Rolf is currently director of the Swiss Foundation for Environmental Education, which is tasked with mainstreaming Environmental Education and Education for Sustainability in the Swiss school system. They aim to do this systemically, i.e. through integration into the curricula, initial teacher training and CPD for teachers and through monitoring and encouraging the quality of teaching materials. Rolf’s role as a director is mainly twofold. On the one hand he and his colleagues work on various levels with government agencies, non-governmental organisations, teacher training institutes, international networks, etc. to achieve the above aims. On the other hand there is the management side: securing funding, developing the team, liaising with the Board, ensuring the strategic development of the Foundation and so on.
Rolf took “a rather roundabout way” into this position:
“My first career was in German Studies. While I was quite happy pursuing this at the University of Wales Swansea, the birth of my daughter in 1994 suddenly refocused my life: what achievement other than a long publication list and personal satisfaction will I be able to point to, should she ever ask? So I rediscovered dormant, but long-standing interests in environmental issues and global justice.”
This led to an ever increasing involvement at the university where he drafted the first environmental policy, for many years led the environment sub-committee and got involved in national networks such as the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges or the Welsh Assembly Government panel for Education for Sustainable Development and Global Citizenship. In the end, he realised he needed a career-change, completed an MSc at London South Bank University in Education for Sustainability and started to look for jobs. In 2005 he moved back to Switzerland after 15 years in Wales, took over managing the Foundation’s German-speaking centre in 2006 and through some trials and tribulations ended up leading the organisation from August 2007 onwards, first as a co-director, then from September 2008 onwards on his own.
Successes at the Foundation can seem very small and progress is sometimes painfully slow. What the Foundation advocates is very difficult for an inert system like the school system to come to terms with: paradigm change. Rolf considers the most positive aspects of the job to be on a different plain: they have managed to build a competent team with a very good working atmosphere, very little hierarchy, with openness and transparency in all matters concerning the Foundation, so it is “a joy to walk into the office in the morning”. No working day is ever the same. As they work in cooperation with a great many partners they are often not in complete control of where the processes are heading, making for a lot of surprises and the need to be flexible. Rolf recognises the value of building trust over long-term working relationships. Often things which look totally hopeless take a very satisfying turn two years down the line, just because you kept at it, talked to the people involved, gained their trust and confidence over time.
“To begin with I didn’t feel I was a proper environmental scientist, after all I had my main professional training in airy-fairy humanities. I mainly decided to join the IES because I increasingly felt that precisely the bridge between humanities, social sciences and environmental sciences is what we need to build most urgently and in the IES I found a body which was at the forefront of putting such issues onto the agenda, most notably a serious engagement with all facets of sustainability.”
The most exciting project Rolf is involved in at the moment is the setting up of a coaching post in the Canton of Zurich. This is a collaborative project between a private funder and the Swiss Foundation for Environmental Education entitled “Ecoschools – learning by doing”. The project tries to fuse national and international experiences of best practice, knowledge from social sciences about effective change processes and the need to put Environmental Education more into the heart of education. The post holder will coach schools in a long-term process along the road towards becoming sustainable schools. In addition the Foundation will produce, collate and make available teaching materials, offer CPD courses for teachers and head masters and facilitate a network amongst the participating schools. The whole project starts from the assumption that it is essential to enact the transition to sustainability in the 'here and now' of school reality (or it won't happen).
When looking to the future, Rolf can imagine different pathways ahead. In the immediate future he is planning a time-out of four months to go to India by boat to visit his daughter who is doing her International Baccalaureate at the Mahindra United World College near Pune. In terms of the Swiss Foundation the next big step is the renegotiation of their mandate with the Swiss Environment Ministry, which provides their main financial income.
“A bit more long-term I still dream of yet another career change. I hope at one stage to be able to use my hands to produce something tangible of value to sustainability, maybe as a bicycle mechanic or by building wood-burners. Career-wise I have no further ambitions. It is clear to me now that not status or income are important, but solely if you are able to lead a good, ethically sound and sustainable life.”