Will Teach for Change

Artists, teachers, activists: the more their work inspires, the less they’re paid. When society can’t provide for its creators and educators, the cultural-—as well as literal—landscape is at stake. How can we sustain the people teaching us about sustainability?

As a naturalist with the Web of Life Field School, Kristen Morse finally had a job combining three of her passions—education, working with kids, and being outside. The personal rewards of passing on a legacy of conservation to her students rendered her paycheck more like a bonus, to the point where the unopened envelope gathered dust on the kitchen counter. “Isn’t that the sign of your ideal job?” she asks.

When you open up that neglected paycheck, it becomes obvious why Morse hasn’t bothered. After taxes, she earns about nine dollars an hour—equivalent to what a barista makes in San Francisco. No tips or benefits, either.

In his book, Preparing for the Twenty-First Century, Yale University historian Paul Kennedy appeals for “nothing less than a re-education of humankind.” In Kennedy’s thinking, educators like Morse should be financially rewarded on the level of doctors, lawyers, CEOs.

This disconnect plagued Ed Grumbine during his 21 years as director of the Sierra Institute, an outdoor education program for college students. “It’s just a worst-case scenario of society not valuing teaching,” he says. “There’s never been a golden age when it wasn’t a problem.”

Historically a “woman’s” profession, teaching is often considered more as glorified babysitting than shaping the minds of the next generation. A new teacher’s average salary is $30,710 a year, lagging even lowly liberal arts majors in post-graduate earnings. According to a study by University of Pennsylvania sociology professor Richard Ingersoll, 33 percent of teachers switch careers within the first year, and almost half bail out within five.

Outdoor ed has its own set of disparaging assumptions. Leading hikes across beautiful backcountries six months a year isn’t considered a career in a culture of workaholics. But Morse’s on-season was comparable to a year’s worth of work. From nine to four, she led in-the-field ecology lessons, a day bookended by overseeing the eating, sleeping, and well-being of up to 140 kids, plus parents and teachers. There were night hikes, campfire entertainment, and only a few hours to tweak the lesson plan for the next location’s segment.

Grumbine says environmental ed is often relegated to the extra-curricular: “There’s the structural problem right there: sustainability isn’t integrated into our society in general, so why would we expect anything different from environmental education?” After all, he quips, a kid can’t prepare for the No Child Left Behind tests if he or she’s at camp for a week.

Perhaps, then, a solution lies in institutionalizing ecological literacy. Celeste Moyer thinks so. As the statewide manager of the California Regional Environmental Education Committee, Moyer has been instrumental in working with the state government to develop environmental skills and concepts as part of the content standards. She says that Pennsylvania is currently the only state with legislated environmental education standards.

One of the last bills Governor Davis signed before his recall was AB 1548, or the Education and the Environment Initiative, a landmark law that included what Moyer considers the biggest win—new science textbooks will contain environmental concepts. “This is the furthest we’ve gotten to have something concrete to formalize environmental education in the schools,” she says. Though the next state-adopted science textbook won’t be published for another six years, CREEC is writing a model curriculum and preparing California’s 1000 school districts to teach it.

Environmental education activists must become politically savvy, Grumbine argues: “If you want to change the school system, you have to be pragmatic.” Necessary for a change is understanding how policy is made and knowing who’s in charge. Join the local or state school board, he suggests.

Then there’s the money problem: schools are under pressure to keep the prices low. Web of Life Field School is one of the cheapest—about $275 per student for four days of instruction, room, and board—and still, cost is prohibitive for many urban public schools, paradoxically the children who tend to have the least exposure to the natural world.

“We need an advocate to pressure the state to give money to subsidize these schools,” Morse says. “The states should match the $250 per kid so we’re getting $500 per kid.” Currently, she says the school receives around a few hundred dollars annually in donated monies, maybe enough to cover one or two students’ tuitions. Grants are tricky: if more money comes in one year, more people are hired; if the grant scene isn’t so bountiful the next, those newbies are out of a job. Morse is independently designing a job position—a hybrid of fundraiser, lobbyist, and consultant between schools, the camp, the government, and the greater community—basically an outdoor ed superwoman to acquire sustainable sources of funding.

“Teachers burn out because they have these adult responsibilities like a personal life, husband, kids, a home,” Morse says. “You don’t even have a home,” and laughs: “Maybe it weeds out the money-hungry.”

Her sarcasm reflects the truth, a point Grumbine hits on as well. “The average American lifestyle is not sustainable, it’s not a model to head for. So automatically people interested in environmental education are probably going to have goals set lower on the totem pole to have a healthy standard of living. One part of creating alternatives is to live an alternative.”

Katherine “Kat” Steele has been trying to navigate this edge for the past five years since she left a job as a dot-com advertiser to become a teacher of permaculture design. The educational basis of permaculture—an integrated system for a sustainable lifestyle—is the two-week design course. Steele is scheduled to teach two courses and one seven-day teacher training throughout 2006.

Because she is not associated with a big company or institution, Steele is basically a freelance educator. And like most freelancers, she has a handful of other jobs to augment her primary passion, from web development to administrative work for the Oakland-based Architects, Designers, and Planners for Social Responsibility. Then there are her unpaid contributions, such as helping organize the East Bay Permaculture Guild, which she co-founded three years ago. She says her catapult out of the corporate world has led to feeling spiritually and socially sustained—but not financially.

“Permaculture is not institutionalized—there’s not an ad in the newspaper right now for a permaculture designer,” Steele says. “Being a permaculture teacher is not a career at which you can work full time and make a lot of money. It’s a privilege, but it’s also a choice, and it’s not easy.”

A design course including meals and lodging averages $1,200. Steele’s projected income from teaching this year is about $6,500, after taxes. If she calculates that hourly, it comes out to a little over $15.00 an hour——not too shabby, she reflects, until she notes this does not include preparation time, marketing, putting up fliers, accounting, lining up presenters, arranging sites, and post-class obligations—following up with a contact list and project support.

The lack of financial resources, coupled with an infinite workload, prompted Steele to get creative. Instead of solo teaching, she’s taught her past 19 classes as a collective effort, sharing the responsibilities with at least one other designer. Though she realizes that dividing the work means splitting the profits, she maintains that the cooperative approach makes more sense given the subject. Permaculture ethics—such as “Share the surplus”— underlie each class. “We’re not keeping our profit,” she explains. “Surplus money is recycled. If the class makes more money than we budgeted, we’re not going to pay ourselves more. That money goes into a scholarship fund.”

One of the first courses she taught was at the Alameda Point Collaborative. Free scholarships were available to residents, most of whom were previously homeless or recovering from domestic abuse. In line with permaculture’s principles of observation and site-specific solutions, students applied their new knowledge to designing systems—among them a food forest, public nursery, and edible landscaping—for the neighborhood. Steele is co-teaching a second urban permaculture weekend course this spring. Part of the class will happen before students even set foot on-site: they are asked to fundraise $200 to contribute to a scholarship fund for students wanting to participate but prohibited by the cost.

Regardless of the profit (or lack of), Steele is inclined to teach anyway. “Generosity of time, and generosity in general, is something we need to cultivate in our culture,” she says, confident that what she offers will be returned eventually. “That’s just the way the world works. It’s a pattern of nature.”

Undervaluing teaching, however, is not a natural pattern but a social perturbation. And until some grand paradigmatic upheaval in consciousness occurs, the interim offers a hodge-podge of pseudo-solutions: institutionalize eco-curriculum, find more money, create alternative models, scrape by. Steele argues that sustainability should not only be mandated for schools but for every citizen as job training. “It’s safety, it’s survival. This is a public right to have this information.”

Amidst the hectic joy of a week turning on scores of kids to the great outdoors, Morse recalls her mantra: “The show must go on.” If education engenders understanding, inspiring a love that in turn motivates a conservation ethic, it is essential to have teachers eager to pass on their knowledge. Whether the income flows or not, the show must go on, now more than ever.

Check out Steele’s urban permaculture design course, happening over six weekends this spring at the Alameda Point Collaborative: http://www.apcollaborative.org/classes.htm. You can visit the Web of Life Field School at www.wolfschool.org.

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