NEA’s Highest Honor Goes to Climate Teen Activist, Greta Thunberg

Climate activist Greta Thunberg

The power of voice has long been one of the bedrocks of unionism, with just one voice often being enough to change the course of events—and proving this claim is Greta Thunberg, a Swedish environmental activist who in 2018 sat alone, outside the Swedish Parliament, to call for stronger action on climate change. This one voice grew to four million in just one year. Today, people the world over have joined her to help save the planet.

And it is for these efforts that NEA’s highest honor, the NEA Friend of Education, was awarded to Thunberg during NEA’s virtual Representative Assembly on July 3. The award recognizes a person or organization whose leadership, acts, or support have significantly contributed to the improvement of American public education.

Thunberg’s activism started after convincing her parents to adopt several lifestyle choices to reduce their own carbon footprint. In August 2018, at age 15, she started spending her school days outside the Swedish parliament holding up a sign that read: Skolstrejk för klimatet (School strike for climate).

Soon, other students engaged in similar protests in their own communities. Together, they organized a school climate strike movement under the name “Fridays for Future.” After Thunberg addressed the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference, student strikes took place every week somewhere in the world.

“We deserve a safe future. And we demand a safe future,” Thunberg said at the 2019 Global Climate Strike in New York. “Is that really too much to ask?”

To NEA members, that question is not too much to ask. In fact, it’s exactly the right thing to ask as the world stares down real, tangible climate change. In nominating Thunberg, NEA members cited the Swedish teen’s ability to elevate the discussion about science—climate science, in particular—like a next-generation Bill Nye.

“Greta is an ordinary teen who has done something truly extraordinary: she has been able to get people — the adults in charge — to pay attention and listen to her message about climate change. Hopefully they’ll act because future generations, Greta’s generation and others, depend on it,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “Greta is a rabble rouser, and she’s taking on the world for a better tomorrow.”

Unprecedented Environmental Activism

Greta Thunberg’s work has sparked unprecedented environmental activism in U.S. schools, too. In many areas, school gardens have become community hubs that feed families and nourish the community’s relationship to the land.

School boards also are updating or adopting policies on environmental education that directly mention climate change, and in some places, like Virginia, schools are going solar. In February, Richmond Public Schools launched a 2.9 megawatt solar power project—the largest solar installation on a school district in Virginia, according to the nonprofit Generation180. Ten Richmond public schools have installed solar panels.

Experts also are taking a critical look at areas where climate change disproportionately impacts students of color. In dozens of major U.S. cities, low-income neighborhoods are more likely to be hotter than their wealthier counterparts, according to a joint investigation by NPR and the University of Maryland’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism.

Previous winners of the NEA Friend for Education award include: Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai; education policy expert Linda Darling-Hammond; U.S. Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton; U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA); and U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA).

A Classroom Resource Guide on Climate Change

Educators are uniquely positioned to help students learn about climate change, caused by human activity. But how do we do it in a way that engages and inspires them? Here are 5 Ways to Teach About Climate Change in Your Classroom, which includes no-cost classroom resources and professional development for teaching about climate change.

Teaching about climate change can be overwhelming at times, but by teaching the crisis through imaginative curriculum, and telling the stories of the people most affected and the movements struggling for environmental and social justice, students can also find the hope and collective strength to work toward a better future. A good resource for this is the “People’s Curriculum for the Earth,” a collection of articles, role plays, simulations, stories, poems, and graphics.

The book features some of the best articles from Rethinking Schools magazine alongside classroom-friendly readings on climate change, energy, water, food, and pollution, as well as on people who are working to make things better.

More resources to help educators teach about climate change: