Maryland Teacher of the Year: Encouraging student action to fight climate change

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Maryland’s 2023-24 Teacher of the Year is teaching for the future—the future of our environment.

Mary Kay Connerton (Courtesy of Anne Arundel County public schools)

Mary Kay Connerton, a resident of Arnold, Maryland, and an alumna of McDaniel College, is also the Maryland Commission on Climate Change’s 2024 spokesperson.

“There is a lot of anxiety surrounding climate change and what’s to come, and I know that for my students, in preparation for this event, [they] voiced… feelings of overwhelm or hopelessness,” Connerton says. “That sometimes comes about because of how the climate is vastly changing at such an incredible pace.”

This spring, Connerton teamed up with local highschoolers to tackle environmental issues. She, along with commission officials and the founders of Compostology, met with teens at Annapolis High School for a climate teach-in in April.

Compostology was founded four years ago by Advika Agarwal and Angelina Xu, two highschoolers from Clarksburg, Maryland, to bring food rescue and diversion to every school in Montgomery County. The nonprofit is now expanding its movement nationwide.

The organization works by funding and working with schools to compost or donate food that would usually go to waste and by advocating for policies that make programs like this more accessible.

Connerton is the wellness coordinator at Annapolis High School, where she created her own course that is now offered at every school in Anne Arundel County. She has been in the teaching field for 14 years.

According to Connerton, the answer to students’ anxieties about the changing climate is action.

Her local teach-in kicked off the Maryland Commission on Climate Change’s second Annual Climate Teach-In, open to community and faith organizations, higher ed, and K-12 schools from every school district in the state, to celebrate Maryland Climate Education Week from April 1 to April 7.

“If you can really understand what the problem is, then you can figure out what you can do to control the situation,” Connerton says. “The more that we can educate our youth on how rapid climate change is happening and the ways we can work to heal that, the better, because then they’re going to feel like they actually have a part in it.”

Some of the factors contributing to the anxiety students are experiencing are record-breaking temperatures across the world, reports of shrinking sea ice, droughts, fires and threatened species dwindling in number.

Closer to home, Smith Island, in Maryland, is at risk due to rising sea levels.

“If climate change keeps going the way it is, [Smith Island is] not going to exist one day,” Connerton says.

By working with student representatives from Annapolis High’s Wellness Club, Great Outdoors Club and Environmental Club, Connerton hopes to help statewide teach-ins equip students with the information and inspiration they need to tackle what she describes as the most important issue right now.

“That’s who we are passing the torch to, right? I have three kids of my own, and I believe that all of my students—they’re all my kids, and I just want to make sure that the next generation is left off better than we are,” Connerton says.

The Annapolis teach-in in April included a demonstration of how to compost, a panel discussion from Climate Change Commission officials, student speakers from Bowie State University Green Ambassadors and wellness activities like yoga and a guided meditation segment.

Connerton’s kitchen compost and garden (Provided)

As a wellness coordinator, Connerton says she can help students understand how the health of our environment affects our well-being.

“You are not a drop in the ocean; you are the entire ocean in a drop,” Connerton says, sharing a quote from a 13th century Persian poet, Rumi.

To Connerton, this quote reminds her that people are all connected—both to one another and to the environment they share, and small actions like choosing to litter or choosing to separate the recycling can make big waves.

Small Ways to Make a Big Difference

Tackling climate change can feel daunting, but there are a few small things everyone can do to make a difference, according to Connerton.

1. Thrifting
There’s so much that is just produced and bought, but if we could reuse more, the cost is a lot more conducive to this age group [of highschoolers].

2. Reusable Water Bottles
Turning hydration into an accessory also cuts down on plastic waste created by disposable water bottles. If your school doesn’t have a water bottle fill station, take action and bring the idea to the attention of school administrators.

3. Composting
Composting recycles organic resources and keeps food waste out of landfills. Anyone can learn to compost online from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at epa.gov.

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