How to

How to improve your Permaculture Teaching Skills

In loving memory of Graham Bell.

‘We are teaching citizen-science!’ – Graham Bell

What makes a good teacher? Why can we learn so much from some situations and not anything at all from others? How can such a complex group of subjects as the ones Permaculture include can be made easy to teach and learn?

I have been teaching since 2005. I have taught foreign languages to several age groups, from 3 to 70 year-olds. In 2015, I started teaching Permaculture, fresh-off a PDC, with loads of teaching experience just as Bill Molison and Rosemary Morrow say we should in such cases, but I didn’t have much hands-on practice and experience in actual Permaculture design and implementation.

Syllabus wise, I soon discovered that my teaching practice became better and more confident as I had more experience. The more I designed and implemented the more aware I was of each topic’s learning goals and what students needed to know and accomplish in each step of each process. Content was basically covered, with the humble consciousness that learning is a lifelong process and this could only improve.

As I ‘broke’ the PDC in several shorter courses and workshops, I just gained as much experience as I could in the topics I was teaching, such as Urban gardening, Composting, School gardens, Seeds and Introduction to Permaculture. I kept on reading, practicing and studying and it started coming out so naturally as the list of Irregular verbs in English.

What about methodology?

I was lucky enough to have been taught with the Modern School Movement, a humanistic approach to teaching.

‘The Rationalist and Scientific teaching of the Modern School embraces the study of everything that supports the freedom of the individual and the harmony of the collective, with the goal of a regime of peace, love and well-being for all without distinction of classes and sex.’ – Francisco Ferrer, Letters from “Modelo Prison” in Madrid, June 1, 1907

Many of these English Language Teaching (ELT) methods, I already knew and used, were aligned with Permaculture Ethics, which made it easier to implement some changes and upgrade my practice.

In 2022, I felt stagnated, also due to a health conditon, but mainly because I still didn’t have a piece of land to call my own and teach PDC’s (I still don’t, but my thought maps have changed). I didn’t believe I could transition from being a school teacher to being a Permaculture teacher anymore. I knew the syllabus, I had gained experience in most of it with the years and the dozens of projects I was involved with, but it wasn’t possible to make a living out of teaching Permaculture, at least not in Portugal, not in my situation. I couldn’t invest the money in the Diploma or had the conditions to become a certified teacher. And why would people choose to learn with me instead of with a certified, Diploma teacher or a more experienced one? I still decided to give it another try, since teaching is one my biggest passions and basically all I have known professionally.

At the time, I was on a medical leave and confined to my house and to a small 90 square meter forest garden. I decided to use my time and little money to learn more about Permaculture Teaching and it had to be online because of my health condition. I tought about it and the wonderful worldwide web just connected me to such a course, online, with Graham Bell and Rakesh Rootsman Rak. Just what I needed.

Teaching Permaculture is still teaching though, and a lot has been done and studied in this field, and I did have 17 years of teaching experience and a handful of certificates to show for. However, I didn’t quite know how other teachers were doing it, my background is in languages. Was I missing something? Was I being accurate enough? Can one use ‘conventional teaching methods’ to teach Permaculture?

Since elements serve different functions, by this time I had already migrated some of my favourite methods, strategies and tools from the ELT tool box to the Permaculture one, but still wasn’t sure if this was a possibility:

  • Total Physical Response, James Asher
  • Task-based Learning, N. S. Prabhu
  • Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Howard Gardner
  • Humanistic Education, Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers
  • Communicative Approach or Communicative Language Teaching, several authors
  • Learning by teaching, Jean-Pol Martin

During the first hour of this wonderful course I was so relieved and reassured to understand that I wasn’t alone, that other people had self-doubt too, that Permaculture teachers are not connected and working in such intensive, free, open-source worldwide networks as English teachers are, for example. I got to confirm that there is not so much literature on the matter, and that it’s easy to question yourself, your practice, your self-worth when teaching such a holistic subject.

My journey to rediscover and consolidate my teaching practice started these two and seven other knowledgeable and inspiring souls from every corner of the world.

Our goal was ‘that we became very confident in teaching’. We defined right away that bad teaching involved critizing, not being a trustworthy teacher, not listening to students or being inflexible. We all had bad school and learning experiences to share and we didn’t want to be the authoritarian teacher, the boring one, with the awful monotone, the self-centered teacher, who uses the students as audience for his or her ego, the insensitive one, the one who can’t be in the moment or is just too tired to focus.

 

1.Respect everyone’s needs, including your own
Take time for yourself before and after sessions. Design, plan and prepare ahead so you don’t have extra worries on your mind when actually teaching. Delegate logistics and free your mind to the teaching task which is quite a demanding one. Keep hydrated. Observe students, check on their energy levels, liveliness, interaction and change the pace or have breaks when needed. Be adaptable.

2. Keep a reflective journal, get and accept feedback as data collection
Make notes after your sessions, classes, courses. Each one of your reflections will mirror important events, changes, findings and difficulties you may experience. Your teaching beliefs will be easily revealed and you can come in touch with some of your fears, limitations and expectations and empower yourself to change and improve your practice effectively.

3.Tell your story from the heart
Through ELT, I came to realize that story-telling is one of our most powerful teaching tools. It allows you to bring people with you. You feel secure to talk about subjects you know and experienced, and story-telling allows you to tap into a more creative side of communication while enabling you to convey content in long-lasting, meaningful ways.

4. Create student guilds.
Just as you would with your vegetables, create student guilds. Guilds will allow students to collaborate in the learning process. They will also be able to work power dynamics in smaller, more manageable groups. Students will feel included and supported by having their struggles and accomplishments shared and listened to in the safety of a smaller, more intimate audience.

5. Remember to move
Change the pace. Change places. Change dynamics. Engage in practical activities. Stretch and flex. This will help your students fight off sleepiness and tiredness and also keep them engaged and curious about your next move. You will also be helping people who have learning styles based in movement and action.

6.Get people to think
Don’t give people the right answers, get them to ask the right questions. Whenever possible draw on students previous knowledge and experience, their collective intelligence, observation skills and inductive thinking. Use open questions.

7. Manage time
‘When we don’t prepare, we prepare to fail’. When teaching such a daunting amount of content adopt a utilitarian thinking frame. What are the main learning goals? How long will you take to achieve each? How much exra time can you give to students? How does this time frame fit the overall course time? If you exceed time what will be shortened/ eliminated later on?

8. Listen to people
We have two ears and only one mouth, which may mean that listening is more important than speaking.

We all want to be listened to. Empathy, no judgement, freedom to be and no ‘-isms’ are key concepts to a safe and successful learning environment. Listening may also represent a learning opportunity and enrich the content being covered.

Even though information is available to us, sometimes we need experiences to effectively learn something and make those connections that will allow us to be more proficient. Let’s cross more and more knowledge and create even stronger free source networks that allow us to feel confident, professional and connected in our teaching. After all, ‘I teach self-reliance, the world’s most subversive practice.’, Bill Mollison

This article was written by Ângela Gonçalves

Barreiro, Portugal

Angela Goncalves

Ângela is passionate about Permaculture and Ecological design and even more about teaching, learning and people. She's keen on gardening, soils, seeds, fungi, worms, decision-making and community management tools and methods. Food preservation and cooking have always been part of her everyday life. She has been a language teacher ( Portuguese, English and Spanish) since 2005 and started studying Permaculture in 2013. since then she facilitates Permaculture courses and consults for urban projects.

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