Andy Best, principled support

Profile: Andy Best, Principal, NSW

How did you get involved in sustainability education?

My interest in environmental education began on 13 September 1995. On that day I visited Athabasca Glacier, in the Canadian Rockies, with my wife and eleven-year-old daughter.

That night in my diary I wrote, ‘The glacier is retreating at an incredible rate, which makes you think about global warming.’

Upon my return to Australia I bought the book Time to Change by David Suzuki. It was an interesting read, but the thing that influenced me most was a speech included at the back of the book, delivered by his daughter, Severn, age 12, at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. I urge you to watch it on Youtube. As a principal, and a parent of a then twelve-year-old daughter, I was challenged to do something to ensure a healthy planet for generations to come – but I felt pretty powerless.

I decided to focus upon my circle of influence, and started at home by trying to reduce my own environmental footprint. Next came work, where I realised I could also have some influence. I changed schools in 1996 and moved to St Helens Park Public School in South West Sydney.

I typed out Severn Suzuki’s speech and handed it out at a staff meeting. A lot of the teachers were moved by what they read and as a group we decided that we needed to do something.

I had a great teacher, who ran our Gould League group. They had been surveying the bird life in our grounds and had discovered a Regent Honey Eater visiting our site. This bird is endangered and its habitat was disappearing with the ever-increasing urban sprawl, so we decided to plant a wildlife corridor and include trees that it preferred to nest in.

We were successful in gaining a grant from the NSW Teachers Federation to buy the trees, and we enlisted the support of some senior citizens in a local gardening club to develop the wildlife corridor. A local newspaper was interested enough to cover the event, and this publicity led to us being asked if we would like to apply for a grant to develop a learnscape, which we did. The grant allowed us to build our outdoor classroom and our journey into environmental education was underway.

We had strong support from our community. We worked closely with Camden Park Environmental Education Centre to develop our grounds and – most importantly – our curriculum, so that we could deeply embed environmental education into our school culture. Teachers wrote units of work based upon our Quality Teaching Framework, and the significance of the work led to greater student engagement and increased growth rates in literacy and numeracy. We also changed the way we ordered goods to reduce our environmental footprint, began saving rainwater and joined the Solar in Schools pilot. We integrated our School Environmental Management Plan (SEMP) into our main strategic plan for our school. 



The world itself rests upon the breath of the children in the schoolhouse.

The Talmud

While this quote indicates that our future depends upon our children and their education, it is probably not the best place to start when trying to introduce Education for Sustainability into a school.

Teachers grapple already with an overcrowded curriculum, and it can seem as if every problem society faces should be fixed by our schools.

I have had the opportunity of presenting to many groups of teachers and principals in recent years on this topic. If I am introduced as an expert on environmental education I can see tension rise in the audience as the teachers think, ‘Oh no! Here’s somebody else who is going to tell us what else we need to be doing.’

It is far easier to engage an audience on the topic by presenting it as a solution to a problem that they need help with. If I speak to groups of principals I usually begin by asking how many of them are interested in making substantial savings in their budgets, and go on to tell them how the students at my school reduced our utilities bill by $10,000 in one year through student-led initiatives, or how my stationery bill was between $7,000 to $12,000 per year cheaper than my colleagues at a similar-sized school because of our recycling initiatives.

If those hooks don’t work I ask them if they would be interested in learning of ways to increase Literacy and Numeracy growth rates for their students. I then explain how at one school we had growth rates in NAPLAN which were below state average. We increased student engagement across all key learning areas by introducing authentic learning experiences using Environmental Education in conjunction with the NSW Quality Teaching Framework and our growth rates in Literacy and Numeracy grew to one and a half times the state average over a couple of years.

Teachers are always interested in gaining new ideas on how to engage students through significant or authentic learning situations. The new cross curriculum perspective of Sustainability in the national curriculum allows for this without increasing teacher workload. The best example I can give is of a ten year old girl who explained that she really enjoyed being a student at an Eco School because it made the learning real. She went on to tell me of how they had a competition to design an outdoor classroom, and how the best design was then built.

I asked how this made the learning real and she went on to explain how she had learnt about scale, measurement of area and volume and computations with money. I then asked her why this was better, to which she responded, “Are you kidding? Our teacher could have just told us to open our text books at page twelve so we could learn how to measure the area of a rectangle.”

We now have the perfect vehicle for emphasising sustainability education with the introduction of the Australian Curriculum. We must be clever by giving teachers solutions not more work. Eco Schools is now up and running in Australia and is well worth joining. It connects 11 million children in 45 thousand schools around the planet. Children share their learning and reinforce the fact that we are all in this together. Our future really is in their hands.

I’ve had an amazing journey since that day on the glacier in 1995. I finally met David Suzuki when he recently visited Australia. I asked him to thank his daughter for that brilliant speech which changed my life. The world itself really does rest on the breath of the children in the schoolhouse!