With a passion for the environment that was sparked in the geography lessons of her own school days, the teacher behind one of Foundation Studies’ most impactful subjects is using the class to inspire and galvanise the next generation of sustainably minded thinkers, makers and doers.
For Jane Sykes, Environment, Development and Design – the long-standing Trinity elective that she helped create – is an invaluable tool for introducing young people to some of the most serious problems affecting the planet. Throughout her almost-21-year tenure, the educator has seen the multidisciplinary unit, which covers topics such as global warming, population growth and urbanisation, adapt and change, as the issues facing the world become more wide-ranging and urgent.
The concepts broached in her class are given an extra edge thanks to the intercultural discussion between students who join Trinity from all over the world – bringing with them diverse experiences and viewpoints.
‘From a teaching perspective, it’s a real blessing, and something I relish in the classroom,’ says Jane. ‘Having students from multiple countries and cultural backgrounds adds a really amazing dynamic. People can give their different perspectives and opinions, but also share what goes on in their culture or in their home cities, and compare that to what we do here in Australia.’
The issues discussed in Jane’s classes are varied and complex, with no easy fixes or straightforward solutions. But, with a current world population of 7.8 billion (on-track to be almost 10 billion by 2050), and an unsustainable rate of resource consumption, Jane is keen to instil a sense of motivation and urgency in her students, which she hopes will endure beyond their time at Trinity.
‘Every country around the world needs to look at what they’re doing in terms of people, the economy, and the environment – and how they all work together,’ she says. ‘If we're going to achieve a sustainable future, we need to look at how we can do that – how we can reduce our resource consumption, but still facilitate everybody having a reasonable standard of living.’
Jane knows first-hand the influential role that education plays in getting young people thinking critically about the issues facing the world, and can trace her own fervent passion for sustainability and the environment to one particularly engaging class in early secondary school.
‘I was inspired by a geography teacher who used to show us slides of her travels through Africa in our classes,’ she recalls. ‘I loved seeing the beauty of the natural environment, but also became concerned about the negative impact that people were having.’
In the following years, Jane’s interest in geography continued to grow, and it became a permanently exciting and stimulating fixture within her academic timetable.
‘I continued my study of geography throughout secondary school and at university,’ she says. ‘I loved learning about different places, getting out of the classroom and going on fieldtrips, and seeing how people can take action to create a more sustainable world.’
Although an avid teacher now, Jane had originally been unsure of what direction her career would go in, applying for both a Diploma of Education and a Bachelor of Social Work after finishing her undergraduate degree. When she got accepted into both, she chose social work, simply based on the fact that it had a higher entrance requirement. But, soon realising the long-term importance of following her true passion, she switched to teaching – and hasn’t looked back since.
‘I always loved my school experience as a child, and I think that makes a big impact,’ she says. ‘I love working with young people, and it's a job where I feel I can make a difference – and that difference is facilitating young people to follow their passions.’
It’s through teaching that Jane has been able to combine two of her unwavering passions: sustainability and the environment, and helping young people realise their role in improving the world around them.
‘I wanted to do something about it [sustainability] and felt that as a teacher I could inspire young people to take positive action to help both people in need and the environment,’ she says. ‘Sounds very clichéd! But it’s true – education is a very powerful tool in so many ways.’
For Jane, seeing those she’s taught go on to make a difference in one of the fields explored in her classes is an immensely rewarding part of her job – whether that’s the student who began the class with the goal of studying commerce at university, but soon discovered his interest and talent in urban planning; or the recent graduate who’s gone on to become a gifted and in-demand architect in Melbourne; or another past pupil who’s developed a deep determination to find sustainable solutions to global problems, and who Jane says has the potential to one day work for the United Nations.
‘It's so amazing to see when students achieve and follow their passion, and go on to do great things,’ she says. ‘I love being part of that journey, and watching that happen is pretty amazing, and a very special thing to see.’
By Juliet Mentor