Jennifer Given, MEd '09

Experienced Educators - Educating for Sustainability
"The ability to determine my goals, pace, and presentation was ideal as I was able to work the project around my life, rather than work my life around the project."

Jennifer Given, a public high school teacher in New Hampshire, recently completed her MEd with a concentration in Educating for Sustainability. Here, Jennifer shares her thoughts on the Antioch University New England program and why what she learned, means so much to her.

A Graduate’s Perspective:
How Sustainability Integration Results in Student Retention

If I truly attempted to articulate everything I’ve learned about Educating for Sustainability (EFS) over the past two years, this essay would rival War and Peace for length. So, I will attempt to hit the highlights and hope that it will somehow convey what this program has given me.

Perhaps the most significant shift was my own feelings toward the work. At the start, I was intimidated by the size and scope of a self designed master’s project. The very idea made me anxious. But, over the course of the project, I slowly became less nervous and became more empowered. The ability to determine my goals, pace, and presentation was ideal as I was able to work the project around my life, rather than work my life around the project. I also came to appreciate having total control of what I would study and how I would integrate that study into my practice. Being given that degree of autonomy, while still having a great deal of support from the cohort and faculty, gave me a wonderful sense of ownership and accomplishment.

The other significant revelation came when I learned the degree to which EFS improved student learning and engagement. I had suspected EFS would benefit learners, but I was pleasantly surprised to see students had really responded to its inclusion in the course. The interdisciplinary nature of EFS was the perfect match for an interdisciplinary course. As such, it proved a powerful means of engaging students while improving their retention. Of course, the high degree of relevance that EFS provides also helped students stay engaged and gave them the opportunity to connect concepts to other areas of study.

Among the Vanguard of the Sustainability Movement

At the start, I was attracted to several facets of Antioch’s MEd in Educating for Sustainability. Of course, there were the practical aspects – a summer program and online courses allowed me to fit graduate school into my life without sacrificing attention to other responsibilities. I was also interested in the ability to tailor my master’s project to an area that interested me. But the most attractive element was the shared philosophy that education is a force for change and sustainability is the most important change we can teach. That said, I don’t think I really had an appreciation for what EFS truly meant until I arrived in Keene that first summer.

Luckily for me, I was not alone in struggling to define EFS. While each of us had a general idea of how these values should be included in a classroom, I distinctly remember all of us struggling to come up with a concrete definition for EFS. Even defining the concept of sustainability tripped us up at the start. Considering that the degree we were pursuing was a master’s degree in educating for sustainability, perhaps we should have been more concerned over our apparent ignorance of what we’d gotten ourselves into. However, as we worked, two things became clear; these concepts are incredibly complex and therefore difficult to pigeonhole, and we were at the vanguard of the sustainability movement. As such, others’ definitions and work were hard to come by. This was at once overwhelming and exciting.

Learning to be a Better Teacher

Since that first summer, I’ve learned to define our work, but more importantly, I’ve learned how to explain it to others and incorporate it into my classroom without detracting from the standards. Indeed, if my project has proven anything, it is that EFS benefits learners by improving student engagement and retention. As I’ve experimented with assignments and methods, I’ve seen greater success. EFS has come to mean varied instruction, a higher degree of relevance, integration of concepts and a greater emphasis on critical thinking. All of which are beneficial to learning. I would never have guessed that my philosophical ideals would lead to such significant improvement in my practice.

While I am excited to have completed the work for my degree, I will miss the challenges and community that this program has allowed me to experience. Over the past two years, I feel as though I have not only learned content and teaching strategies, but that I’ve experienced a true paradigm shift. I see EFS in each unit I teach and I am constantly finding new connections between it and everything around me. As an educator, I recognize that this shift is a rare and precious event that characterizes a truly successful learning experience. And in the end, the things I’ve learned through this program have touched every aspect of my life, from how I teach to how I parent. It has been a privilege to have been part of such a strong and meaningful program.