High School Teacher Achievement Award winner Lauren Niemann, Fern Creek High School (Jefferson County).

Lauren Niemann, an environmental education teacher at Fern Creek High School (Jefferson County), is passionate about cultivating humane practices in her classroom.

Niemann said PhotoVoice, a local project designed to share the voices of students who are often unheard or ignored, has been one of the most powerful experiences for her as a teacher. Students are given the opportunity to share their stories through photographs, which often have themes of overconsumption, waste, deforestation, habitat loss and pollution.

Students must attend an event where they speak about their photos with community members who have decision-making power. Having student voices heard is important to Niemann, as her relationship with them is an important part of her career.

“Through action and advocacy, my students discover that learning is less about grades, and more about being a part of something larger than themselves,” she said.

One class Niemann had a few years ago consisted of students with a range of physical and social abilities. Having to find different paths for students with wheelchairs or walkers, she realized that she couldn’t realistically take these students hiking on campus to bird watch, catch crawfish in the creek or go to the greenhouse to learn how to grow food.

Niemann believes that learning outside should be accessible to everyone, so she sought out the advice of her other environmental science students to make this a reality. Her students successfully found a space for an accessible outdoor classroom, then researched, prepared and presented planting plans for this space. With the help of experts, the students prepared the site, planted and added accessible seating and two picnic tables made from 1,500 pounds of bottle caps collected by the community.

Now, any student can enjoy this outdoor classroom, where they have the opportunity to learn about native plants, rain gardens, engineering, ecology and biology. Niemann credits her students for the success of the classroom.

One student said that he enjoyed knowing that their efforts were “for a greater good, not just a grade.”

Niemann teaches her students that learning is less about their grades and more about being a part of something bigger than themselves. It’s because of this that her students are encouraged to continue practicing sustainability outside of the classroom.

Niemann encourages other teachers to value their students as people, not data points.

“It does not matter what we are teaching if we don’t consider the human in front of us,” she said.