Policy Shifts and the Effects on Environmental Education: A Teacher's Story

Article excerpt

When you address the council, carry a green sprig in your hand, that yours may be living words.

- Laws of the Lodge

(Teachings of Crazy Horse, Tecumseh and others, Jennifer Harries, 2005).

In this article, I invite you to experience my living words as I tell you about my journey to understanding the challenges teachers face when trying to instill a deep respect for the environment while working within the Ontario education system - a system whose policies, I feel, marginalize environmental consciousness.

This is a story about my time as a teacher working for an Ontario school board. It is a story that illustrates the effects that government influenced policy making has on the teacher on the "front lines," and how the effects can impact what the student gets to learn.

As a lover of the natural world, I have always sought to develop a deep, ecologically healthy relationship with the Earth. I wanted to be a teacher of the environment. I wanted to take kids outside to experience nature in deep and meaningful ways that would be valued and life-changing. It was not enough for me to work with children at summer camps or outdoor centres: these places were temporary structures that would only 'whet the appetite' of the children just before they would be ushered back on the school bus and into their four-walled classrooms. That's when I decided that by becoming a teacher, I might be able to make more of a difference; where my voice might carry more credibility.

But credibility comes with a big price. As I entered this profession, there came with it a growing knowledge of the procedures, politics and policies surrounding curriculum. But I was young, energetic and cared little about such procedures. I needed to be where the environmental component was, no matter what. And, for a time, I was.

I was spoiled! I began teaching in 1989, when there was a lot more money in the system. Since the late 1970's, public education in Ontario was the most de-centralized system in Canada for curriculum policy. It was traditionally funded by provincial grants and property taxes and when Ontario's provincial share of education funding declined, "property taxes, assessed and collected by local school boards, took up the slack to a degree matched by no other province". (Bedard and Lawton, 2000) Teacher federations were strong in the collective bargaining. The 1980s and early 1990s was, comparatively speaking, a time of wealth and abundance.

This was the model that existed when I entered teaching.

For environmental education, it meant that it was the students' right, not their privilege, to participate in environmental opportunities during their school career. As a teacher, it was imperative that you planned for these opportunities.

I remember the experience of Camp Kitchekewana with my grade four class: three full days of camp life where I could realize my vision of instilling environmental consciousness into my teaching.

At that time, Camp Kitchi was a tradition at the school where I taught. But in addition to Camp Kitchi, our students would receive even more lengthy environmental opportunities in their elementary years. In grade five, they would camp at a local Wildlife Centre and in grade six at a local forest. In addition to many other curriculum-related day outings, teachers chose and planned their own fieldtrips and corresponding lessons during these years. Curriculum was negotiated between students and teachers, so one could easily make time for being outside. Picnics, outdoor read-a-louds and workshops in environmental education were plentiful. I can remember teachers routinely hosting yearend class barbecues and parties at their homes, outside. Students were engaged in the learning. This was the norm. Times were good.

It was during these days that I heard about the Outdoor Education Subject Council. This was a council of teachers, led by a chairperson and overseen by a curriculum consultant. …