Simply put, environmental educators are people who teach others about
the environment. And since the environment is front page news these days,
careers for those who can teach others about it are experiencing renewed interest
and big changes.
The North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) has
about 20,000 members. The breakdown of NAAEE's membership is a good indication
of what environmental educators are doing and where.
Brian Day, executive director of NAAEE, says: "Probably about 15 to 20
percent are in the formal education system, with most of them teachers, some
of them curriculum developers, some of them science or social studies educators
who are overseeing parts of school systems.
"Another 15 percent are in higher education."
Day says that they could be teaching in places like the education or forestry
departments of colleges and universities.
"Then, about [another] half of our members are what I could call non-formal
educators," Day continues. "They work in nature centers, parks, aquariums,
zoos, botanical gardens and a myriad of other places.
"And then the last segment works for government, and they can work at the
national level -- like for the Department of the Environment -- or the [state],
county or local level."
Moving to a holistic approach
"What people often mistake about environmental education is they think
it's advocacy in the classroom, and that's just dead wrong," says Day.
"Environmental education is helping students learn at any age -- learn
how things work so they can make their own individual lifestyle choices and
participate in public policy debate."
He explains that environmental education is a lot more than just science.
"It's how natural systems and living systems and human systems all interact,
including the social dimension, the political perspective, the economic situation...
to why is there global warming, and where should our next energy come from.
But if you don't bring the human dimension to it, then you're a scientist,
not an environmental educator."
Kristin Poppo is the head of graduate and professional studies at IslandWood,
an innovation environmental facility on Bainbridge Island, Washington. She
agrees that a holistic approach is important.
"There definitely is a growing recognition that we really need to teach
our children to care more about the world around them," she says.
"Our programs look at both community and environmental stewardship, and
we try to connect those. So we want people who have that broad sense of caring
about the world around them."
Poppo herself doesn't have a science background. Among her many degrees,
she has a BA in philosophy and religion, a Master of Divinity, and a PhD in
A career path with a few challenges?
The largest number of environment educators work in informal settings,
as Day indicates. Jobs in these places are often part time and seasonal, and
tend to pay less than jobs in formal education and with the government.
Environmental educators often start out in nonprofit organizations to build
up experience for their resumes. It can take a little legwork to find these
jobs. You have to look for organizations that employ environmental educators
and find out if they'll be hiring in the near future.
A diploma or degree from a college or university is usually the minimum
requirement for an entry-level job, but this is where things get a little
hazy because there really are no hard and fast rules about qualifications.
Although nonprofit organizations generally look for people with environment
or science backgrounds, Kerri Lanaway says that they'll also consider individuals
with arts, education or even communication backgrounds. Lanaway is the school
programs coordinator for a Sierra Club chapter.
Chad Stevens is a city park ranger. His job has both environmental and
enforcement components. Therefore, "the minimum requirement is generally a
two-year diploma in environmental science or a two-year diploma in policing
and security," he says, adding that, "a forestry or other related diploma
or degree would also be considered."
In Stevens' job, educating the public about the environment is just one
of many responsibilities, and it's a very informal one.
"We do present programs to the public..." he explains, "but more so, the
education component involves brochure development and information dissemination."
The city where Stevens lives and works employs 10 park rangers and offers
them a pretty good salary. So competition is fierce when a job is advertised.
Stevens says that about 250 people may apply. And while some of the rangers
use the job as a stepping stone to something else, Stevens says that some
people do stay.
For most formal education and government jobs, a bachelor's degree is typically
the minimum requirement. But a master's degree or a PhD will move you up the
ladder faster and earn you more money. Day says that about seven percent of
NAAEE's members earn $90,000 per year or more, so it's possible to earn a
great salary if you get on that track.
But even in education and government, the nature of your degree is pretty
much open. And this actually reflects an important trend in the whole environmental
educator career scene.
A changing climate
Climate change is a reality, and the climate for environmental educators
is changing along with it.
IslandWood, where Poppo works, is very much at the forefront of new trends.
While offering innovative programs for children, adults, families, teachers
and graduate students, IslandWood also takes pride in the fact that it pays
its educators quite well.
"We've pretty much set a model for educating that is pretty exemplary,
and so people are excited about being a part of our organization," says Poppo.
"But there are a lot of jobs out there in a lot of different areas. And
we find that those of our students who are going into teaching, either in
public or private schools, are in very high demand."
"There are a few things that are happening right now that are very much
changing the nature of environmental education and will cause quite a surge
in the number of employers looking for environmental educators," adds Day.
He explains that the NAAEE has become a member of the National Council
for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), the organization in charge
of the professional accreditation process for schools, colleges and departments
"We firmly believe that NCATE will formally adopt, based on guidelines
we've already developed, standards for environmental education and how it's
to be taught at the university level," says Day. This means that individuals
graduating from these institutions will be better qualified to work as environmental
"At the same time," he continues, "we have legislation introduced in Congress
that will provide more money for training teachers in environmental education.
And then we have real environmental problems that are getting global attention."
Day also mentions the fact that parents and teachers are becoming more
aware that today's children, for many reasons, are disconnected from the natural
"It's a wonderful time to be in this organization," he adds. "We're at
a place in human history where in the next generation we have to change everything
that humans have done on the planet: economics, transportation, energy, the
way we build buildings. We need to reconceive everything."
So, do you have a passion to get in on the action? Whatever type of environmental
educator you want to be, there's a job somewhere for you. And since the requirements
for this career are still developing, you can probably make your own unique
career path to this line of work.
North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE)
Lots of information about standards, guidelines, initiatives,
research and more
Career: Environmental Educators
Career profile of an environmental educator provided by CollegeBoard.com
An innovative facility offering environmental programs