When thousands of students collectively walked out of classrooms to take part in the first School Strike 4 Climate back in 2019, teacher Jamiel Sabbagh began thinking of ways staff could support the activism of the young people they teach. “Most of us have wanted to show solidarity with students, and express strong opinions on the climate crisis, but not known how to,” says Jamiel, who works at Princes Hill Secondary College in Melbourne’s inner north.
His colleague, Julie Anderson, agrees: “Pretty close to the whole school went out in the first strike. There were only a couple of kids left in each class. Our students have always been very proactive, and the staff have been a bit stuck, having to teach, and not sure what they could do to show our support.”
In response, members of the Princes Hill SC sub-branch brainstormed ways to involve school staff in “visible acts of solidarity with students,” Jamiel says. Together, they formed School Staff for Climate Action. The group’s first action was to design a t-shirt, which all the staff wore on Earth Day. “The students loved it.”
Jamiel, along with fellow sub-branch members Hamish McCoy and Andy Kemp, attended the AEU’s inner-city regional meeting, where they put forward a motion calling on the union to endorse the student strikes and spoke about their Earth Day action. Six AEU reps from nearby schools have since bought School Staff for Climate Action t-shirts for sub-branch members.
Julie says wearing the shirt has been a great way of collaborating with other schools. “It’s important: being a bit of a united front. Our school is not the only one where students feel this way. As a VCE teacher, I can’t attend the protest during the school day. So, the best thing we can do is support them by wearing the t-shirt.”
According to welfare officer Jess Little, staff at Princes Hill SC have noticed a big increase in anxiety among students in recent years, both “generalised and very specifically” related to climate change.
“It is often part of a discussion around motivation,” she says. “So, ‘What’s the point with engaging with school or doing well or aiming high when we’re all stuffed anyway?’, which is really hard to hear. And it’s hard to combat, too. It’s hypocritical to suggest that that’s not a valid concern.”
Students at Princes Hill SC are “really passionate” about environmental issues, Jess says. “So many kids at this school are active about conservation, right down to what they eat and consume. They’re doing their best – but they can’t vote, so there’s a real sense of a lack of agency. They’re at the mercy of adults’ decisions and behaviour.”
Jamiel agrees. “The majority of the population supports rapid and far-reaching change. Scientists say we need it to prevent an existential disaster. Students are aware of this,” he says. “There’s that Greta Thunberg quote: ‘Taking action gives you hope’. If you’re not involved in that action, what answer can you give that student?”
Their experience is reflected in a recent Australian Psychology Society study, which revealed that four out of five students are anxious about climate change and the majority feel their fears and opinions are being ignored. However, says APS president Ros Knight, “they felt more hopeful when they were actively involved in pro-environmental behaviours, and supported by parents, teachers and peers.”
Students understand the science behind climate change, Jess says. “So, when they see politicians denying those facts, it leaves them with a sense of: ‘Well, who are the adults I can trust?’ Seeing there are school staff who share their passion for the cause, and alarm at the problem, does actually build a sense of rapport.”
She says the “huge take-up” of the t-shirts by staff – from the principal class all the way through – has built a strong sense of solidarity across the school. “Agency is the counter to anxiety, and that’s what we’re trying to engender in our students, too – that they can actually do something, and we will support them.”
Anouk, a Year 10 student at Princes Hill SC, says she has been happy to see her teachers wearing the t-shirt. “I think it’s really good that the teachers are doing that, even though they can’t technically support us to leave the school,” she says. “It gives us a lot of hope and a sense of how big and public this issue is – not just for students but for teachers as well.”
Fellow Year 10 student Franka has also appreciated the gesture. “I think it’s great that the teachers are supporting us, not just in our education but in our life as well.”
Fellow student Mia agrees. “It’s really good that they are so invested.” Climate is a focus in almost every subject now, she adds. “We recently learnt about climate change in Humanities, which was great. We got to explore a whole lot of different aspects, like how educating girls can have an impact on climate change.”
Classmate Sam says he’s glad to attend a school where staff have been so supportive of the strike. “At a lot of schools, teachers will tell students off for going, or for wearing school clothes at a rally, but at our school some teachers even go to the protest and they support us taking action.”
Freya says Princes Hill SC students are encouraged to make the most of their democratic rights and responsibilities. “It’s not fair that we should be doing this; we’re not the government, and they should be doing better. But we live in a country where we are able to speak up and tell the government to do the right thing and kids have a voice. That’s so important.”
“Agency is the counter to anxiety, and that’s what we’re trying to engender in our students, too.”
Thousands of students and their supporters descended on Treasury Gardens in Melbourne on 21 May, demanding the Morrison government abandon its gas-fired COVID-19 economic recovery plan in favour of renewable energy. AEU members attended the rally, alongside those from ANMF, HACSU, the NTEU and many more.
At the rally, several fiercely passionate young people spoke to the crowd of thousands, before Deb James, head of the IEU and president of Trades Hall Council, stepped up to the mic to declare that: “Climate change is union business”.
“Right now, we are in the frontline on the fight against climate change,” she said. “Looking at all these young faces, I’m so proud to be a teacher. At a time when political leaders are failing us, you – the students – are standing up and fighting for what is right.”
Euan Morton, from Collingwood College, attended the rally with fellow AEU members. “As teachers, I think we have to show solidarity for the students taking action on climate change. I’ve seen students, parents and ex-students here as well – it’s such an important connector.”
Stuart Bracecamp, from Brunswick North Primary, was among those who heard Jamiel speak at the AEU regional meeting and was inspired to get involved – wearing his School Staff for Climate Action t-shirt to the protest.
“It’s so important to get anyone interested in climate change and creating a better future for the kids that we teach to stand up and have a voice.”
Brunswick North PS is the first school to create a climate action officer within its union sub-branch, with Emma Beale putting up her hand for the role. “Climate is union business, and therefore it is union sub-branch business,” Emma says. “We have green teams that work to reduce the school’s environmental footprint, but we also need to mobilise members to take individual action on climate.”
Last year, for the first time, Jamiel ran a climate anxiety workshop with 150 Year 8 students at Princes Hill SC. “We got students to create Post-it Notes about how they feel. Clearly there was anxiety and concerns, but students mainly wanted to know how to solve the issue.”
He is encouraging staff to tell students that solutions are possible. “We are teaching the science and the severity of the climate crisis, and so what solutions do teachers present? The most obvious answer, when the government is literally doing the very opposite to what they need to be doing, is to protest and try to hold the government to account that way.”
Jamiel says the School Staff for Climate Action group will keep looking for ways to work with fellow union members and to support students. “The community at large is feeling a lot of climate anxiety and one of the best outlets we’ve seen is the student strikes. So, ironically, it’s the students pointing to the solution, and I think that’s why there’s been such overwhelming support among staff – because we need mass protest on this issue.”