Academic Blogs

Surval Blog: World Teachers' Day

05 October 2019

Miss MacLeod, Teacher of English and Sustainability Club Coordinator, takes the opportunity of World Teachers' Day to reflect on the relationship between teaching and sustainability...

Preparing to write a Blog for UNESCO World Teachers’ Day, my thoughts wended their way from the inevitable question of what makes a good teacher, to remembering the teachers who have played a part in my own life. 

I do not believe that I have forgotten a single one of them. 

And I wonder: is it appropriate to remember a few here in this Blog – a Blog published for a school perched on a high hill above Lake Geneva in Switzerland, one thousand, eight hundred and seventy three kilometres from the tiny Scottish village – a single street lined on one side with houses; on the other, with a rolling meadow unfolding down to the river Don – where I went to primary school. Perhaps the indulgent reader will forgive me doing so later on this Blog; for taking this opportunity to honour through memory some of the teachers who have helped make me me. 

And perhaps this meander down memory lane will stir some of you into some memories – happy, unhappy, funny, embarrassing, inspiring, uplifting – of your own teachers, past and present. 

Because the great thing about life is that, if we choose, we never stop learning: there is an infinite amount of precious knowledge for us to discover. And if you love learning, in part that will be due to the teachers and learners you have known in your life – your own family; classroom teachers; sports coaches and music instructors; university lecturers and tutors; career mentors and colleagues; friends and loved ones; books and films and music and art…

Perhaps today is the day to take time to reflect and appreciate all of these. I have been doing so, and it has brought back people who I have not thought of for years. But more of that anon. (Note from end of Blog: this reflection took me on a totally different road from that I anticipated – perhaps  you can hear about those teachers on another occasion…)

For now, let’s take a moment to commemorate World Teachers’ Day 2019 in a more conventional way: to think about those who choose to make education their career; and, specifically, to consider the purpose of World Teachers’ Day itself.

World Teachers’ Day was created by UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – in 1966. To learn more about the origins of the day, take a few minutes to head to the UNESCO website, where you will learn that “with the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goal 4 on education…recognizing teachers as key to the achievement of the Education 2030 agenda, WTD has become the occasion to mark progress and reflect on ways to counter the remaining challenges for the promotion of the teaching profession.”

So what are some of those challenges?

Again, for a more comprehensive understanding of these, go to the Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform. SDG 4 is to “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” Yet, the site tells us, in 2017, despite “considerable progress on education access and participation”, 262 million children between the ages of six and seventeen were out of school. A 2016 study found that 750 million adults were illiterate. 

Illiterate. To be unable to read or write. 

I sat and thought for some time after writing that paragraph, thinking about what it means to be illiterate, and what it means for our world for people to be illiterate. To be illiterate is to be denied a passport to the world of the written word, the infinite unfolding topography of the history of humankind and our planet, the wisdom and wit and poetry of literature – worlds within worlds; to be without a visa to the vast continents of mathematics and the sciences, a place complemented by knowledge of the former: 

“For this was the point, surely: he would be a better doctor for having read literature. What deep readings his modified sensibility might make of human suffering, of the self-destructive folly or sheer bad luck that drive men towards ill-health! Birth, death, and the frailty in between. Rise and fall – this was the doctor’s business, and it was literature’s too.” (Ian McEwan, Atonement, VINTAGE U.K. Random House)

To be illiterate is to be denied a basic means of communication. Communication happens when someone speaks and another truly listens; when something is written, and then read with comprehension. From miscommunication and misunderstanding, or false understanding, arise misperception, poor choices and conflict.

Yet in the world of 2019, a world with nearly eight billion of us sharing the finite resources of an unhealthy, dying natural world, there are new types of literacy for all of us to acquire: carbon and environmental literacy.

Let’s open our eyes to the fact that we are living in a world in which, every Friday, hundreds of thousands of students from 150 countries go on an education strike to protest against the insufficient action being taken by global leaders to change an economic system that is sucking our natural world into the planet’s sixth mass extinction, a “biological annihilation” of wildlife and the rape and destruction of our natural resources. 

And we cannot ignore the uncomfortable fact that systems of education have led us to this pivotal moment in humankind’s history. Typically, it is the educated and affluent who have the highest individual carbon footprint; and it is the educated whose ways of thinking, ideas and inventions, who have taken us to a planet trampled in these carbon footprints.

I start that list with ways of thinking intentionally. Today’s education system was shaped by the Renaissance, and the Renaissance was the rebirth of Greek and Roman ideals – ideals that, at heart, were imperial ideals: the ideals of empire and power. The Scottish writer, academic and activist, Alastair McIntosh, explains that

       “The values underlying a ‘good classical education’ must, as aforementioned, have been only too comforting for Europe’s medieval robber-barons, caught between secular expediency and the church, as they fought to consolidate their monarchies. As such, the Renaissance can be seen partly as a gentrification of feudalism, one that led to early modernity’s Enlightenment or ‘Age of Reason’. Reason, and its gift of scientific method, facilitated many positive developments. But it also rapidly advanced military strategy, weaponry and naval technology – all prerequisites for conquest. Furthermore, a Trojan horse accompanied Greek thought. Classical mores carried with them archetypal principles. These were the gods of Homer and associated warrior ideals – ideals the provided the emerging ruling classes with a legitimising frame of reference a world apart from Christian nonviolence. For the Homeric gods and heroes, like the European elites themselves, were a conquering aristocracy.” (ps210-211, Alastair McIntosh, Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power, Aurum Press Ltd, 2001)

The Canadian author, social activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein has proposed that we see the climate crisis as an opportunity to create a fairer world – that “a more humane economy can be shaped by aggressively combating climate change”. Our current world economy has created for many “deep inequalities, accompanied by a sense of powerlessness, of being left behind by a global system that operates with no regard for the interests or voice of the majority.” We live in a world in which “Eight men, it is calculated, hold as much wealth as the poorest half of the planet: 3.6 billion people.”   

The climate movement is calling out for a system change – an overhaul of how our world operates. And yet the first system that most of us will encounter is the educational system. So what should those of us who are part of this system be doing to help create a world that is truly sustainable; to help work towards the achievement of the seventeen UN Sustainable Development Goals? If, as McIntosh argues, our education is rooted in a system founded seven hundred years ago by a “conquering” elite, as we moved from the Middle Ages to Modernity, to what extent do we need to re-evaluate our educational systems?

In the first school I taught at, we took a group of fourteen-year-old students from their home city of Aberdeen to the West Coast of Scotland for a week of team-building activities on the shores of Loch Eil, a beautiful lake at the foot of Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis. As the coach left the city suburbs and we started journeying through the countryside, passing fields of grazing sheep and cows, excited cries came from the back of the bus. It turns out that these were the cries of excitement of some of these teenagers, who lived only fifteen minutes’ drive from these fields, seeing sheep and cows for the first time. 

I wonder: how many children become adults who have never left their city; never experienced our natural world? Never felt the feel of sand or grass or mud beneath their bare feet; never lain on their backs gazing up at the sky through a whispering canopy of vivid green leaves?

And, conversely, how many children become adults who have never known what it means to worry about not having enough money, or enough food, or how they will pay an energy or medical bill?

How can a person love and want to protect and cherish a natural world that they have never experienced? And how can we expect anything but complacency from a person who has only known comfort and security and material prosperity, created through nothing but the luck of the circumstances they are born to?

This reflection is not intended as criticism of anyone. The world is full of people born to privilege who want to use that privilege to help others. And it would be a mistake to think that this help is one-sided – after all, for most of us, few things gift us with such a sense of personal fulfilment as knowing that we have helped someone else. That is why people choose to pursue careers in jobs such as teaching or nursing, professions which will never lead to significant economic wealth, but which lead to a richness of soul.

Each year at Surval Montreux, the girls who fundraise for Habitat for Humanity and then travel to Kenya to build a house for a local family in need alongside Habitat for Humanity, describe this as, if not the highlight of their year, then one of the highlights. The impact on the girls is powerful. In her Student Blog on the experience this April, Fer wrote:

     “…it had a powerful effect on me to see that the local people, who had so little – their homes were just shacks built from aluminium – were so happy and so generous with us and each other; they were amazing. They don’t have many material possessions, and yet they seemed much more content with life than so many people who have lots of ‘things’. I think it is important for all of us to see that materialism doesn’t bring happiness.

By realising what I have and how little they have in comparison in terms of food and access to water, it has made me become someone who is more aware about what I consume and what I waste, often without even meaning to. Since the trip, I have changed many of my habits such as taking shorter showers and serving myself only what I think I am going to eat, then going back for more if necessary, rather than throwing anything away. I learned this after seeing the philosophy of sharing that the Kenyan people had: we would be holding onto three bits of bread each, and then realise that the Kenyans would be sharing one bit between several people; it is so much better if we all have just a little bit less, rather than one person having lots and others too little.”

Fer’s final observation and reflection functions as a powerfully pertinent metaphor for today’s society. As humans, I believe there are two ideas we should take from this. Firstly, that we need to figure out a way to make sure everyone has the bread that they need. Too little or too much is not healthy. And secondly, we need to learn that true contentment cannot be created through consumerism or greed. Here was Fer, helping build a home for a family that were, by economic standards, “poor”, and yet Fer was struck by their selflessness, generosity and happiness. 

As educators, we know that often the most important lessons happen outside the classroom. So why not take teaching and learning out into the world more? Learn outside more, learn from real life more? 

Many of the teenagers involved in the Youth Strike for Climate are asking why they aren’t being taught about climate change in schools. I think that they should be. To some extent, this may mean bringing in experts – someone qualified on the subject. But there is no teacher who could not teach a basic understanding of the Sustainable Development Goals; and these goals should be taught, alongside the alphabet and numbers, as the foundation of sustainable literacy. We need to equip students not just with knowledge and skills, but inspire them with love of the natural world and a sense of empathy for all forms of life on this planet – to help them become empowered, caring citizens of a sustainable world; humans who find fulfilment through the discovery of knowledge, in giving back to their communities and in their own  personal relationships. 

In December, I am taking the girls in the Sustainability Club, and any other student who wishes to come, to visit the Mer de Glace in Chamonix. This is just one of the many glaciers around the planet that is rapidly melting as a result of our warming planet, and I want the girls to see it while they still can. For what is the fundamental motivator of anyone shifting to a more sustainable way of living? Love. For the students in the Surval Sustainability Club, that love will be their love of the planet, or perhaps their love and protectiveness of a younger sibling. For parents making that change, it will be their love not just of the planet, but for their children – a primal urge to do everything in their power to secure a safe and hospitable planet for them to live a long, healthy and happy life on. 

One of my pivotal life moments came when I was twenty-two. Working as a waitress with a degree in English Literature and absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life, I was given the opportunity of a possible internship working at German Vogue magazine. Initially, I was stoked. I love beauty, and that includes beautiful shoes, clothes, bags and hats. It seemed like a golden opportunity. But then I had one of those revelations that perhaps only come to us once or twice in life. For me, this was fool’s gold – deceptively alluring but without the substance it promised. I had the self-knowledge to realise that this was not the path that would bring me deep personal fulfilment. 

And that was when I discovered that I wanted to be teacher. It was an unexpected revelation for someone petrified of public speaking, but from that epiphany, I never faltered in the steps it took to becoming one. 

And throughout my career as a teacher, I have strived to help my students get the results they need to pursue the careers that will bring them fulfilment. I have tried to instil my own love of literature in them. I hope that I have helped them develop their empathy and imagination, their self-belief and professionalism. It has been a truly wonderful journey and a privilege to have played a part in the lives of so many young people.

It has not been easy, but the goal seemed clear. Giving young men and women the skills and qualifications to sail on a sea of possibility towards an endless horizon. But now, now the seas are filling with plastic and emptying of life, and the horizon is a haze of toxic, warming smog. What place do qualifications have in this world? This is not a rhetorical question – we need to ask this question. Because learning matters; knowledge matters; education matters. But are we giving learners the right education? Traditional education touches to some extent on climate change, but only if you are following certain subjects. For most teenagers, climate change awareness has been spread through social media, not traditional media, and social media has been vital in engendering climate action.

And now the world’s children and teenagers are really waking up to the reality that the future of this planet as one that can sustain life is in peril. And they are taking what action they can to try and change this. By encouraging and supporting participation in the climate strikes, schools can play a role in contributing to the success of these – success being any political action that will help drastically reduce the warming of Earth. 

So, to conclude. At the beginning of this reflection, I thought that I would, after a few paragraphs about World Teachers’ Day, simply end by remembering old teachers who touched my own life – forgetting how thoughts take on a life and journey of their own. Robert Frost expressed the impossibility of retracing our footsteps best when he wrote that “knowing how way leads on to way / I doubted I should ever come back.” I have not returned to the point I started on. But I feel where I have ended up is going to take me to new roads.

For now: 

There are two overwhelming things that inspire me to do what little I can to help heal our planet and contribute to a sustainable way of life: firstly, by my own love of Earth and its beautiful interconnected tapestry of life; and, secondly, by how much I want everyone to get to share that love, no matter their life circumstances, for generation after generation. I am inspired with hope when I see how many young people are striking for Fridays for Future. Contrary to what some cynics may say about the motivating factor in teenagers taking part in the strikes, nearly fifteen years of experience has shown me that most young people do appreciate the value of their school education and missing out on it is a sacrifice. But if missing a Friday of school each week helps to ensure that there can be Fridays and schools in the future, then it is the most worthwhile sacrifice any student can make.

Appropriately enough, I have spent the best part of World Teachers’ Day reflecting on teaching and, particularly, on being a teacher in the world of the sixth mass extinction. And the point I want to end on is that while those of us in the teaching profession might sometimes receive the ultimate compliment of being described as inspirational, that is not why we become teachers. We become teachers because young people inspire us. And for me, never more so than now – because if there is to be a future for life on Earth, it could lie in the hands of the Youth for Climate movement.


Further Sources:

Effects of environmental illiteracy and environmental awareness among middle school students on environmental behavior

The Carbon Literacy Project

Worlds Apart: how Neoliberalism shapes the global economy and limits the power of democracies

Global Survey: Where in the world is most and least aware of climate change? 

Should climate change be taught in schools?