a group of children on the beach, with garbage and plastic piled in front of them

Dispatch from UNESCO India: Saya Soma’s third blog from the field

Photo credit: https://maldives-magazine.com/news/soneva-aims-new-sustainability-achievements-for-2022.htm
By Saya Soma, MAGG

Both of my parents are elementary school teachers in rural Japan, where I am originally from. Growing up, I watched them exhaust themselves, working very long hours on weekdays and most weekends. My father was ‘voluntold’ to coach the afterschool baseball team at his school, which made him work most weekends during the baseball seasons without additional pay. My parents find the job rewarding, but from what I saw, I developed a negative impression of schools as a workplace and I swore to myself I would NEVER become a teacher or do any work related to education when I grow up.

Fast forward 20 years or so, I am interning at the Education Sector of the UNESCO New Delhi Cluster Office, working every day on teachers and school-related issues. Even though I am obviously not a teacher, nor is my work condition anything similar to that of my parents, I find it slightly ironic that I find passion in something I vowed as a little child to stay away. I suppose the apple does not fall far from the tree.

What reminded me of this was my participation in some of the meetings for UNESCO-wide programmes, particularly, Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and Transforming Education Summit (TES) follow-ups, in which teachers’ capacity building is one of the key topics.

ESD is UNESCO’s education-centred response to the existential challenges that the planet faces. Its core purpose is to equip all learners with the knowledge, skills, and values needed to address the current global challenges through education – from climate changes, and biodiversity losses, to the unjust distribution of resource accesses. To this end, several guidelines and commitments have been made over the years including the Framework for the Implementation of Education for Sustainable Development Beyond 2019, UNESCO’s Roadmap (2020), and the Berlin Declaration on Education for Sustainable Development (2021). Building upon these, the TES, which was convened by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres in September 2022, has re-confirmed the need for transformative changes in education to tackle the climate crisis and adopted Greening Education Partnership. And to support Member States and other education-related stakeholders to implement ESD and greening of education, UNESCO has launched a new ESD for 2030 Global Network, or ESD-Net 2030 for short, in 2022.

Now, all these initiatives have similar sounding words and are seemingly complexly inter-connected, but to summarise, they are UNESCO’s collective effort to leverage education in progressing towards the achievement of all the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And central to all these efforts is to empower teachers and reinforce their capacity to effectively deliver climate education.

My encounter with all these started from coordination of the ESD-Net 2030’s South and West Asian Sub-regional Consultation Online Meeting. My role was to support communication among various UNESCO field units in the region, the UNESCO focal points in Member States’ governments, and relevant ministry representatives. I gained the unique etiquette of diplomatic communication through this process, involving official invitation letters and carefully crafted follow-up emails. It was remarkable (both in positive and negative ways) how much effort was spent on coordinating this one online meeting.

At the meeting, as one of the primary goals was to encourage big-picture changes at a policy and curricula level, there were many seemingly abstract discussions on general commitments towards ESD, which seems to be very common in these types of meetings that involves state representatives. But, one of the participating countries, the Maldives, had already advanced their Country Initiative plans towards the ESD implementation and presented a more concrete vision of what they are working on. The country representative introduced how they have trained the teachers in their pilot schools to run sustainability-focused learning programmes that are rooted in the local environmental contexts. As the Maldives is an Small Island Developing State (SIDS), the climate change impact can be vividly felt by the local communities in the form of rising sea levels and ocean pollution. Thus, their programme focuses on the reduction of environmental footprints, as well as increased eco-literacy in the context of community-based ocean stewardship. This programme is still in the pilot phase, but being able to see a concrete example of the capacity building of teachers and schools’ “green skills”, which not only raises a new environmentally-minded generation of students in a locally-grounded way but also start to transform the mentality of the whole community (including teachers, school administrators, parents, and the community members), was very moving.

And then it clicked in my head – when I visited my parents last December for the first time in three years (cheers, COVID), I noticed how my parents frequently used the word ‘SDGs’ somewhat synonymously with environmental sustainability in normal conversations. My mother, who manages curricula building at her school, also told me that Japan’s new education ministerial guideline has increased attention to sustainability education. Consequently, her school now has more school trips to places such as local recycling facilities as our local community particularly has an issue with plastic waste. These school trips that she chaperons seemed to have made her (the teacher) more aware of the waste issue and keen on trying to have less plastic waste in her household. As Japan is the host country for this year’s global meeting for ESD-Net 2030, it is also working on ESD advocacy and sensitization within its education system. And just as in the example that I saw in the Maldives’ presentation, I think the attitude changes that I saw in my own parents are a very small but real example of UNESCO’s ESD initiative transforming the mindset of communities starting from school!

All this is to say, my childhood self was wrong. Working in education is actually quite rewarding.

But also, being able to visualize the connections between the rather diplomatically-tedious big-picture discussions that happen at the international level and the transformative changes that they can lead to at the small local level can be powerful. Post-consultation meeting, I have been reflecting on how such visualization may be leveraged to gain buy-in from key stakeholders – not only for this programme (as I am not really working on this programme at the moment), but in others generally, too. I will think of incorporating such visualizing storytelling, in addition to statistical data that large organizations tend to focus on, into future stakeholder-engagement communications.

Scroll to Top