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 Mirela Capcacenco from Constanta, Romania, who is a biology teacher working in climate education.

How does one become a climate educator?

As a biology teacher, guiding children on how to take care of the Planet to ensure a sustainable future, in this age of climate change, has been a priority from day one. In addition to making my lessons as practical and appealing as possible, I looked for any opportunity to open up my classroom to volunteering and extra-curricular activities. Since 2006 I started encouraging my students to take part in awareness, recycling, and nature cleaning campaigns carried out by various NGOs.  

We started taking care of the piece of “ecosystem” located around our school – the schoolyard. We studied it and embellished it. We moved on to cleaning waste from our district park.

These first achievements enabled us to dream bigger. The more my pupils learned about the environment and what we can do to protect it, the more they were willing to try and make a change. Once we imagined what we would like the future to look like, the course of action to take came naturally. 

Photo of Mirela and her students as part of the World Teachers' Day interview series.

We wanted less pollution, so we started to collect as many categories of recyclable waste as we could – used oil, plastic, aluminum cans, paper, batteries, and e-waste. We wanted more “green” around us, so we went to plant trees. We wanted to attract more people to support our cause, so we celebrated international days such as Eno Tree Planting Day, Earth Hour, Earth Day, Water Day, International Black Sea Day, and International E-Waste Recycling Day. 

The children got so excited and confident in their abilities, seeing how easy it can be to take care of the Planet, and understanding this also means taking care of ourselves, in the long run. Gradually, the biology classes mixed with creative climate-related activities, competitions and volunteering. The whole school got interested in a healthy natural environment and climate education became a permanent choice, not just an option.

Who / what are your sources of inspiration?

I once heard this verse “The Earth has music for those who will listen” and I thought the earth has been crying for help for a very long time. The forest wants its trees and biodivrsity back, the sea longs to be clean again, the cities miss their green spaces and so on. I find inspiration everywhere – when I watch a documentary, when I come across a comic book, when I see a bad habit or when I take a trip to a national park, I get ideas for activities.

But what inspires me most are human exchanges – discussing with fellow teachers, students and partners from the non-profit sector – like Volens Association which runs the Recycling Patrol and Mare Nostrum, a local NGO concerned with the preservation of the Black sea ecosystem. Their competitions, workshops and webinars constantly give me new directions and topics to explore.

How do you involve kids this age on such key topics?

I believe you cannot teach children about nature only in the classroom. So, I take them out of the school for walks and trips (even though it’s always complicated for teachers from cities, like me, to organize outdoor activities).

It is there, in the midst of a forest or a field, on the bank of a river that they have an authentic experience of reality. They see how our human activities impact the ecosystem; they notice the consequences of plastic waste pollution and deforestation

They are better equipped to tell good choices from bad ones. A trip into a beautiful landscape triggers almost immediately a greater interest and desire to “go green”, consider a more sustainable lifestyle and get involved in the fight against climate change.

My students start learning more about climate change and sustainable development, on their own. They start volunteering, plan awareness-raising campaigns, use recycled items to raise funds, decorate their school, save water and energy, and educate their families. The younger pupils see the older ones do all these “cool” things and become eager to participate, as well, to join this “club for the climate” and share the rewards. 

It is a powerful, touching micro-movement to protect their natural heritage and, by understanding global climate stakes, the Planet. They give me the drive, courage and confidence that I can turn things around on a path of balance and respect for the environment.

What’s the best advice your students have given you?

“Teacher, don’t give up! Grow roots!” I heard that some years ago when I was about to abandon my habit of “going the extra mile” as a teacher.

My pupils had made, with their own hands, a beautiful swan-shaped flower planter to decorate the school garden. They lovingly planted flowers in it and were so proud that everybody admired it. One day we came to the school to find it gone. Someone had torn the flowers, thrown them away and stolen the planter. From a schoolyard! Outraged, with tears in my eyes, I whispered to myself “Oh, why even bother? It’s no good trying to do anything out of the ordinary. I give up…” but the kid’s reaction took me by surprise.

Although heartbroken, they joked and tried to take things lightly. “Somebody needed our swan as a model, to make one themselves. It shows we did good work” said a little boy. “They’ll bring it back once they’re done” added one of his colleagues, smiling. “Perhaps they’ll bring back even more than one” another tried to cheer us up. Well, as you can imagine, that was not the case. The swan was gone for good.

However, this episode made us more driven than ever to embellish our school yard and show the community our commitment to doing good. We may not have a swan-shaped planter anymore, but, instead, we planted roses, tujas, poplars, pines, silk trees, apple trees, fig trees, gingkoes, and a lot more on our list.

We have turned the school garden into a small green paradise because instead of giving up, we chose to grow roots. And now the children care for the plants and learn by doing how to preserve life and enjoy responsibly nature’s gifts.

Are you optimistic about the future?

Yes, I am! We are indeed going through the earth’s resources like we had a planet to spare and climate issues echo decades of bad decisions. However, I truly believe humanity has the power and wisdom to stop the destruction and preserve life. We simply need to reconsider our position within the biosphere, as a species whose survival depends upon a fragile balance. I have faith in our ability to use technology to transition from fossil fuels to more sustainable sources of energy. 

Most of all, considering what we, a handful of teachers and pupils, achieved at a local level, I have faith in us, the teachers of the world. We can shape a new mindset for the young generation and make climate education the foundation of a new lifestyle all over the planet, from the grassroots up.

Meet Mirela Calpacenco

  • A biology teacher at “Ion Minulescu” Secondary School no. 17, Constanta, Romania
  • Multiple Award-winning teacher of the Recycling Patrol – national climate education program run by Volens Association (active in the program since 2013)
  • One of the guiding teachers of Dan Mircea Neagoe, Romanian student, winner of the bronze medal in The International Junior Science Olympiad, Mendoza, Argentina (2014)
  • Coordinating extra-curricular environmental initiatives since 2006
  • Passionate hiker
  • Activities during the EU Green Week 2022 https://bit.ly/3dtpxkQ 
  • Interview to Radio Constanța (local radio station 2019) https://bit.ly/3BTgJhC