Simply put, environmental educators are people who teach others about the environment. And since the environment is front page news these days, their career is experiencing renewed interest and big changes.
Who exactly are environmental educators?
The North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) has about 20,000 members. The breakdown of NAAEE’s membership is a good indication of what environmental educators are doing and where.
Brian Day, executive director of NAAEE, says: “Probably about 15 to 20 percent are in the formal education system, with most of them teachers, some of them curriculum developers, some of them science or social studies educators who are overseeing parts of school systems.
“Another 15 percent are in higher education.” Day says that they could be teaching in places like the education or forestry departments of colleges and universities.
“Then, about [another] half of our members are what I could call non-formal educators,” Day continues. “They work in nature centers, parks, aquariums, zoos, botanical gardens and a myriad of other places.
“And then the last segment works for government, and they can work at the national level — like for the Department of the Environment — or the [state], county or local level.”
Moving to a holistic approach
“What people often mistake about environmental education is they think it’s advocacy in the classroom, and that’s just dead wrong,” says Day. “Environmental education is helping students learn at any age — learn how things work so they can make their own individual lifestyle choices and participate in public policy debate.”
He explains that environmental education is a lot more than just science. “It’s how natural systems and living systems and human systems all interact, including the social dimension, the political perspective, the economic situation… to why is there global warming, and where should our next energy come from. But if you don’t bring the human dimension to it, then you’re a scientist, not an environmental educator.”
Kristin Poppo is the head of graduate and professional studies at IslandWood, an innovation environmental facility on Bainbridge Island, Washington. She agrees that a holistic approach is important.
“There definitely is a growing recognition that we really need to teach our children to care more about the world around them,” she says. “Our programs look at both community and environmental stewardship, and we try to connect those. So we want people who have that broad sense of caring about the world around them.”
Poppo herself doesn’t have a science background. Among her many degrees, she has a BA in philosophy and religion, a Master of Divinity, and a PhD in educational foundations.
A career path with a few challenges?
The largest number of environment educators work in informal settings, as Day indicates. Jobs in these places are often part time, often seasonal, and tend to pay less than jobs in formal education and with the government.
Environmental educators often start out in nonprofit organizations to build up experience for their resumes. It can take a little legwork to find these jobs. You have to look for organizations that employ environmental educators and find out if they’ll be hiring in the near future. A diploma or degree from a college or university is usually the minimum requirement for an entry-level job, but this is where things get a little hazy because there really are no hard and fast rules about qualifications.
Although nonprofit organizations generally look for people with environment or science backgrounds, Kerri Lanaway says that they’ll also consider individuals with arts, education or even communication backgrounds. Lanaway is the school programs coordinator for a Sierra Club chapter.
Chad Stevens is a city park ranger. His job has both environmental and enforcement components. Therefore, “the minimum requirement is generally a two-year diploma in environmental science or a two-year diploma in policing and security,” he says, adding that, “a forestry or other related diploma or degree would also be considered.”
In Stevens’ job, educating the public about the environment is just one of many responsibilities, and it’s a very informal one.
“We do present programs to the public…” he explains, “but more so, the education component involves brochure development and information dissemination.”
The city where Stevens lives and works employs 10 park rangers and offers them a pretty good salary. So competition is fierce when a job is advertised. Stevens says that about 250 people may apply. And while some of the rangers use the job as a stepping stone to something else, Stevens says that some people do stay.
For most formal education and government jobs, a bachelor’s degree is typically the minimum requirement. But a master’s degree or a PhD will move you up the ladder faster and earn you more money. Day says that about seven percent of NAAEE’s members earn $90,000 per year or more, so it’s possible to earn a great salary if you get on that track.
But even in education and government, the nature of your degree is pretty much open. And this actually reflects an important trend in the whole environmental educator career scene.
A changing climate
Climate change is a reality, and the climate for environmental educators is changing along with it.
IslandWood, the innovation environmental facility where Kristin Poppo works, is very much at the forefront of new trends. While offering innovative programs for children, adults, families, teachers and graduate students, IslandWood also takes pride in the fact that it pays its educators quite well.
“We’ve pretty much set a model for educating that is pretty exemplary, and so people are excited about being a part of our organization,” says Poppo. “But there are a lot of jobs out there in a lot of different areas. And we find that those of our students who are going into teaching, either in public or private schools, are in very high demand.”
“There are a few things that are happening right now that are very much changing the nature of environmental education and will cause quite a surge in the number of employers looking for environmental educators,” adds Day. He explains that the NAAEE has just recently become the newest member of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), the organization i
n charge of the professional accreditation process for schools, colleges and departments of education.
“We firmly believe that NCATE will formally adopt, based on guidelines we’ve already developed, standards for environmental education and how it’s to be taught at the university level,” says Day. This means that individuals graduating from these institutions will be better qualified to work as environmental educators.
“At the same time,” he continues, “we have legislation introduced in Congress that will provide more money for training teachers in environmental education. And then we have real environmental problems that are getting global attention.”
Day also mentions the fact that parents and teachers are becoming more aware that today’s children, for many reasons, are disconnected from the natural world.
“It’s a wonderful time to be in this organization,” he adds. “We’re at a place in human history where in the next generation we have to change everything that humans have done on the planet: economics, transportation, energy, the way we build buildings. We need to reconceive everything.”
So, do you have a passion to get in on the action? Whatever type of environmental educator you want to be, there’s a job somewhere for you. And since the requirements for this career are still developing, you can probably make your own unique career path to this line of work
North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE)
Lots of information about standards, guidelines, initiatives, research and more
Career: Environmental Educators
Career profile of an environmental educator provided by CollegeBoard.com
An innovative facility offering environmental programs