Why Climate Change Made Me Quit Teaching

Greta Thunberg joined other young climate activists for a climate strike outside the White House in last week.
Greta Thunberg joined other young climate activists for a climate strike outside the White House in last week.
—Susan Walsh/AP

From biology teacher to climate educator

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As Greta Thunberg and thousands of youth activists worldwide participate today in the largest Youth Climate Strike to date, educators like me see the primal-scream-worthy subtext: Students have realized that to secure their future, their best option is to leave school grounds. Never was there a clearer sign that our schools must do better on climate change.

A little over a year ago, I left the 9th grade biology classroom, my home and passion for six years, because I did not have the time and support to help young people address the one issue that will affect them the most. The pittance of lessons my colleagues and I managed to squeeze into our curricula were often squandered on the minutiae of the science or the distraction that is climate denial. Our students were left fearful, discouraged, and worst of all, too busy to apply what they learn on real solutions. I continue to watch countless young people overflowing with passion and urgency judder to a halt at a crossroads where they must choose between building a true movement and meeting our school's "safer," more traditional metrics of success.

"Because some have branded apolitical scientific facts as partisan, we educators often shy away from climate solutions that are fundamental to the future wellbeing of our students."

Because some have branded apolitical scientific facts as partisan, we educators often shy away from climate solutions that are fundamental to the future well-being of our students, instead of succumbing to the more immediate deadlines of standardized tests and core curriculum requirements. We ignore the fact that a growing number of young Republicans also fear climate change and that many are working hard to put the "conserve" back into the conservative platform. And we turn a blind eye to the profoundly political implications of our inaction, which plays directly into the agenda of the multi-billion-dollar fossil fuel industries and their political puppets, allowing them to profit off the futures of the very students we labor to support every day. And we do all this just as the science tells us that we have even less time to act than we thought.

Luckily, we have the power to change school. And I'm not just talking about excusing student absences on strike day, as many school districts across the nation, notably including New York City public schools, are doing. We the educators, the school boards, the administrators, and the parents can decide that it is better to actively provide students time, resources, and support in school to engage with the political process.

At the nonprofit where I work, I train young leaders to identify and develop their personal values and evaluate how policies align (or fail to align) with those values. We help them craft op-eds and teach them how to speak with their legislators face-to-face. We study the systems of power and interpersonal dynamics that make political change happen. And with the help of brave thoughtful educators, we can bring this work into classrooms, with every bit of wisdom and discernment and care that we can muster.

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The time is ripe for making climate action an educational standard. In my home state of Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker recently signed a bill into law that promotes nonpartisan civic engagement in public schools. National and state education standards are already calling for work like this that is interdisciplinary, authentic, and rigorous enough to mold better citizens. But to do this right, we must relinquish the idea that political action isn't appropriate for the classroom. Instead, we must make explicit space in our curricula for students to identify and pull the most powerful levers in our political system. We must protect their autonomy and political independence by giving them options on how and when to engage. When students no longer feel the need to strike during school to engage in politics, we will know we have succeeded.

At the strike on March 15 this year, I found myself speaking with vibrant, inspired youth from all over Massachusetts who thronged the front steps of our Statehouse chanting, singing, arguing, envisioning. But a few hours later, the people and power all but dissipated on those very steps. What if educators had helped them channel and focus that energy, guided them to sit down with the specific legislators who will make or break their future to hold them to account? Given the remarkable strides young people are making without us, imagine what they could accomplish with us.

Vol. 39, Issue 07, Page 17

Published in Print: October 1, 2019, as The Youth Climate Strikes Are Why I Quit Teaching (for Now)
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