Equity, School Community, Well-being

Education’s Climate Crisis

Are we failing our children’s schools?

On behalf of the Association of Canadian Deans of Education (ACDE) 

We are living in a time of uncertainty, stress, and exhaustion. Our world is facing literal and metaphorical fires, encompassing environmental crises, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the spread of political and religious extremism, escalating violence and war, fragile economies and rising inflation, famine, poverty, and food insecurity.   

Education is in the midst of its own profound “crisis of climate.” Teaching and learning cannot flourish in an alienating and inhospitable landscape. Canada and other world partners have set an ambitious goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 to tackle the global environmental climate crisis. What ambitious goals are addressing the climate crisis in education for Education 2050 and beyond? Arguing that the “current disruption has changed education forever,” the Association of Canadian Deans of Education met to signal “educational priorities… and where investment is needed in teacher education, teachers and research as a recovery strategy” (2020, p. 3).   


Schools are ecosystems where children bring their own histories, knowledge, and experiences. These ecosystems have distinct cultures, structures, and access to resources. The wellbeing of children depends upon having consistent “attuned, non-stressed and emotionally reliable caregivers” (Maté & Maté, 2000, p. 101). However, in the present context, many children, families, and teachers are struggling. 

Beista, Priestley et al., (2015) have been studying educational ecosystems for many years. Their interest stems from the fact that as global policies have been adopted, teachers have been positioned as agents of change. However, rather than seeing agency simply as the individual capacity that teachers may or may not possess, they understand meaningful agency as a part of the ecology of the school systems within which teachers practise. Embedding agency within an existing ecosystem clarifies that we are all complicit in the conditions we create for teaching and learning to thrive – or to wither.  

An educational ecosystem is far more than a collection of physical spaces, policies, and curriculum documents. To empower teachers and bring about positive change, a clear vision is necessary. This involves meaningful engagement with parents, community members, school psychologists, healthcare providers, educational assistants, teacher education students, and teacher education providers. Recognizing the critical role each of these stakeholders plays is necessary for the wellbeing of students’ physical, social-emotional, intellectual, and mental health.  

The “critical habitat” for teaching and learning 

A critical habitat is essential for children to thrive. Recognizing the lasting impact of the current disruption on education, a thriving environment ensures safety, support, and equitable access to resources like technology and the internet. It upholds the rights of the children (UN General Assembly, 1989) and honours the provisions for francophone and minority language education (Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, 1982). It responds to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action. Educators play a vital role in the recovery, but without strategic and sustainable investment, they face additional risks. 

Threats to the educational ecosystem 

Globalization has led to an emphasis on competition, excellence, and individualism in education. Despite well-documented disparities, the focus on “recovery” is trained narrowly on “learning gaps” and concern about “falling behind.” Ignoring the critical habitat effectively undermines efforts to close those gaps or achieve higher test scores. The needs of historically marginalized students and families have too often been debated, thwarted, or ignored.  

Treating the educational system as a “market” undermines educational ecosystems, prioritizing shareholders over stakeholders. Government involvement in seeking market solutions to public policy problems diverts financial resources to for-profit businesses from schools. An emphasis on testing, for example, driven by the financial interests of publishing companies, devalues educators’ ongoing assessments. The shift redirects efforts toward test scores and global reputation over holistic growth.  

When changes in education are subject to short-term, politically driven reactions, the gaze is fixed on the desires of electors with special interests, over the concrete needs of children and educators. Policies emerging from such a limited view can destabilize progress and can entrench traumatizing social conditions, leaving teachers without the agency, autonomy, purpose, and sense of meaning that leads to wellness and motivation. As key resources in the ecosystem, educators and teacher education providers must play a vital role in policy and curriculum planning and decisions.  

Many parts of the world, with Canada now among them, have been crippled by a teacher shortage. When the environment in schools is neglected, and calls for support, resources, and safety measures are ignored (or promised but never realized), it can lead to despondence, positioning educators as disseminators of decisions made elsewhere (Hibbert & Iannacci, 2005). When teachers feel ignored, under-resourced, or undervalued, they leave the profession (Bryant et al., 2023).  

For example, educators are the front-line witnesses to systemic racism and equity. The crisis of climate in education has revealed new depths of inequity. Interpersonal and structural violence became more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. Building safe and trusting relationships is critical as we re-orient students to being in community, developing social-emotional capacity and recovering from their experiences over the past few years. The mental health needs of both teachers and students must be supported.  

How do we restore damaged systems? 

To build a safe and more sustainable educational ecosystem, we must prioritize the physical spaces, culture, and climate of schools. Schools ought to model advanced standards in air and water quality, as these factors impact students’ health, concentration, and comfort in learning. Implementing energy efficient and accessible technologies should be a basic requirement to demonstrate care for students and responsible use of resources. All curricula should incorporate cultural safety and human rights principles. By learning in schools that exemplify these shared goals, students can better connect what they learn with what they observe in a safe and sustainable world.  

Cree scholar Dwayne Donald argues that “ethical relationality is an ecological understanding of human relationality that does not deny difference, but rather seeks to more deeply understand how our different histories and experiences position us in relation to each other” (2009, p. 6). Bringing a compassionate curiosity that positions us all as part of an interconnected whole – where one cannot thrive without the other – holds promise for developing the trauma consciousness that is so desperately needed to move beyond the damage sustained from years of neglect. The core vision and commitments cannot be subject to change with each new government. Rather, they must address a “security of place” (Neef et al., 2018) that prioritizes a healthier, sustainable and long-term vision and investment in our Canadian educational future – and the futures of all children who participate in these systems.  

Refugees, migrants, and immigrants are choosing Canada as a safe place to educate their children. One need only read the news to see that that “safety” can be disingenuous for some populations. We know that “students’ relationships with their teachers are vital to their academic learning and psychosocial development” (Smith & Whitely, 2023, p. 96). Those relationships are made more fragile when the teacher’s own needs are not being met.  

“How do we help children achieve and develop to the limits of their potential, particularly those who struggle most in an industrialized system of education that struggles to accommodate individual needs and challenges?” (p. 101). This process begins by establishing a caring relationship between educators and students. However, it is crucial for educators to operate within a caring environment and a system that genuinely values the education and wellbeing of children beyond their future economic contributions. Achieving this requires intellectual humility, collaboration, and investment as education is prioritized and valued for the significant role it plays in all our social futures. 




Association of Canadian Deans of Education. (2020). Teaching and teacher education: Preparing for a flourishing post-pandemic Canada. ACDE. 

Biesta, Priestley, M., & Robinson, S. (2015).  Teacher agency: an ecological approach. Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing, Plc. doi.org/10.5040/9781474219426 

Bryant, J., Ram, S., et al. (2023). K-12 teachers are quitting. What would make them stay? McKinsey & Company.

Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,  Part 1 of the Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 1982, c 11.

Donald, D. (2009).  Forts, curriculum, and Indigenous Métissage: Imagining decolonization of Aboriginal-Canadian relations in educational contexts. First Nations Perspectives, 2(1), 1–24. 

Government of Canada, (n.d.). Net-zero emissions by 2050.

Hibbert, K., & Iannacci, L. (2005). From Dissemination to discernment: The commodification of literacy instruction and the fostering of “good teacher consumerism.” The Reading Teacher, 58(8), 716–727. 

Maté, G., & Maté, D. (2022).  The myth of normal: trauma, illness and healing in a toxic culture. Alfred A. Knopf Canada. 

Neef, A., Benge., L., et al. (2018). Climate adaptation strategies in Fiji: the role of social norms and cultural values. World Development, 107, 125-137. 

Smith, J. D. & Whitley, J. (2023). Teaching with acceptance and commitment: Building teachers’ social-emotional competencies for teaching effectiveness. The Educational Forum, 87(1), 90–104.  doi: 10.1080/00131725.2022.2053620 

UN General Assembly. (1989). Convention on the rights of the child. Treaty Series, 1577, 3. United Nations.

Photo: iStock
First published in Education CanadaSeptember 2023

Meet the Expert(s)

Dr. Kathryn Hibbert

Distinguished University Professor and Associate Dean at the Faculty of Education, Western University

Kathryn Hibbert, PhD, is a Distinguished University Professor, Associate Dean of Teacher Education, and former Acting Dean of the Faculty of Education at Western University.

Read More

1/5 Free Articles Left

LOGIN Join The Network