Every year on 5 October, World Teachers’ Day celebrates teachers’ efforts in transforming education around the world, while acknowledging the support and resources they need to excel in their vocation as well as reevaluating the way forward for this profession.
At the LearningPlanet Alliance, we strive to highlight and hear from teachers leading the way forward from all over the world. Read on to meet Sean Bellamy, who is one of the founding members of Sands , an alternative independent school focused on child-centered teaching.
How does one become a climate educator?
The journey for all of us can be really long and beautiful. But, there was a moment when I realised that my entanglement with the planet made it impossible for me to be just a psychology and history teacher. It was when I was doing some research on the Kalahari Desert and !Kung that I had one of those eureka moments that shifts one’s approach to education. In the Kalahari, one learns what is both relevant and real.
Everything that a young person learns enables them to flourish within this landscape and much is in relationship with the elders. Teachers are everywhere and offer the skills and capabilities the landscape requires. Their relationship with their ‘teachers’ is both meaningful and necessary. Was this true of what I was teaching?
What if all learning in the modern world was as relevant? As if you were sitting with an elder learning how to find and store water, or learning how to make an arrow or to read spore? Shouldn’t our education be like this, entangled with our nature and our modern Kalahari? It became obvious that I was teaching about a planet that no longer existed and I needed to teach about the one in front of me. The one crying out.
If I was to be an elder with meaningful things to share then I needed to teach with the Planet in mind. And the only way I could do that was to see myself as an elder of the Anthropocene. As one of our children said, ‘Sean, what’s the point of doing Maths if there are no elephants left to count and what’s the point of all this English if there are no forests left to describe.’
In this way, I can share with children the skills and knowledge they need to flourish in this 21st century Kalahari. That is when I became a climate educator. It’s not about paralysing children with fear but offering them the knowledge and skills that will empower, and not disempower them in their grief at the struggles of our dying planet.
Children have always played in the bomb craters the adults create.
I consider myself lucky. We created a school with a beautiful building surrounded by nature. I’m lucky enough to be in this school, which has an acre and a half of gardens, trees and a little forest, and children can play in swings, learn outside, pick fruit when it ripens and grow the food we cook for lunch. Unless you learn to fall in love with nature, why would you save it?
Learning about the SDGs is one thing, but actually sitting by a pond and playing in the snow is another. Reconnection with nature and becoming entangled in it probably needs to happen before many of us will understand what we are losing and then we may fight to save it.
Nature is what they want to save because they’re connected to it; there’s a communion between them and the landscape. And we’ve forgotten that because education has become separated from the world it teaches about. The theoretical world of exams has become a self sustaining system remote from landscape, from water and the sky.
We look out of the window in our stuffy classrooms and are asked to write about the trees. Of course, there are amazing educators who are able to tap into the imaginations of the children and share the knowledge we need to become guardians of the Earth, but when children genuinely feel a connection with their own ‘Kalahari’ then their activism is awakened. As educators, we need to wake up to this truth and teach what is relevant. I saw a poster recently that had a group of young climate activists holding a poster that announced, ‘We will be less activist, When you adults be less shit’ Challenge accepted.
Who and or what are your sources of inspiration?
Let me share a story with you.
Imagine this: I’m in a room with two teenagers, one 13 and one 14 years old, and we’re talking about life, psychology and philosophy and the Holocaust, as it’s what we’ve been covering in history. I eat lunch with the children everyday. It’s easy to believe that children somehow know we are interested in their lives, but we probably need to prove it by asking them. Because what it looks like to most children is that educators are actually interested in how interested children are in them.
One of them says: ‘a second Holocaust is happening right now.’ She is alluding to the mass slaughter of sentient beings every single day in the planet wide factory farming system. The next evolution of humanity, she continues, is going to be the evolution of empathy and compassion – a new evolution at the emotional not physical level.
This group of teenagers had tapped into this amazing truth, because no one was limiting the conversation to just curriculum. My experience has been that the wisdom of our youth is only limited by our willingness to hear it.
“What’s the point of maths if there are no elephants left to count,
And english if there are no forests left to describe?”– A student of Sean’s
How do you and other teachers involve kids this age on such topics?
It’s scary isn’t it, being responsible for educating children about a planet that may soon struggle to support them. I wonder how parents talked to children about impending war with Germany in 1939, or the possibility of nuclear war in the 60’s? What are parents saying in the Ukraine today?
If we are expected to teach children about Shakespeare and algebra, we should definitely be educating about human rights and climate catastrophe. That responsibility falls on us and what I do know is that in the absence of courageous governments, only collective action based in empathy may protect us from an apocalypse. Hiding from the truth isn’t an option. So how can we engage in this conversation with children? On the other side of fear, denial and grief is action and I think that engaging children in positive action is probably the way forward.
We have just voted on making ourselves a Climate Emergency School which involves a 3 stranded approach of
- Capital Investment [ 3-5% of total budget , based on Noah Harare’s figures of 3% GDP which is needed to slow down the race towards climate catastrophe]
- Curriculum development that explores the positive stories and modelling of not just SDG’s, but stories of curation/ healing and repair and so we don’t remain in the denial/grief phase and finally
- A third strand that revolves around curation/care in which the school engages in small scale projects to support wildlife, water, soil, waste, recycling within its own world and then attempts to influence beyond its own borders and helps children feel positive that they are part of the repair. It is led by a group of students who have been given executive authority by the democratic community to use the capital to support the other two strands. The knowledge flows from the desire to act.
My experience is that children are able to cope with the facts if they can also be part of the solution. The theoretical can be terrifying if not supported by the practical.
What’s the best advice your students have given you?
‘You should probably go on a course to teach that, Sean.’
Every day, they tell me when I’m wrong. We’re in an environment where we’re being emotionally honest with each other. They also tell me when I’m right, in a really beautiful way.
The education flows two ways: it’s reciprocal.
I worked with a young girl who had cystic fibrosis. She was 15 years old, and she died at 23. And we were pretty sure at 15 that unless she got an organ transplant, she would die. So imagine educating with that in your mind. At Sands, the students are not obliged to attend class. They are expected to design their curriculum from what is on offer and from their own initiative. It is an act of choice to put your hand on the door handle of a classroom, and you enter the room with the understanding that it is your choice. So as an educator, I need to respect that choice.
This wasn’t about an education for the future for this young girl – it was about education for the now. She wasn’t going to have a tomorrow. School today was where life began and ended and it would have been insincere to talk about doing this education thing as a preparation for the future. Maybe this is true for all our children and if so, school should be both a celebration of all young peoples’ need to flourish now and a way of preparing them for their role as guardians.
It’s fascinating that what we’re talking about now in climate education is how to best educate children about the distinct possibility of the collapse of our ecosystems in the near future, but how to do that with the understanding that children deserve to live in the now and be the best 9, 13 or 17 year olds they can be.
How do you feel about the future? How optimistic are you with the realities we’re facing?
We’ve never been in an anthropocene where humanity can act as if there are 1000 volcanoes going off constantly. It’s the first time we are the guardians of the planet. What if we had a new story of a Green Revolution – the antithesis of the Industrial Revolution – in which humanity comes together to act as guardians and curators for a greener, more beautiful planet?
Stories hold humans together, build Pyramids and get us to gather in global collective grief at the death of a monarch. We are entangled with these stories. A new story is needed. The work I do with multiple schools around the world is to show children they are global citizens, curators and creators. We need politicians telling braver, more beautiful stories for us to engage in, and then there is a chance..
I remain hopeful.
Sean is the co-founder of Sands Democratic School, an Ashoka Foundation Change Leader, a Varkey Global Teaching Ambassador, mentor to Project Rangeet and advisor to global educational wellbeing projects.
He is a coach and mentor to new democratic and alternative school start ups around the world.
Most days, he can be found teaching psychology, history, cooking or sport at Sands. ‘It helps the other work make sense,’ he says.
Read more about Sean here https://www.globalteacherprize.org/person?id=2901
Listen to his TedTalk here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KDfRmva96bk
Read more about Sands Democratic School here https://www.sands-school.co.uk/
Read more about other project Sean is involved in
Project Rangeet https://projectrangeet.com
The Awen Project https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cvU9HN0Qqrg