Students want to learn more about climate change. The effects are already disrupting their lives. And experts say the issue should be considered interdisciplinary, with even the youngest students learning about the warming Earth in age-appropriate ways.
But there’s one big problem: Teachers don’t have the training or background knowledge to confidently teach about climate change. More than three-quarters of teachers have never received any professional training or education on climate change or how to teach it, according to a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey fielded in December 2022.
Administrators at the Community Consolidated School District 93 in Bloomingdale, Ill., are working to change that. For the past three years, the 3,280-student district has offered educators a one-year professional development program to learn about how they can teach climate change in all grades and subjects.
The kicker: Teachers who complete the program are compensated for it. They are moved up a lane in the district salary schedule, creating a real financial incentive to engage in what can be daunting work. So far, about 40 of the 300 teachers in the district have completed the program, which teaches them the basic science of climate change and offers concrete ideas for how to incorporate the subject into their everyday lessons.
“You can’t do stuff unless you have some background in it,” said Pam Goble, a retired middle school teacher in the district and the program’s designer and facilitator. “I wanted [the course to be] a stepping stone for teachers to be able to implement something in their classroom.”
When Goble approached Superintendent David Hill with her idea for the PD program, he was immediately on board. Hill said district leaders have made a conscious commitment to be as environmentally friendly as possible over the years. There are composting programs in the cafeteria and environmental clubs in most schools. The district has gradually been making sustainable changes to its facilities, including replacing asphalt parking lots with permeable pavers, replacing incandescent lightbulbs with more efficient LED lighting, and installing sensors so that lights turn off in empty rooms.
Incorporating climate change into the curriculum seemed like a logical next step for the district.
“I don’t know if I can really change the thought processes of people my age, but if we can get our children thinking a little differently about the environment, perhaps we can make a difference down the road,” Hill said.
Students want to learn more about the environment and how they can protect it, he said, adding that most parents have been “very positive” about this districtwide focus. The PD program gives teachers the confidence—and the practical tools—to meet student interest.
“When they’re developing a lesson, is there something they can throw in that has an environmental flair to it?” Hill said. “Does that work for everything? No. [But] it gets the environment more in the forefront of their minds. … It’s an opportunity for them to be a little more creative adding something to the curriculum.”
How the program is structured
The program consists of four nine-week courses that are modeled after graduate school classes, Goble said. The classes are taught by Goble over Zoom, and they’re open to all educators in the district, including support staff, although only teachers receive the financial incentive.
The first course is a broad overview about the basics of climate change. The educators learn the terminology—for example, the difference between climate change and weather—and read articles about what’s happening now, and how society can mitigate the effects.
The second course is centered on climate fiction in children’s and young adult literature. The genre—which can be found in books, movies, podcasts, and other media—features a changed or changing climate as a backdrop and can be compelling entryways into learning about environmental issues. Educators read Life As We Knew It, a dystopian YA novel by Susan Beth Pfeffer about life after a meteor knocks the moon closer to the earth, and I’m With the Bears: Short Stories from a Damaged Planet, a collection of stories highlighting the dangers of climate change, including one by Margaret Atwood.
“There’s real science in this, and this is an easier way for kids to learn about real science,” Goble said.
After taking this course, Cathy Rogers, an 8th grade special education teacher, started introducing some of the climate fiction books into the book club she leads. Her favorite is Neal and Jarrod Shusterman’s Dry, a story of one teen’s survival when the California drought escalates to catastrophic proportions. It’s a popular selection among her students.
“It definitely maintains their interest,” Rogers said.
The third course is about place-based learning, which is when teachers use students’ surroundings and community as a vehicle for instruction, and naturalistic intelligence, which psychologist Howard Gardner has defined as interest in and the ability to identify and classify elements of nature. Educators learn how to tell if students have a keen interest in nature and how to foster that. They research environmentalists and learn about careers in sustainability and nature.
In the fourth and final course, action research for teaching and learning, educators create a lesson or unit plan that incorporates climate change or environmentalism, which they then put into practice.
For example, Kelly Ashline, an elementary instructional coach, asked a teacher if she could lead a project about composting in her classroom. Ashline and the students worked together to make a worm compost bin. The students composted the food scraps from their snacks every day and learned to care for the worms. They also learned about the broader picture of waste reduction and sustainability.
“They learned all about where your garbage goes, what can be recycled, what can be reused, what has to go in the landfill, and all that,” Ashline said. “We kept the worms all school year—they absolutely loved taking care of them.”
The teachers also share their lesson plans with others in the district after the program is complete. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Goble said.
After all, the district doesn’t expect to get close to 100 percent participation from teachers, Superintendent Hill said. But the more educators go through the program, the more likely it is that their colleagues will be inspired to think differently about their own curriculum.
Math teachers will say, “Oh, I can’t do a unit on climate change,” Goble said. “Nobody’s asking you to do that. We’re asking you to integrate some of these ideas.”
Intensive training is rare
Teachers who have completed the program say it was eye-opening. “I knew a little bit about climate change beforehand, but diving into the research was really helpful,” Rogers said.
Such extensive training at the district level is rare. Only 6 percent of teachers said their school or district has provided professional development on how to teach climate change, according to the EdWeek Research Center. Most teacher-preparation programs also spend little time on the issue.
Even most science teachers say they either haven’t received any professional training or education on climate change or have pursued that sort of training on their own time, the EdWeek Research Center survey found.
The dearth of training has an impact: Nearly 1 in 5 teachers who don’t address climate change with students said it’s because they’re not well-versed in the science and feel out of their depth discussing it, the survey found. About a quarter said it’s because they can’t think of any way it is related to the subject they teach.
Teachers also need to feel confident on how to approach such a complex topic in their classroom and to avoid common pitfalls. Lin Andrews, the director of teacher support for the National Center for Science Education, said the center recommends teachers don’t teach climate change as a “both sides” issue, or one that’s up for debate. Instead, teachers should be clear that climate change is happening and is caused by human activity, help debunk students’ misconceptions, and discuss solutions to protect the environment, she said.
It’s nuanced, interdisciplinary work, Andrews said, and a district offering a yearlong program is “phenomenal.”
She also praised how CCSD93 is incentivizing teachers to enroll but not requiring them to do so: “The moment you make something mandatory for teachers, you take away their professionalism in some ways.”
Andrews warned that this work shouldn’t end when teachers graduate from the program. “Any one-and-done PD is not going to cause effective change,” she said. “You need to develop a community of practice where they can return to the subject multiple times over multiple years.”
Teachers need to be able to reflect on any changes they’ve made in their instruction and any issues that arise, Andrews said. That could happen in a dedicated online forum for teachers who’ve been through the program or, ideally, in recurring PD discussion time.
She added: “You’re talking about a pedagogical shift, you’re talking about a new way of teaching curriculum in many ways. … A year on an interdisciplinary subject is definitely not enough.”
Goble said CCSD93 is deciding how or whether to continue professional learning on climate change, beyond the yearlong program. What that would look like is still unclear—and teachers who have finished the program say they’re still trying to figure out how to channel their newfound knowledge.
“There’s a drive from people in the course—we were like, so what’s next?” Ashline said. “We all left really passionate and pumped and excited.”
But the requirements and logistics of the school day haven’t changed to provide a natural outlet for some of this energy, she said, which has left her “a little deflated.”
“I don’t see a big system change, by any means,” Rogers said. “I do know that some people are doing little things here and there—like the elective courses or the book clubs. But time is always an issue in education.”
Both Ashline and Rogers said they’d love to have the district start offering environmental studies as an elective, alongside music, art, and physical education. After all, they said, students are paying attention.
“They know [climate change is] happening, they see it around them. They see the weather, they know something’s not quite right,” Ashline said. “If we ignore it, they feel like they’re being kept in the dark. If we make it really scary for them, they’re getting a lot of climate anxiety. So we have to walk that line between: What can they do?”
Ashline has led an environment club for elementary students for nearly a decade, but completing the PD program has led to deeper conversations, she said. And students are eager to learn and do more.
“This one boy said, ‘You know what would be the best? If Environment Club was the whole day,’” Ashline said. “I said, ‘Oh, I know, I hear you, buddy!’”