13 July 2024

By Nabeelah Shaikh 

A South African teacher has received a prestigious global award for her contributions to environmental education and is only one of 17 people worldwide to receive it. 

Aziezah Essop, formerly of Durban, and now teaching at St Andrew’s School for Girls in Johannesburg was recently awarded the 2023/2024 Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) Teacher Award. She was shortlisted among 46 teachers from 16 countries across the globe. Essop has been a teacher for over 20 years and is the deputy head of the junior school at  St Andrew’s School for Girls. 

Essop received the award for her role in promoting environmental stewardship at her school and for encouraging climate consciousness in the school’s curriculum and daily activities.

“My interest in environmental issues and climate consciousness stems from a deep-rooted belief that we all have a responsibility to protect our planet for future generations,” said Essop. 

She said growing up, she was always fascinated by nature and the intricate balance that sustains life. 

“These topics are close to my heart because I believe that by fostering environmental awareness and sustainable practices, we can secure a healthier, more sustainable future for all. It is incredibly rewarding to see students develop a passion for the environment and take active roles in conservation efforts,” said Essop. Through her work, she has learnt that eco and sustainability awareness cannot just be driven by the curriculum only.

“This is why our campus is a hive of eco-friendly activities. We integrate environmental education into various aspects of our school’s daily activities. We have robust recycling and composting programs that have been used as a model for other schools. We are proud to say that we’ve been able to reduce our waste significantly. We also track this data from our service provider so that we can share the impact with our community,” said Essop. 

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She highlighted that the school’s greenhouse is a great example of how they practice sustainable gardening. 

“We’re able to grow our own plants and herbs and share these with others. We are also deeply committed to wildlife conservation. We have an owl rehabilitation programme that is a testament to this. Furthermore, we’ve installed bat houses and bee farms, which play crucial roles in biodiversity conservation and pollinator protection,” said Essop. 

In response to local environmental challenges, Essop has also implemented rainwater harvesting and energy-saving measures. 

“Our new buildings are solar-powered, and we are moving towards more solar-powered alternatives. We find that students often take what they have learned in school back into their homes, which multiplies the impact. To maximise this, we promote and support events like Earth Hour and student-led initiatives in weekly assemblies. These presentations help raise awareness and educate the entire school community,” said Essop. 

Another amazing initiative of hers has been to create outdoor classrooms for students.

“Outdoor classrooms provide our students with immersive learning experiences. We have eco clubs to increase students’ environmental awareness, knowledge, and engagement. Our clubs organise educational campaigns and fundraisers to increase awareness about the plight of endangered species like rhinos. Currently, we have the entire school community, including parents and grandparents knitting squares to make blankets for baby rhinos,” said Essop.

Winning the FEE Global Teacher Award has been an incredible honour for her.

“And in many ways, I am still in disbelief. This award is a profound recognition of the hard work and dedication of not just myself, but everyone at St Andrew’s who has contributed to our environmental initiatives. It validates our efforts and highlights the importance of environmental education. For me, it is a source of immense pride and motivation to continue advocating for sustainability and inspiring others to do the same,” said Essop. 

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She encouraged other schools to begin adopting similar initiatives and says there is still lots of work to be done in this space. 

“I would like to see our school become completely off-grid, relying solely on renewable energy sources. Expanding our rainwater harvesting systems and enhancing our biodiversity projects. Additionally, I aim to further integrate technology into our environmental initiatives, using data and digital tools to monitor our impact and improve our practices. Ultimately, my goal is to create a model that can be replicated by other schools, helping to spread sustainable practices far and wide,” said Essop.

Essop says she considers teaching to be more than just a profession; rather it’s a calling. 

“I chose this path because I believe education has the power to transform lives. There’s nothing more fulfilling than seeing the positive impact of education on children’s development and watching them grow into informed, responsible adults,” said Essop. 

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