In Environmental and Sustainability Education, has the time come for us to ditch the word champion?

For those involved in the world of environmental and sustainability education, the word ‘champion’ is often used to define an individual  who is taking action from within their own school or institution to create a more sustainable campus, community, and curriculum. Whilst in principle this role might seem fairly self-explanatory, the skills and knowledge required to enact these changes are much harder to map out, and can appear in many ways contrary to the traditional idea of what it means to be ‘a champion’. So is it time we got rid of the word altogether?

Firstly, what does being an environmental and sustainability champion actually mean? Teachers and educators who embed ESD into their learning will focus on developing (amongst others) the following set of skills in their students: critical thinking; systems thinking; futures thinking; socially critical thinking; collaboration; and creative problem solving. Learning which is based on these pedagogies is intended to enable young people to become responsible and engaged citizens, with a strong sense of care for others, themselves and our environment. But does this same skill set also apply to the role of champion?

In short, yes. All of the above are essential to anyone hoping to bring about systemic change. However, arguably it is a champion’s ability to collaborate with others that is most essential when enacting this change. Collaboration is often a highly complex process, especially if your values appear (at first) to be in opposition to those of your colleagues, or if you already have the reputation of ‘eco-warrior’. In order to collaborate successfully with someone, it is essential to first understand (through engaging in active listening) what his or her personal motivations are, and then to determine how these might intersect with your own. A useful way of doing this could be to consult the common cause handbook which maps out core values shared by all of us, regardless of our gender, background, religion, and nationality – a fact which could not be more welcome in today’s context.

The second essential skill of a champion is the ability to network with new and diverse sets of people. Basically, it is about getting out there, opening up new opportunities for conversation, and meeting with people who you might never come across in your day-to-day work, especially if you are based in a larger school or institution. This could occur through something as simple as joining your school or institution’s choir or attending a school bake sale for the first time. Or it could mean setting up your own initiative, such as a school blog with regular contributions from staff across all subject areas, or setting up a book club – it doesn’t need to be specifically sustainability focussed at first, this can follow once you start to engage more closely with people. Regardless of whether you are a champion or not, being open to new people is a daunting process that involves stepping out of your comfort zone and making yourself vulnerable. Yet it is important to remember that deep down it’s about finding common ground with someone over a shared interest whether this is Leicester City football club reaching the quarter final of the Champions League (sorry, Ranieri) or the new Bake-off line up (Noel Fielding!?).

Ultimately, the decision over whether an individual would like to be referred to as a champion or not is an entirely personal one – a point that merits reinforcing from time to time. However, rather than dismissing the word entirely, perhaps the time has come for us to focus instead on its alternative usage as a description of individuals whose achievements are worthy of respect and recognition. In our experience at SEEd over the past 9 years, I can’t think of a better way of summing up the champions we have been fortunate enough to work with – long may it continue!

The SEEd team