Why does an individual become a teacher, and what is their number one priority? Is it to pass on knowledge of something that they are passionate about? Is it to give youngsters the best possible opportunities to fulfil their potential? I can’t speak for every single teacher. However, from my own experience, is that while passion and aspiration-raising are significant parts of a teacher’s identity, nurturing and protecting young people is fundamental. This loco-parentis aspect of the job is called ‘safeguarding’.
Through various jobs in education, I’m pretty clued up on safeguarding practice and policy. When I combine this with my experience working in the climate science sector, it is very clear to me that climate change is a safeguarding issue. I have laid out my case via teachers conferences, radio and podcast appearances, articles and blog posts. Our students are being directly affected by the impacts of the climate crisis, and the growing robustness of climate attribution science is one source of evidence that this is the case.
One of those impacts is on our mental health. But what about our children? In March 2021, a report titled The Rise of Eco-Anxiety was released by Force of Nature, a non-profit that works to empower young people to ‘climate agency’. Responses from over 500 students in 52 countries saw that over 70% experienced a ‘feeling of hopelessness when they thought about climate change’. Poor mental health as a result of environmental degradation and climate change is real.
In the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate change impacts, the impact on mental health was assessed the first time in such a comprehensive scientific report. This is not just climate anxiety, but this also the trauma due to suffering directly from the impacts of climate change.
While the both the IPCC’s report and the Rise of Eco-Anxiety report seem to set a depressing scene, the latter’s key message reflects Force of Nature’s aim to “help young people shift out of anger, anxiety, frustration and despair; toward feelings of agency, determination, community and vision.” And for me and many other educators, this is a way forward to both fulfil our safeguarding duties and fight back against the climate crisis; to help children embrace their anxiety and counter the ‘doom narrative’ with hopeful messages and examples of positivity. Here are a few ideas.
Teaching our youngsters all the actions an individual can take to ‘do their part’ seems par for the course. But this alone can be counterproductive. What if a particular student has the willingness but not the agency? What if one does not have the levels of privilege needed to act? Perhaps their household has financial difficulties, or they don’t feel comfortable challenging people at home to make changes. This can lead to further anxiety and guilt. To counter this, it’s important for teachers to help students understand that being fallible and imperfect in our response is okay, just like being anxious is okay. When providing a list of potential actions, students should evaluate not just their willingness and desire to perform each one, but also evaluate their capability to do so. Students should feel they don’t need to disclose why they don’t or can’t have a go at an action. Having a safe classroom environment will allow students to offer up their thoughts if they so wish. Schools which have an ethos and culture which promotes healthy discussion and exploration of ‘privilege’ itself will find this approach far less challenging.
Having role-models can be a double-edged sword. While we are grateful to renowned figures like Greta Thunberg or David Attenborough, they are individuals who have celebrity status, and attempting to emulate those is unrealistic. While Greta is someone young people can relate to by her age, she is unlikely to be unrepresentative at a personal level. What about role models from the local community? From similar backgrounds as the students themselves? Role models that are fallible and accepting that they can’t do everything? A great example of this was the Youth Climate Summit that took place virtually here in the UK in November 2020. I was privileged to be a member of the organising committee, but driving it were the young people themselves. Each day of the week-long event was hosted by a Primary (Elementary) and Secondary (High) School, and 28 ‘youth ambassadors’ facilitated talks and sessions. There were numerous examples of schools and individuals showcasing fun exciting projects and initiatives to do their bit, from creating a school allotment to grow flowers and vegetables to closing the road outside a school during the rat-runs to improve air quality. Several of the youth ambassadors submitted to me stories their personal efforts, from which I generated a piece of performance poetry. You can explore the piece here.
On a structural level, schools should consider climate change as a safeguarding issue through a reflective process, considering the context of their situation and demographics. This is done through posing questions that can be linked to statutory safeguarding guidance. For example, a question that can be linked to “providing a safe environment in which children can learn” (taken from UK statutory guidance for schools) can be “What messages of positivity or empowerment (e.g. successful efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change, community projects etc) are being communicated through the curriculum?”.
Curriculum mapping activity using Google Jamboard during a teacher training session on from the Geographical Association conference in April 2021. Participants teaching Geography in the UK to 11-18 year olds used ‘digital post-its’ to think about when they could address safeguarding links in their curriculum.
Will the above efforts be enough on their own to make a significant impact on our efforts to mitigate climate change? Maybe not, especially given that much of the game-changing levels of greenhouse gas emissions are rooted in deep structures at the behest of people with much power and privilege. However, these efforts are examples of crucial things that must be done to help our young people feel they can make a difference, empowering them to then press for change at the highest level. More importantly, perhaps, they are crucial to help our youngsters feel human again.
Kit Marie Rackley – NASBTT Secondary Geography Subject Specialist Associate Consultant