Teacher Spotlight: Sean McFadden

Sophie Drukman-Feldstein

Aug 1, 2021

Sean McFadden teaches AP Environmental Science and a climate change elective at Eagle Academy for Young Men in Brooklyn, New York. He has previously taught earth science and general science. He is a member of our Teacher Taskforce. 



Can you tell us a bit about your classes on environmental science and climate change?


I cover things like sustainability, recycling, climate science, and social injustices with a climate lens. I enjoy teaching the curriculum, and I think the kids enjoy learning. It’s pretty hands-on. 


Teaching in New York City, it’s pretty eye-opening for the students, because oftentimes, they don’t pay that much attention to their outside environment. So it’s like a new world for them.


Why is climate education important?


I think climate education is important because climate change is one of, if not the, biggest issues of our time. There are a lot of things that we can do to lessen the impacts of climate change. But without a public that’s informed, things will either continue at the rate that they’re going or get worse. I think there’s a misconception that there’s nothing we can do about it. So it’s important to one, inform people, and two, empower people.


What do you see as the biggest barriers to climate education?


From my experience, I would say the biggest barrier is a sense of non-urgency. People oftentimes think about climate change as something that is in the future. That lack of urgency sometimes makes it seem like climate education should not be a priority.


Is that something you’ve encountered while teaching it?


Oh, absolutely. There’s definitely been students that have expressed, “I don’t really know why we’re learning this. This really doesn’t have much to do with me. I feel bad for the people who are dealing with these events, but for me personally, I don’t really care that much about it.” So that’s definitely been an obstacle for me, trying to shift that mindset.


In general, what kinds of emotional reactions have you seen in your students to climate change?


It’s been a range. So, on one end of the spectrum, there’s apathy. And then, on the other end of the spectrum, there’s outrage. And also, in the middle, shock. 


One of the things I have been focusing on this past year is climate change refugees. A lot of my students just were not aware, and we really looked into personal stories of these refugees. I think it helped make it come alive and make it real for a lot of my students. And so that’s where the outrage and the shock came in. And then, there were still students who did feel sad for the refugees, but also felt like, “it’s not really my issue.”


How do you respond to apathy?


That’s a difficult one for me. I think hearing climate change stories definitely helps in terms of making it real. But there’s still some students who feel a disconnect. so I’m still figuring that out. 


How do you support students through climate anxiety?


It helps to make visible the concrete steps that they can take right here and right now in their own lives. Even something like energy conservation or taking public transit. I think that makes it something doable, instead of this big, overwhelming mountain.


Have you seen your classes inspire action in your students?


Yes. There was a climate march in New York City, and several of my students attended. It was their first time doing any kind of march or protest, and they were so excited to be there. That was really cool to see. Especially because there were just so many young people at that event. So one of the greatest takeaways that they had was, “it’s people my age doing this!” It wasn’t something adult-oriented. I think that was really powerful, that was a great experience for them. I’d love to have my students more involved in the future. But that was probably the pinnacle so far.


You must have been so proud.


Oh, I was, I was. It was great.


Do you have any advice for teachers interested in incorporating climate change into their curricula?


Yes. I would say to allow for a variety of responses to the curriculum, because if you go in expecting everyone to take in the curriculum and then be ready to be climate change warriors, that will lead to a lot of frustration and disappointment. You need to meet your students where they’re at. 


I think also, having a balance between the science aspect of it and stories. I think climate stories are so powerful. This year was the first year that I emphasized covering climate stories, and I’ve really seen a difference in terms of student engagement. 


I think also focusing on the actions of youth definitely moves students much more than something like, “oh, this large corporation is doing x,y,z.” If they see themselves in the work, it becomes more real to them and it becomes a motivating factor. 


I think it’s great that you’re incorporating narratives about people. When I was growing up, it was all about polar bears and stuff.


Yeah, exactly. Same when I was in school. And I still do that kind of stuff, and it is important. But I think that human narrative is definitely a game-changer.


Why did you join the Teacher Taskforce?


I joined the Teacher Task Force because, one, I wanted to be exposed to more resources, so I said, what better way than this? And then also, because I wanted to be able to help teachers streamline resources that they can use. I’ve found that there’s just a wealth of information and resources on the internet, but sometimes it’s tricky to figure out, “is this something that I can use for my class specifically?” Having a resource like SubjectToClimate is crucial for teachers who don’t have a lot of time. I think that that’s clutch, and it’s such important work.


Favorite place in nature?


About two or three years ago, I went to Colorado, and we took a hike. I don’t even know exactly what the name of the place was. But in general, high elevations with a view. I always love that, I’m a sucker for that. I think just being in the mountains with a view, that’s probably my go-to. 

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