Another school year has started. This week, I returned to my science classroom of six years to prepare it for hundreds of children’s explorations of life on earth. Then I began the annual ritual of introducing hundreds of children to my science lab, teaching them routines, and learning names.
I’m both relieved and apprehensive to be going back. I’m thankful for relief from the news cycle, which this summer has included devastating fires in the Amazon, record heat, and increasingly dire predictions about humanity’s chance at survival. But I’m also grappling with how I can hold myself together as a teacher and activist while the world seems to collapse a little more each day.
My path to science teaching started early. I spent countless days with my Grandma Felice, a retired public school teacher whose home was always full of flowers. Almost every weekend we went to the Botanic Gardens or the Bronx Zoo. To this day, they feel like home. Then there were many afternoons spent watching nature documentaries and my dad’s big old atlas of animals across the world, which I read again and again.
Like so many children, I saw animals and plants as natural allies and cared deeply about protecting them. The first fundraiser I ever organized was a stoop sale in my neighborhood of Carroll Gardens to raise money for the World Wildlife Foundation and “save the rainforest.”
As I got older, my science classes became increasingly uninspiring. They felt less like learning about the world, and more like memorization, with the occasional “experiment” that had only one outcome. I quickly decided I liked art and history better.
In college, firmly sure that I was “not a science person,” I took all of one science class. But I also took walks by myself in the nearby cemetery, home to giant beech trees with bark-like elephant skin.
When, in my sophomore year, my life was turned around by an emergency liver transplant followed by long months in the hospital, the thing I missed most was being around living things. I would dream of rushing streams and lush forests, and desperately wanted to be able to at least have a potted plant in my room. But I wasn’t allowed to have one because of the pathogens they could carry. So my room was bare, without a leaf or spark of life other than my own sick body. When I went back to my abandoned dorm room after a three-month absence, there were dried, shriveled maple leaves I had collected the morning before being rushed to the hospital, surrounded by cobwebs.
After college, I knew I wanted to work with children, despite being immunosuppressed. This was not the brightest idea. Even after eight years of teaching sneezy, germy children, I still get sick all the time. But I was the kid who lined stuffed animals up on my bed each night to “play school” and even gave my little sister regular homework. This was the only job I could imagine for myself.
And I was galvanized by a new awareness of climate change, which at the time seemed like a faraway but important problem that was sure to be solved by our newly elected Democratic president. So I decided I wanted to teach kids about nature and worked at an outdoor school in the woods and on an educational farm on the California coast. This led me back to Brooklyn and classroom teaching, in first and second grade and then science.
Once I started teaching, I came to realize that science had become my favorite subject. Nothing beats young children’s sense of wonder. And in a highly regimented school day, science is the time that kids can explore.
For me, teaching science to young kids is all about teaching them to love. Teaching them to love exploration and discovery. Teaching them to love themselves as creative, full of wonder and life people. Teaching them to love and care for living things, and in doing so see that our survival is entwined with theirs.
I think of my students who still to this day talk about our class pet, a hamster named Rocky who died a full four years ago. I think of an almost always angry boy with severe disabilities who frequently fought with other students but would stand in awed silence watching the anoles (small lizards) hop around their tank during class.
I think of the video a second-grader made about my pet turtle, Lucky, and his adventures at their home over a break, and of a room full of first-graders whispering so as not to “scare” the bearded dragon. The students so obsessed with reading about animals that the pages of my “Encyclopedia of Mammals” book are taped together. I think of my kids jumping up and down saying “look at my bag of bones!” while dissecting owl pellets, or digging for worms and naming each and every one. Or my second-graders singing to the seedlings they planted, because I told them that the carbon dioxide in their breath will help them grow.
But teaching science also requires me to confront my grief every single day. Grief that solutions for climate change seem further away, not closer. Grief for the millions of species on the brink of extinction. For indigenous homelands burnt to a crisp. For flooded cities and wrecked islands and mold-filled apartments and children fleeing drought and violence. For my students, who are so little and trusting, and who will soon realize that things we learn about in class — the rainforest, pollinators we need to sustain our food supply, the neighborhoods they live in, coral reefs — could disappear before they reach adulthood.
When I learned that the Amazon rainforest was burning at an unprecedented rate, I felt like a part of me had died. As a science teacher, I know that human life cannot survive the full deforestation of the Amazon, the melting of glaciers and the chaos caused by the climate crisis. I know that we are near the point of no return and the climate breakdown has already caused irreparable damage and suffering, mostly to the communities least responsible for bringing it on.
Knowing this makes going into this school year feel especially heavy. But if there is anything the climate crisis can teach us, it’s that every living thing on this earth is connected and every relationship matters. And for now, I am safe, with a home, with a job, my health, my family, and friends. And that means starting this week, every morning, I will go to school and try to teach my students to love science and the earth.
And then after dismissal, I’ll rush out to lead meetings, march in protest, or canvass voters to fight for my students’ future. And starting today, I’ll join teens and fellow educators striking for climate action outside the United Nations every Friday. Maybe I’ll even see some of my students there.
Liat Olenick is an elementary school science teacher and activist with Indivisible Nation BK. She’s also the reason Elizabeth Warren has committed publicly to choosing an educator as her education secretary.