices is as much about show as it is about tell

Influencing young people to make greener choices is as much about show as it is about tell

22 Apr 2024, 5:00

I recently taught a session about sustainability in the workplace to trainee early years practitioners. Reflecting on the experience I began to wonder how effective words are in influencing young people’s worldviews.

Sustainability is a hot topic, and rightly so. Taking responsibility for our actions and behaviours at home and in the workplace to do our part is the only way most citizens can be proactive in protecting our planet. However, educators are in a privileged position to inform and enthuse young people for the effort.

As tutors of future early years practitioners, teachers, family support practitioners and social workers, my colleagues and I are deeply aware of our responsibility in this regard. We are not only teaching sustainability to our learners but teaching them to teach the subject to children, young people and families.

With sustainability as with other topics such as mental health, privacy and British Values, we are offering our students an opportunity to think about their own lives, practices and choices and modelling how to pass that opportunity along to their communities.

For example, we can’t just teach about the ravages of single-use plastics with a plastic water bottle from the vending machine in our hand. What use is recommending a reusable one from home if we don’t make that choice ourselves? We are teaching knowledge and skills rooted in appreciating and protecting the natural world. And that starts with each of us being (and being seen to be) responsible for caring for the planet.

What surprised me most while leading this session was how students reacted to the information I passed on. It made me question whether we are embedding sustainable living into our teaching enough and question the bolt-on approach we are often forced to adopt when doing so. But most importantly it made me wonder if we should be considering the impact of teachers (and the organisations we work for) as role models.

Do we really need to ‘teach’ all these topics outright, or would learners be more greatly influenced by seeing us, as responsible adults, walking the walk and not just talking the talk?

There’s a mental health component here too

Early years settings implement policies that include drinking only water and snacking on fruit and vegetables in front of their young charges because they appreciate the value of social learning and role modelling. But how many FE staff do the same?

Do we role model the use of separate bins for recyclable and non-recyclable waste in the classroom or workshop? Do we verbalise our actions and explain why it matters? How many students witness staff stubbing out a cigarette on the ground? How many see staff using a coffee mug they brought in from home or throw away their lunch waste into a separate bin?

It’s not just a question of sustainability. There’s a mental health component here too. Climate anxiety is real and affects many young people. What damage are we doing preaching sustainability while failing to practice it?

The examples above are only the tip of the iceberg. Every member of staff associated with a particular industry or sector can tell you how their industry is tackling sustainability in the ‘real world’. Does FE live up to that?

The opportunity and availability of resources to implement sustainable practices across colleges vary greatly. I am lucky to work in one where sustainability is high on the agenda and always part of strategic plans. Suffolk New College won the Inenco Award for Education for Sustainable Development for its Green Skills initiative.

We ran a two-day Sustainability Festival, hosted a green skills conference, and created a Net Zero Skills Centre to support training in renewable energy solutions and sustainable construction.  We even held a basketball game between students and staff, the score of which dictated the number of trees we planted around campus. (Basketball scores are high!)

Not all colleges have the resources to do this, but the little things count too. What every college can do is to conduct an audit of its day-to-day routines and be guided by it to do better. Because just telling learners how to do their part isn’t enough; we have to show we mean it.

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One comment

  1. In every sustainability or Net Zero action plan there should be two mandatory questioning elements.

    1. Where is our balance between action and virtue signalling?
    2. Has the whole life carbon foot print (of a particular aspect) been considered?

    I’d also advocate precise use of language – Instead of saying ‘what we’re doing is better for environment…’ it should be ‘what we are doing is less worse or less harmful…’. One phrase is not the opposite of the other, unless you haven’t really comprehended option 1 above.