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By Hilary Leighton, MAEEC program head, Royal Roads University; Kay Bates, MA candidate and teacher, Kamloops; Chloe Faught, MA candidate and teacher, Saanich; and Martin Anevich, MA, teacher, and vice-principal, Saturna Island

As program head for the Master of Arts in Environmental Education and Communication (MAEEC) at Royal Roads University, I have the great good fortune of accompanying passionate and engaged graduate students in their studies as they perform meaningful and applied research. At the confluence of blended learning, personally significant research, and even complicated, dark, and difficult times, these MAEEC students unearth significant insights, cultivate mastery of self, and embody positive growth by living their learning.

What surprised you most about grad school and, in particular, research?

Kay: I was surprised by the encouragement I received to research something meaningful to me, using research methods that draw out my voice and experience as a woman in education. I often felt education was a process of jumping through hoops just to finish and get a job; instead, grad school is a journey of personal and professional discovery and growth.

Marty: Becoming a student again helped me to think through how I can best support the learners in my class. I was reminded of how much effort and care it takes to clearly develop an idea. I remembered how challenging and how rewarding it can be to learn. 

Chloe: I was most surprised about how diverse research can be. I had no idea of how personal and creative a thesis could be. I am also constantly, pleasantly surprised at how wonderful and encouraging the instructors and my cohort have been and how important they were to my success. Who knew that the most important aspect of grad school was the gift of friendship and support of so many amazing human beings?

How has grad school influenced your work?

Kay: I would not have considered myself a feminist prior to entering MAEEC. However, my research in ecofeminism has reminded me that women’s stories and indeed women’s traditional knowledge has value, particularly in this time of crisis. I have also always struggled with being “just a home economics teacher” (some students will even say my class isn’t important). After discovering that the students loved to cook during quarantine, I felt empowered to change my classroom to be more “homey,” less institutionalized, and more personalized. The home economics room is a place of colours, smells, and touch. I consider it an achievement to help the students back to their physical selves and senses, and connect back to the earth through care, food, and community. For some of them, it is a hard journey and remembering this helps me do my job with compassion and empathy. Doing research for my thesis inspired me to start researching the source of the recipes I use in foods class and talk about it with the students. I realized that these recipes are the result of years of research and experimentation, as much as any science textbook is. Now, I encourage students to use their intuition in foods classes; each of them has a relationship to culture and nature through food. I look for opportunities for creative self-expression, because identity formation is an important part of the high school experience and I see home economics as a place for students to explore that. A goal of my lesson plan is encouraging an ethic of care for the earth, which also involves caring for each other and all the living beings of our home.

Marty: I have been afforded the opportunity to stretch my understanding of best pedagogical practices for environmental learning and expand my understanding of how learning outside in the natural environment can add value to the high school experience. For me, the coursework broadened and essentially deepened my understanding of ecological literacy, complexity, systems thinking, ecopsychology, and communication strategies. I feel more equipped to teach a generation of young leaders how to process their feelings and make informed decisions around the environment. 

Chloe: It has shifted and expanded my perspective from a teacher in the classroom to someone who can also be a leader for my school, district, and community in environmental education and advocacy. Without the impetus of being a master’s student with all of the supports, I do not think I would have had the guts to reach out to my colleagues in education and start an Environmental Education Provincial Specialist Association (EEPSA) chapter, the focus of my research inquiry. 

How has your research changed you (e.g., in life, relationships, worldview, sense of identity/self)?

Kay: I feel a great renewal in my calling as a home economics teacher, because now I feel that passing on traditional food skills to my students will indeed help them cope with the disruption and transitions that inevitably will come with the impacts of climate change in the future. My family relationships changed too. Role modeling care for the environment has had a tremendous impact on my children. Somehow, my journey inspired one to become a vegetarian. I have also developed a more compassionate relationship with my 80-year-old father as he examines his more traditional views of work and life through our conversations. 

Marty: It can be isolating as a teacher at a small rural school. My research allowed me to branch out and connect with a wider group of professionals and a community of learners, and that made me feel like I was a kid again. I was able to reconnect with alumni, parents, and community members to investigate the essential elements of a successful environmental educational experience at Saturna Ecological Education Centre that I just wouldn’t have had the time for otherwise.  

Chloe: My research, a case study of the Salish Sea EEPSA chapter I founded, has pushed me to connect and collaborate with other like-minded teachers and educators within the province. It has empowered me to reach out to this network for help and support and to encourage and support other teachers as they improve environmental education practices in their communities. Some of my pedagogies and practices have positively shifted because of this learning process.

What challenges have you faced? How have you been able to balance teaching and grad school, especially during the pandemic? 

Kay: The quarantine did inspire and inform my research topic, a surprising and positive thing amid all the chaos. Connecting food, nature, and women’s knowledge was perfectly timed. And I baked! Also, I felt a strong sense of identification with my professors who were also taking on the same challenges as everything shifted online. 

Marty: I felt like I was a juggler, trying not to drop any of the balls I had in the air: being both a teacher and a student at the same time while trying to embrace a lifestyle of wellness. I have learned that taking a break is productive—like kayak rolling practice, where the opportunity to get out of my head and back into my body was surprisingly rejuvenating. For me, pursuing grad studies was an anchoring force in these challenging times.

Chloe: Thesis writing coupled with a pandemic was extremely challenging emotionally and logistically with two little kids at home. I had to take a break for my mental well-being in March when COVID hit, yet, in the end, the thesis and the work was part of the therapy. Not only is the pandemic a chapter in my research now, but this year has helped crystallize the importance of the work I started, because it has further deepened the network connections of environmental educators. 

What advice do you have for another teacher considering grad school?

Kay: I can only say that, for myself, I was feeling frustrated and a little hopeless as a teacher, and this MA has helped me feel passionate about my job again. I want to help kids prepare for a future that will be characterized by change, and that requires me to change first. 

Marty: Look into the flexibility of a program with online learning throughout the school year and short, exciting summer residencies. Also, the option of the Major Research Project completion allowed me to engage in practical and applied research that enhanced and inspired my professional practice.

Chloe: Be ready to open your mind and heart to new ways of knowing, to new possibilities, and to new friendships both human and more-than-human. Do not underestimate how challenging and yet how beautiful it will be! Incredibly difficult? Yes! Worth it? Absolutely!

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