Dr. Laura Huenneke's Address to the Sustainable Economic Development Initiative's Annual Teacher Awards in Sustainability Curriculum in May of 2017
Introduction: The SEDI TASC awards recognize our outstanding educators and their exemplary projects focused on sustainability. At the TASC celebration in May 2017, Dr. Laura Huenneke, Professor Emeritus, School of Earth Sciences & Environmental Sustainability at Northern Arizona University, discussed building our future by strengthening the educational ecosystem.
Dr. Laura Huenneke's address:
Back in the spring, I jumped at the chance to be part of the presentation of SEDI's Teacher Awards for Sustainable Curriculum, celebrating some of our fantastic teachers. Teachers are one of our community's most precious resources – truly changing lives and creating the future, both for individuals and for society as a whole. The SEDI TASC awards recognize our outstanding educators and their exemplary projects focused on sustainability. I’d like to take a moment to flip this on its head and reflect on the sustainability of outstanding teachers and education. That is, how can we build a future where we have many such teachers and many such schools, and where all our students over the long-term can benefit from these kinds of experiences?
Awards like the SEDI sustainability awards do bring peer and community recognition to the individuals who have done inspired and inspiring work. We hope that recognitions like this make some of the effort and sacrifices worthwhile. Such recognition is valuable and necessary; but by itself it is not sufficient to ensure that these same teachers will stay with us in the years to come and will continue to succeed. Nor will these awards guarantee that future teachers are able to provide equivalent high-quality experiences.
My academic background is as an ecosystem scientist, trained to think about entire systems and how individual pieces and processes are connected -- how they interact both positively and negatively. So I tend to think about education as a system – not just the individual teachers and students in a given classroom, but the larger context in which they operate. Many of those attending the spring awards ceremony know far more than I do about K-12 education, so what I say here is pretty general – but I’d like to ask you to think through some of the parts of this educational ecosystem and how more of us can help support the system as a whole.
There are teachers at a single grade level within a school, learning from and supporting one another. There are connections among the teachers within a school as students move up through the grades, deliberately attending to how curriculum, experiences, and human relationships link together and build through a student’s journey through that school.
The connections among teachers, as well as the working environment within a school, are facilitated and shaped by a principal and the culture in a school. Is the principal able to connect the teachers, and is there support for that school and that principal from the families and from neighboring institutions? Is there room and support for creative approaches?
In turn, the connections among teachers, principals, and schools in a district are all shaped by the district and its professional leadership. What resources does the district have to invest in and attend to professional development, to career development, to communication, and to supporting equity of opportunities across schools? How much support do district leaders receive in their role as liaison or interface - or buffer! - with state and federal requirements and opportunities?
The state shapes this complex environment with its policies and funding. Arizona of course sets policies around teacher qualifications and expectations, and calls for adoption of the Common Core (Arizona Career and College Readiness) or other standards – I probably don’t need to say much more about what many perceive as a lack of leadership in this arena. State funding patterns result not just in our teacher pay scales falling behind those of other states (limiting our ability to recruit and retain), but also in severe infrastructure gaps (e.g., for rural schools) and also instability caused by episodic RIFS or last-minute changes in teaching assignments. State universities like our own Northern Arizona University are our primary sources of new or early career teachers; state policies shape their curriculum and training which then influences the teachers' success in the first few years of their career.
At the overarching federal level, we currently seem to be moving away from expectations of education as a pathway for social mobility, innovation, and opportunity.
Finally, I must acknowledge – I personally am motivated by our location and the very special history of this area: remembering that some of our neighbors (the southwestern tribes) are the original inhabitants of these landscapes and have a truly long-term perspective. Remembering this reminds me to commit to ensuring access to excellent education and preparation for those who will build the future of all our communities.
This complex nest of multiple levels is our educational ecosystem; how can we best sustain it? How should we add to or build on recognitions like the SEDI awards for individual teachers, to help ensure that teachers are operating within the most supportive system possible? Many of us often feel frustrated at the seeming impossibility of shifting state or federal policies, funding, or the like. But as a community, I would challenge us to get creative about filling in or substituting for weaknesses in the current ecosystem. Of course, individuals in our community do support schools financially through the Education Tax Credit program, and so do our local businesses (e.g., the school supplies drives at the start of each year). But -- what else might we doing?
Could we provide opportunities for teachers in the summer that would help counteract the impact of low salaries while providing professional development? These might include teacher development experiences, internships or short-term employment opportunities, or scholarship support for graduate courses.
What could we as a community provide in terms of facilitation for planning? Community groups, employers or industry associations could create more open forums for discussion about local workforce needs and how skills or knowledge relevant to them might fit into the curriculum at various levels. And then those groups could follow up with some of the information, experts, and resources to supplement what schools and teachers already have to develop those skills.
What could we as a community provide in terms of the larger policy framework for schools or for the district? Members of the collaborative group LAUNCH Flagstaff are keeping an eye on national and international best practices and standards, while STEM City works to expand high-quality experiences in the science, engineering, and technology arena. These groups can serve as resources and collaborators for curriculum specialists in our districts and schools, figuring out together how to align the community’s educational objectives with external policy or state standards.
These are just a few starting points – to get your creative juices flowing. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said it well: “A surplus of effort could overcome a deficit of confidence.” Even if we think our educational ecosystem has some deficits, we can – and we absolutely should – make the effort to change parts of that system for the better. In closing, I hope all of us as individuals, and the organizations we represent – LAUNCH Flagstaff, SEDI, STEM City, the schools and the district, the business community, our residents and neighbors – will find ways to collaborate in strengthening the entire ecosystem within which our outstanding teachers work. Thanks again for joining SEDI in celebrating some of the outstanding teaching in our region – and congratulations to the fantastic educators being recognized.