Interview with Deeana Kulbeth, an Educator Looking to Improve Schools through Environmentalism
With every social issue, it seems like education is the driving force. The hope is that through education, ignorance and hate would be eradicated. If this is the case it should be the same with environmental issues. We as a society see a surge in environmental NGOs and businesses having a more “green” approach. The natural progression would be to see it in schools. That is exactly what Deanna Kulbeth is looking to do. Deanna has worked at Spectrum Academy, a school for kids with autism spectrum disorders for 6 years. In addition to that she has worked at summer camps on and off for many years. Each of these teaching opportunities has been a way for Deanna to bring in her environmentalist skills and also to learn what is missing in terms of the benefits of environmental studies.
Deanna has always had a love for the environment. Her father is a natural resource manager and his hobby is botany. Furthermore, when Deanna was a child, their family vacations almost always included camping and hiking in her home state of Colorado and you would never catch their family creating excess waste. Those familial values have carried over into her adulthood. To gain her undergraduate degree in recreation management, youth leadership, and non-profit administration she needed to do an internship. She chose being a hiking guide at Philmont Scout Ranch. There she tells of learning and teaching survival skills and “having to live off of what I had on my back.” The next step in her environmental journey came with her moving to Canada for a year and a half to be a missionary. She is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who are more commonly known as Mormons. There she tells of having to live on less and realized that environmental issues were everywhere and quite universal in magnitude!
Coming back to the US she was “so tired of stuff” and wanted to fix her part of the world. She wanted to change her behavior for the better. This is when she moved to Utah. She got to know the area through hiking, backpacking, and sharing excursions in the mountains and canyons with friends and family. She recounts, “[I] felt alive doing that stuff”. When she began her career at Spectrum Academy as a paraprofessional educator, her environmentalism really blossomed. She was either taking the train or biking to and from work, and she began to notice ways her work environment could be more environmentally friendly. She noted that the school should not be entirely at fault because it just is not on everyone’s radar to be environmentally friendly, nor is it always possible for individuals or schools to have access to resources or motivations to be environmentally concerned when there are so many other issues of life and functions within a school to figure out. Through realizing a need for more environmentally friendly practices in schools, Deanna observed ways that the overall student body could be benefitted by greater understanding of their environment as well as by being more balanced in their personal lives through access to outdoor recreational and environmental experiences. She decided she wanted to be the person implementing the kind of curriculum and practices that would offer students this opportunity. The next natural progression for her was graduate school. She is enrolled in the University of Arizona fall of 2017 to study Teaching/ Teaching Education with an Environmental Learning emphasis.
With each new educational venture the person wants to make sure it will pay off, so I asked Deanna if she thought that schools would be receptive to this type of learning. She thought teachers and students would be receptive but also mentioned the politics of education. A large portion of education currently revolves around standardized tests, and many schools get funding from how well their students do on those tests. If environmental education is not seen as a priority by legislators and put on those tests it loses incentive to be taught in schools.
Even though she seemed frustrated by this fact, all the answers pointed back to education of not only schools but also legislators and getting people in the legislature who care about the environment and environmental practices. She has taken many classes through the Utah Society for Environmental Education and in each of these classes she says people have really great and applicable ideas but it always comes back to legislation in order to have sweeping change. But she emphasized that that should not discount individual action. She is a big advocate for changing your own behavior and the behavior of those around you for the better. Even if it takes a while for policy makers to implement environmental education into curriculums, physical and knowledge-based changes can be made individually. Deanna talked a lot about how outdoor and environmental education would help children with Autism immensely. Beyond learning to care about the Earth and its functions, as they come to appreciate their part in it, they might also experience a greater desire to overcome social ineptitudes and improve their quality of life. She mentions that several teacher associates have noticed that students of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities respond positively and will likely learn better when they are able to go outside every day. But even more than having the kids develop and maintain a relationship with the outdoors and nature, Deanna says it is important to informally teach them about environmental issues and practices so that they can come to comprehend and make clear decisions about their responsibility to the environmental over time. Schools would also benefit greatly from lowering food waste, learning about recycling, and eliminating plastic. It would be better for the students health to have a garden at school to learn about healthy food practices but then hopefully help eliminate the amount of processed foods they are consuming that are bad for both the environment and students. Deanna related that these ideas have already been implemented by schools like Roots Charter High School and other schools like it called “Green” schools.
Deanna realizes that progress is on its way even if there are obstacles in front of her. She herself is still growing within the environmental movement but she knows environmentalism isn’t going anywhere and that it is going to require collaboration. Her final sentiment was one of sincerity and hope. She acknowledged the fact that many organizations and causes find success in their efforts, yet there are so many causes and ideas for change are stymied in progress due to argument over what is the best change to make, Deanna said, “Anything we do to improve the environment will be a good thing, so why argue about it.” She believes in the ability of education to help the environmental movement and hopes others will follow.
Andrea Gordon, “Kids with Autism Benefit from Outdoor Classroom,” The Toronto Star, July 5, 2013, sec. Parent, https://www.thestar.com/life/parent/2013/07/05/kids_with_autism_benefit_from_outdoor_classroom.html;
“What Is Sustainability Education? | New Roots Charter School,” accessed August 17, 2017, http://www.newrootsschool.org/content/what-sustainability-education;
“The Benefits of Outdoor Activities for Children with Autism (PDF Download Available),” ResearchGate, accessed August 17, 2017, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/266369570_The_Benefits_of_Outdoor_Activities_for_Children_with_Autism.