The Parent Trap


Photo from PKub via Flickr

Dealing with challenges to teaching climate change can be difficult under the best of circumstances. But what do you do if you're accused of not teaching the science at all but rather, indoctrinating students with a liberal agenda?

I recently sat down with one teacher who had to deal with this issue a few years ago—at a time when the movie An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and Al Gore were more on people’s minds. The teacher, C.W., had just been transferred to a new high school to teach environmental science. New to the topic, he tried to get as much background information as possible, and found the materials associated with An Inconvenient Truth, the movie and book, to be very approachable for students. He also was invited to be part of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, receiving special training in how to talk to the public about climate change. He brought his training and materials to his environmental science class, using both the science he had learned, as well as images of him with the former Vice President who he had met through the Project—and soon after the trouble started.

The students seemed genuinely interested in, and even expressed concern about, climate change. But it didn’t take long before parents started calling the school with complaints about the material being covered. It wasn’t just calls, either. One day C.W. was summoned to the main office to speak to an irate parent about the materials being used in class. No matter what C.W. told him about the science, the connection to Al Gore enraged the parent. C.W.’s explanation only fueled the flames. Rather than resolve the situation, the conversation only made things worse.

The parent left the school and started organizing other parents. They called the principal, the superintendent, even the school board. They insisted on inspecting C.W.’s materials and demanded to know where they came from. Perhaps to their disappointment, the materials were scientific data taken from unimpeachably legitimate sources, such as NASA and NOAA. Nevertheless, a subsequent op-ed in the local newspaper attacked C.W. for teaching about climate change, accusing him of importing a political agenda into his science class. Just as it started to look as if the controversy would become a serious problem, the semester ended and with it the class. With a new set of students in the following semester, there was no repetition of the controversy.

Since then, C.W. has reflected on what he could have done differently. Was he really bringing politics into his science classroom? Was he digressing from the scientific into the political when talking about climate change? He looked over his materials again, but kept coming back to the same conclusions. The materials he used were from scientific sources: data and evidence generated within the scientific community. But he decided to take out any reference to the Climate Reality Project, which taught him about climate change, and to Al Gore. Now when he presents the very same scientific material as before, he has little to no trouble. Students understand that he is talking about science, not politics, and their parents haven’t expressed any concerns.

What is C.W.’s recommendation to other teachers? Be sensitive to the politics around climate change and how what you're saying might be misinterpreted. At the same time, he emphasizes, teachers can’t compromise on scientific integrity. He makes it clear that that the information he is teaching is coming from scientists, not politicians. “I have no political agenda,” he said. “And I want to make sure the students know that.”