My name is Matthew Clay and I am an Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at Fort Hays State University. I came to this role after several years of teaching middle and high school science. One of my biggest passions in both teaching and research is environmental education (EE); as I imagine is the case for most environmental educators, I have found the work to be immensely rewarding and meaningful for both me and my students. Despite that, environmental education is not included in many classrooms around the state. That realization, along with KACEE’s Executive Director, Laura Downey, suggesting to me that we do not really understand why more teachers do not include EE in the classroom, ultimately prompted this study.
By far my favorite thing about environmental education in Kansas is the community of educators in a wide range of different professional roles from classroom teachers, educators at zoos and nature centers, and professionals in state agencies and nonprofits. However, the concerning part is looking around the room (or Zoom, more recently) when we all gather and realizing that the community represents a very small percentage of the over 40,000 teachers in the state.
I set out with a goal of trying to understand (...) educators’ perspectives on barriers to environmental education in the classroom. I surveyed teachers from all geographic regions of the state in rural, suburban, and urban settings.
Last summer, I set out with a goal of trying to understand the rest of those educators’ perspectives on barriers to environmental education in the classroom. I surveyed teachers from all geographic regions of the state in rural, suburban, and urban settings. Teachers were included from all grade levels, PK-12, and across all content areas. I also included itinerant teachers, special education teachers, and elective teachers. Ultimately, the demographics of teachers responding pretty closely mirrored that of teachers in Kansas in general. After a few hundred survey responses, I am excited to share five big takeaways:
1. The potential for growing environmental education is there.
Among the teachers I surveyed in my 2020 research, 42% indicated they integrate environmental education (EE) into their classrooms at least monthly. Although that percentage might be less than ideal, 73% said they would increase the frequency of integrating EE if all of the identified barriers were addressed such as a lack of physical supplies, curriculum, and planning time. Although some teachers would not integrate EE even with additional resources and support, most would, which means that opportunity to expand EE in Kansas classrooms is there. This is an exciting finding because I think the assumption is that the level of interest in teaching environmental education isn’t always there, but this research suggests otherwise.
2. Perceived barriers are largely resource-based.
Nearly all teachers ranked a lack of administrative or parent support very low on the list of perceived barriers. That means that, for the most part, increasing environmental education taught in the classroom is not necessarily about standing up to opposition from parents or decision-makers, rather, it’s about getting the right resources in teachers’ hands. Physical supplies and curricular materials specific to the grade and content area were the highest rated resources, with 93% of teachers saying they would at least consider using the materials if they were made available. Field trip resources, focused professional development, and dedicated funding were among other resources viewed favorably by teachers. This means that teachers not only saw these resources as being helpful, but also that they would be likely to actually use them if they were available.
3. Time is the critical issue.
Preparation time is always limited for teachers, so asking teachers to volunteer their time in the evenings or weekends to explore new environmental education integrations is unreasonable.
The overwhelming pattern that appeared in the research is that the greatest barrier perceived by teachers is time. This is both in the form of preparation time and instructional time. Preparation time is always limited for teachers, so asking teachers to volunteer their time in the evenings or weekends to explore new environmental education integrations is unreasonable. As a classroom teacher myself, I often used non-contract time to plan environmental topics for teaching to my students, but I did so as someone who was already passionate about EE. For a teacher who is new to EE, or unsure about EE, that expectation is unreasonable. In terms of instructional time, most teachers feel like they have other topics which are more important to teach. Asking them to give up instructional time from these topics to do an activity that is exclusively focused on environmental concepts is likely to be an uphill battle. Paired with the final takeaway, this indicates that integration of EE into other content areas is key.
4. Teachers share many perceptions of barriers, but not all.
Although there were certainly patterns in what most teachers saw as barriers and what resources could be potential resources, not all teachers are the same. When we split survey results into smaller subgroups some of these patterns emerged. For example, teachers in Western Kansas were more likely to want professional development or materials designed for their geographic locations whereas teachers in the Eastern part of the state felt that existing professional development and materials were adequate.
Teachers who were just starting their careers were more interested in field trip resources and graduate course credit, while veteran teachers were more interested in physical supplies, materials specific to their grade level/content area, and training on teaching outdoors.
The important takeaway is that although there are certainly patterns of what most teachers experience, within specific communities and settings it is still important to listen to what individual teachers need. As a matter of example, although a veteran teacher in Eastern Kansas is statistically more likely to want physical classroom supplies or curriculum for their grade level and see access to professional development, that does not mean that there are not individual veteran teachers in Eastern Kansas who would benefit from greater access to professional development opportunities.
5. Environmental education must benefit what is already being taught.
I approached this survey in a way that let us filter results to really identify the characteristics or factors that would make it possible to identify teachers most likely to be open to integrating environmental education into the classroom. To be honest, I expected that a watershed issue would be what teachers taught, but that was not exactly the case. The actual dividing characteristic was whether a teacher sees EE fitting in their curriculum, which was not split along the same lines as the subject taught. In short, if a teacher does not see how EE fits in their curriculum it does not matter how many resources or training the experience is not going to happen.
I believe the important challenge from this finding is to work to not only show how environmental education can fit into a math, history, or language arts class, but how environmental education can make a better math, history, or language arts class.
To be open to including EE in the classroom, teachers must see how it fits into the body of knowledge and skills they hope to pass to their students. This also indicates that most teachers are not going to integrate EE just because we ask nicely as a favor or integrate it for its own sake. I believe the important challenge from this finding is to work to not only show how environmental education can fit into a math, history, or language arts class, but how environmental education can make a better math, history, or language arts class. This type of integration also helps address the challenge of instructional time, making it even more likely for a teacher to consider including EE in their classroom.
Ultimately, this survey project started from a place of trying to better understand the potential for EE in classrooms in Kansas and to better support EE organizations in Kansas. All of the results are highly filterable and exist in a database which I am happy to share with EE organizations in the state as they work on designing materials, programs, or grant applications.
How EE Organizations Can Help Based On These Results:
In light of everything we have learned from the survey so far, there are two takeaways for what EE Organizations can do to support teachers, especially during such a trying time in the classroom: First, design materials that fit with standards teachers already need to teach. The Kansas Curricular Standards are available here: https://www.ksde.org/Agency/Division-of-Learning-Services/Career-Standards-and-Assessment-Services/CSAS-Home/Curricular-Standards. Although materials, activities, and lessons that some organizations might already have could fit well with these standards, it is important that it is very clear to teachers which standards they address and how they do so. At the elementary level, it is probably most helpful for teachers to design resources that address language arts or math standards as that is where the most instructional time is spent.
Although materials, activities, and lessons that some organizations might already have could fit well with these standards, it is important that it is very clear to teachers which standards they address and how they do so.
Second, and more importantly, EE organizations have to listen to what teachers say they need. This could mean physical supplies, but more likely it is lessons and materials around different topics. Teachers are always busy, but the last couple of school years have left most pretty burnt out. My suggestion is for EE organizations to email teachers in the area and ask the question, “Which standard/topic that you have to teach do you dread the most or feel the least confident about teaching?” Those standards should then become the focus of designing materials, resources, and activities. That does mean that, instead of focusing on some of the topics we enjoy the most as environmental educators, we might need to design resources around topics like fractions, descriptive writing, or reading comprehension. But if those are what teachers need, these survey results indicate that is what teachers will use, which is ultimately the route to more environmental education in the classroom.
Assistant Professor of Teacher Education
Fort Hays State University