The lessons students teach us

Maurie Mulheron

Last month I was invited to be a judge at the finals of the Years 7 and 8 public speaking competition held at the high school on the south coast at which I had been principal. I shared the judging duties with a recently retired English teacher.

The next morning, back in Sydney, I met with one of the coordinators of the national People’s Climate Change march.

Later, I reflected on how the two events connected.

The People’s Climate Change marches are scheduled for the weekend of November 28–29 and should bring together Australians from all walks of life concerned about the state of the planet and what kind of world future generations will inherit. There will be marches held in every capital city across the country. The Sydney event will be on Sunday, November 29 at 1pm in the Domain.

When it comes to global warming, it has certainly been frustrating over the last few years to hear politicians generating a hostility towards science and to see the television advertisements funded by corporations with a vested interest in promoting fossil fuels such as coal.

As teachers we tend to be optimistic about the future, primarily because we interact every day of our working lives with energetic, hopeful young people who, generally, are trusting of adults. Their enthusiasm is contagious.

But I have always worried that the anti-intellectualism behind climate change denial could have a negative impact on young people, who look to adults for guidance, knowledge and protection.

If my experience in judging the public speaking competition is anything to go by, however, I need not worry.

There were two groups being judged. The Year 8 students were asked to speak about a novel they had studied in English that had had an impact on them. The second group of Year 7 students were allowed to speak about a social issue that concerned them. Across both groups I was taken with the number of speakers who expressed serious concerns about climate change and the destruction of the environment. Many in the first group were inspired by the Tim Winton novel, Blueback.

The title comes from the name given to a beautiful large fish, a blue groper, which Abel, the protagonist, sees when diving in the bay. He grows up to be a marine biologist with an acute awareness of the fragility of the coastline where he lives. With his mother he fights to protect the area from developers who threaten the ecology of the reef, the habitat of Blueback.

What struck me was the passion I could sense in these young people as they spoke with such conviction about the issues raised in the novel.

Even though the students in the second group were free to choose an issue to speak about, so many chose topics that related to climate change, endangered species and the environment. It was soon obvious that they had not been distracted by the anti-science brigade. It was clear that whatever the shock-jock global warming deniers were saying about climate change, they had failed to convince these students.

As each student spoke about the importance of saving the planet or the need to develop sustainable energy solutions or the value of saving the habitats of endangered species, I felt a sense of optimism.

The students were articulate, confident and assertive. I was impressed with the research and use of evidence to support their arguments. Each student engaged the audience of parents, teachers and fellow students from their year group.

But above all, the students were hopeful that the world will be able to tackle the problems. If previous generations of humanity had created the crisis, this generation is determined to talk about solutions.

The next morning I listened to the representative of the coalition of organisations behind the People’s Climate March. I was asked if Federation would consider joining the coalition of supporters that included many other organisations such as Oxfam, GetUp!, the World Wildlife Fund and the National Tertiary Education Union.

My mind drifted back to the previous day in the high school library and the young speakers who had impressed me so much. There was no choice, really.

I went upstairs and emailed my fellow senior Officers suggesting we recommend to Executive that Federation should become a partner in the People’s Climate March coalition.

I then ordered a copy online of Tim Winton’s novel, Blueback.

For more information visit People's Climate Change.