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A Teachers’ Guide for Managing Climate Anxiety in the Classroom

Signs of a changing climate, such as record-breaking heat and more severe weather, have become difficult to ignore—and they’re causing many students to feel anxious, afraid, and a range of other negative emotions.

Yet teachers get little support on how to help students process these complicated feelings about climate change. Often, they barely have had professional development on how to teach about climate change in general, which research shows can make them reluctant to broach the subject.

Experts say climate change should be taught in an age-appropriate way at all grade levels and in all subjects, and that teachers must create space for students’ feelings about the issue, too. To help, a team of teachers, researchers, and mental health clinicians who are part of the Climate Psychology Alliance of North America wrote the “Educators’ Guide to Climate Emotions,” released Thursday.

The guide includes teaching resources and shares tips for how teachers can recognize and respond to common climate emotions, including anger, frustration, guilt, and powerlessness. Teachers, the guide says, should teach how humans are already responding to climate change, and what students can do themselves, to instill a sense of possibility—and they should bring in other members of the school community for support during these tough conversations.

The co-authors of the guide—Carolyn McGrath, a visual arts teacher at Hopewell Valley Central High School in Pennington, N.J., and Kate Schapira, a senior lecturer in nonfiction writing at Brown University—spoke with Education Week about how teachers can tackle climate emotions in the classroom. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How are climate emotions dealt with in schools today?

McGrath: It feels like we’re in the early stages of climate education rolling out in multiple states nationwide, in a way that’s different than it’s happened in the past. I think the seriousness of the issue and the urgency is much more omnipresent.

We all agreed in our group that as climate education was being embraced more widely, it was really important that the emotional and psychological components did not get lost. It’s not just teaching, A+B = C; we’re teaching about existential issues, and you can’t separate that from the emotional impact.

What climate anxiety or other climate emotions means is going to vary really widely depending on who it is that’s having them—not just how old is that person, or how marginalized is that person, but also, what has happened in that person’s life? This could be a situation where a science teacher is teaching climate science, and a kid has, for the first time, a recognition that the world is changing in this very dramatic and, to some extent, unprecedented way.

It could also be a situation where a classroom holds students who had to leave their home because of a wildfire or a drought or a flood. One of the things that we wanted the guide to do was to offer teachers some tools and some illumination of those conditions.

The guide talks about how teachers have to walk the line between not dismissing students’ concerns while also maintaining a sense of optimism. What does that balance look like?

McGrath: Climate optimism and doom-ism … are positioned as dualities, as opposites. Some of what we’re trying to do is encourage a holding of both—that things are bad, things are getting worse in some ways, and we have the potential to make difference.

[For] teenagers, it’s all or nothing—either everything’s going to be fine, or everything is terrible. I think teachers can really model for students how to hold that duality at the same time. It’s very difficult. You don’t want to overwhelm students with too much … because then they can shut down. And if you’re Pollyannaish, they can call you out and know that you’re not being truthful because they’re experiencing it, and they can see it with their own eyes what’s happening. It’s a real balancing act.

Schapira: One of the people who advised us on the guide, Britt Wray, wrote a book called Generation Dread. In the chapter on parenting, one of the things she says is that kids want to hear from the grownups in their lives that this is going to be hard, and we’ll get through it together.

And while that’s not the exact message that’s appropriate for a classroom, … it is something that I think a teacher can truthfully say about people, about a community that they’re a part of, about being a member of various human communities. You don’t want to write checks you can’t deliver; you don’t want to make promises that you can’t keep. But there are truthful things that you can say to students about what’s going on and how they can be part of engaging with [climate action in ways] that are age-appropriate.

Offer them a reminder of their own agency. Especially as they grow, small kids don’t have very much agency. But you can build that sense through things that you do in the classroom. [Remind them]: “You are a person who can handle things. You are a person who can compromise with other people. You are a person who can make decisions. And you are a person who can still find enjoyment and excitement in learning about the world.”

What is your advice to teachers who want to tackle climate change but are nervous to dive in?

Schapira: We have so many resources on this guide about exactly that. [The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] has amazing resources. NASA has amazing resources for different aspects of the topic—very clear, made for educational purposes. Because they’re made for teachers to use with students, including younger students, they’re also at a very absorbable and legible level for teachers. You don’t have to be a climate scientist at all to understand this stuff.

I think exploring those materials, with the intention of using them in your own classroom will also give you an introduction to those topics, even if you didn’t feel comfortable with them to begin with.

McGrath: I’m an art teacher. I think the science aspect of climate change is a hurdle for a lot of non-science teachers, and for some science teachers, too. It’s like, is that too complicated for me to teach? Do I need to know a lot before I can work with the students? And that’s not the case.

We started out the guide saying, every teacher really should have some very basic understanding of climate science. It doesn’t need to be intimidating. There are so many endpoints, and there’s so many resources. SubjectToClimate, [a nonprofit that provides free teaching materials on climate change], is incredible. They have resources for different subject areas, different disciplines, different age levels.

It is unfortunate that climate education is ahead of where teachers are. Teachers have not been given the skills yet. So what I’m seeing on the ground is a lot of teachers diving in on their own or seeking out professional development opportunities.

I imagine that talking about climate emotions with students can stir up some hard feelings among teachers. How can teachers take care of themselves?

Schapira: Talk to a [mental health] professional if you are able to, talk to the people who love you and support you. If you are not able to talk to a professional or even if you are, be open and real with people about how this is affecting you. Consider contemplative practices or creative practices that can help people process emotion. And see if there’s room in your life for a little advocacy and action.

Many teachers don’t [have the capacity for climate action]—many teachers are so unbelievably overclocked and overworked that this just doesn’t feel like a possibility for them. And we do understand that, but there is a fair amount of research out there that says that if you engage in positive climate action with other people in your community, you feel less bad. It feels less heavy, it feels less intolerable. You know that you’re pushing on it in some direction, so you feel less helpless. And you’re doing that with other people, so you feel more connected.

McGrath: I think that it is asking a lot of teachers to [be] a wellness teacher now, to teach your students about how climate change is impacting human health and mental well-being. Teachers are asked to do so many different things.

A real concern for us with the guide was that not only is climate change education a lot for non-science teachers, incorporating these social-emotional elements is, also. We’re not expecting teachers to be therapists. It’s not group therapy. It’s an extension of the kind of social-emotional learning that teachers are already incorporating, and have for years incorporated into their classes. It’s just a different way of looking at it.

Carolyn, can you share an example of addressing and supporting students’ climate emotions from your own classroom?

McGrath: [High school] students are not very forthcoming with any type of emotion. We talked about this in the guide—there are so many reasons why a student is not going to raise their hand and say, “The sky is orange,” like it was last June [because of wildfires], “and it’s freaking me out.”

I think it’s important that we integrate ways that students can express how they’re feeling without necessarily making them feel more vulnerable than they’re comfortable with, and ideally, getting to a point of conversation. Starting steps are always things like, can you put it into art? Can you write about it? Is it something that you could talk [about] one on one … as opposed to broadcasting to the whole class?

When the skies were quite dark and orange, last June, I asked students, “How do you feel about this?” A few students were able to talk about it, but then I passed out little slips of paper, and I said, “[Write in] just a few words what’s going on for you. Outdoor activities were canceled—I’ve never seen anything like this in my lifetime. I assume you’ve never experienced this before.”

It wasn’t part of our lesson. We didn’t spend the whole day talking about it. But I felt that it was important to acknowledge that it was scary and different and strange. A teacher can model that … it’s totally normal that when things are this abnormal to have strong feelings. I still have [students’ responses] in my desk, and it was a full range—from “I don’t care” or “I’m angry because I want to be doing my sport” to “I’m very terrified and don’t know what’s going on.”

Because of the way the climate is changing, teachers are being asked to expand the way that they care for young people even more. We recognize that that’s a challenge, and we hope that the guide can act as a bolster of support to teachers—because whether you actively engage in this work or whether you don’t, it’s still happening. And it’s still impacting your students. Whether you want to or not, it’s impacting everybody’s teaching.

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