City Public School Teachers Champion Climate Education. But They Need Help

At just after 10 a.m. on a crisp autumn morning, ninth grade teacher Emmy Lee, 36, enthusiastically led a group of 10 teenagers across the faded zebra crosswalk that connects East Houston and 1st Avenue. Sporting her neon pink running shoes and a navy hoodie bearing the letters UASEM for her school, she turned to her students with a warm smile.

“Off you go! Be back here by 11:00 a.m. sharp,” she said.

The students gripped their crimson red worksheets and set off in trios within a half mile radius of the vibrant neighborhood to count the number of garbage cans, broken branches and abandoned storefront windows as part of an environmental scan.

“This exercise is the first step of our climate curriculum,” said Lee.

That morning, 34 other students from the UASEM, the Urban Assembly School of Emergency Management, completed a similar walkaround of different neighborhoods across Lower Manhattan as part of their ninth grade climate education curriculum. UASEM is a high school where students gain a certification to practice as Emergency Medical Technicians upon graduation. Although their primary curriculum is focused on emergency management, the teachers are making an active effort to incorporate a climate curriculum into every ninth grade class this year.

According to Thaddeus Copeland, the Operations Manager at the Office of Sustainability at the Department of Education, there is a demand from students for more climate education across all public schools.

Lawmakers see the need, too, but, this past summer, eight bills that would have mandated a dedicated climate education curriculum in all schools stalled in the New York State Senate. Teachers agree, according to a 2021 Columbia Teachers College study that found that 98% of New York City teachers think it is essential to offer climate education in schools.

More than 1,000 New York City teachers have decided to take matters into their own hands by using creative ways to incorporate climate into the subjects that they teach. These teachers are charting the path as school administrators take action to incorporate climate education into their curriculum by 2025, following a United Nations recommendation from earlier this year.

Sal Puglisi, 46, another teacher at UASEM, signed their school up to participate in a National Wildlife Federation program called Resilience in Schools Consortium, or RiSC, an in school and after school program focused on educating teachers and students about climate change in New York City.

For Puglisi, who teaches Natural Disasters at UASEM, teaching kids about how climate affects natural disasters is a core aspect of knowing how to set up emergency management.

“You can’t talk about disasters without talking about climate change. Or about human-caused climate change.” said Pulgisi.

During a three day-training, the teachers on the ninth grade team learned about how climate change disproportionately impacts people of color. They participated in activities such as measuring the change in sea levels off the coast of New York City, and learned various ways to incorporate climate in classrooms. They enjoyed it so much that the ninth grade teaching team decided to incorporate climate education into every ninth grade classroom in addition to the after-school program.

“It was eye-opening,”said Lee, who prior to participating in RiSC, did not know how to bring up the topic of climate in her class. This year however, Lee’s students are looking at maps of rising sea levels over the past ten years, and they are using math to project sea levels in New York in 2030.

Robert Schwartz, 28, another teacher at UASEM, teaches Living Environment. His students are looking at how the varying drought levels between 1973 and 1986 impacted the nutrition of residents in several areas in the United States.

When they are not teaching, the ninth grade team checks in weekly with each other to discuss how to incorporate climate in classes. They even have a text group chat called “RiSC-y business” named after the RiSC program, a testament of their commitment to climate education.

“We need to be on the same page for our students to succeed,” said Lee. “This is important.”

On the other side of the city in South Brooklyn on a brisk October afternoon, science teacher William Hitchcock packed up his things, hopped into his 2001 red Subaru and drove home, eager to take his fishing equipment out to sea. He strung the thick white line through the well-loved rod and cast it out into the Atlantic Ocean as the sun sparkled on the surface of the waves. It’s a cathartic experience, he said, because it helps him dissociate from a loss he would rather forget.

Almost 10 years ago to the date, Hitchcock’s two story ground floor apartment with a basement was struck by Hurricane Sandy. Water flooded into his home, destroying precious mementos of his life. Antique furniture passed down from his grandmother, passports and other legal documents, appliances valued at thousands of dollars disappeared underneath gallons of water. His daughter’s bedroom and all her possessions suffered the same fate, with no hope of salvation. What struck him the most was the irony of losing his six-month old Honda Civic to the hurricane.

“This was the first time I bought a brand new car. And it was just gone,” said Hitchcock.

There was no doubt in his mind as to what caused the hurricane.

“It was climate change,” said Hitchcock.

Research published last year by Nature Communications, a leading peer-reviewed science research journal, shows that more than $8.1 billion in damages during Hurricane Sandy was a result of human-caused climate change.

While Hitchcock was always passionate about climate, he knew then that it was more important than ever for students to learn about the effects climate change has on New York City. As a science teacher, Hitchcock regularly incorporates climate education into his classroom conversations, localizing discussions and solutions to city neighborhoods.

New York City is getting hotter, too. The Department of Environmental Conservation predicts that temperatures in New York will rise by more than 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2035, putting more than a million people in the city at risk of extreme heat.

“Students need to know how to live in a city where climate-related tragedies will happen more often,” said Hitchcock.

But while Hitchcock and the team at UASEM take extra hours out of their day to learn about and organize climate education in their schools, the structure of voluntary teacher training and a lack of a standardized climate curriculum make it challenging for all New York City students to gain knowledge about climate change.

Teachers who are passionate about climate education can opt in to training provided by the Department of Education’s Sustainability Office or from other organizations, but at the expense of their free time. Even then, the education across these programs differ, and students have access to different information about climate change.

Additionally, teaching about climate is not a realistic priority for every teacher.

Dilis Tolentino teaches English as a New Language (ENL) in the Bronx. She said she’d like to teach about climate issues education in class, but finds it challenging to attend additional training sessions for teachers.

“If we had the support, we would teach it,” said Tolentino. “If it’s important, training should be mandated and prioritized.”

Elizabeth Haela, another ENL teacher in the Bronx, agreed. She teaches at a Title 1 school, which has a high percentage of students from low-income backgrounds. The school prioritizes other services like counseling services for students over teaching climate.

While it is challenging to continue the effort, those who can teach it are pushing forward.

“We have to keep going,” said Hitchcock. “At the end of the day, the next generation will deal with more severe impacts of climate change. They deserve a shot at living in it. This is part of a bigger picture that will help them see how they can.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct a misspelling of William Hitchcock’s surname, Thaddeus Copeland’s first name, and to clarify that the Resilience in Schools Consortium is part of a National Wildlife Federation program.

About the author(s)

Heerea Rikhraj is currently a student at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism focused on reporting stories surrounding trauma, race and health.