Vice Principal Joe Zammit on Environmental Stewardship in High Schools

CleanUp-adopted park

Students clean up adopted park near their school

About a month ago, at the Mississauga Writing Group open house, I met Joe Zammit, Vice Principal of Philip Pocock Catholic Secondary School. I shared that I’m an ecologist and I wrote a book on water called Water Is… After purchasing a copy, he revealed the projects Philip Pocock Catholic Secondary School has been doing to raise environmental awareness and provide environmental stewardship for several years. I was astonished at what this high school had achieved. It sparked my curiosity and Joe kindly agreed to share how it all happened:

  1. How and why did you and your school get started doing environmental projects in the school and in the community?

Mayor Crombie speaking at Butterfly Waystation

Our school, as all schools in the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, have been enrolled in a Regional program called EcoSchools. The program determines keep indicators of a school’s involvement and commitment to the environment and scores and accords points to that level of involvement. So, for instance if a teacher is using a lesson plan that involves Waste Management or Water use, the school on the ecoschools data base must provide the lesson plan and exemplars of student work.  Similarily, if the school does a planting of trees, we have to provide photos or video of the event to verify our commitment and to gain the points.  The points accumulate and determine the status of our school through the awarding of Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum.

  1. How did you get your students involved? What is their level of involvement and how have they reacted?

Our students have had a long tradition of involvement in the environmental effort.  One of our founding Chaplains and teacher Ross Oakes and our students planted hundreds of trees in the local community including Fleetwood Park.

Statistics tell us that while Adults consider the economy as their number one concern for the future, young people in high school consistently indicate that their great concern for their future is the well-being of the environment.

Understanding this, it’s not too difficult to get young people excited about environmental issues at our school. In my experience over the last eight years as a Vice-Principal I have never been let down by students who I ask to plant trees.  In fact, it has always been the opposite.  I have always been impressed by the level of commitment and sentiments expressed by the amount of young people who want to do something about the threat to our environment locally and globally.

  1. Your environmental stewardship projects have been very successful and empowering for your students as well as teachers and parents. Can you talk a little bit about some of the most successful projects your students have undertaken to help in the stewardship of our water and environment?

Tree planting for 1 Million Tree Campaign

Indeed, we do have a number of initiatives that are ongoing:

  • We adopted a Park adjacent to the school and we regularly send out teams of students and teachers to maintain the Park.
  • We planted a 107 trees on the school property and property bordering with school property with a commitment to plant another 150 trees this year.
  • We developed a Butterfly Waystation that has provided habitat for butterflies in our community.
  • We collected mascara brushes that are used to treat abused and endangered animals.
  • We have also worked extensively in getting the school recognized for Fair Trade practises.
  • We established a Water Filling Station that has erased the need for over 6,000 water bottles in just a few months.

We still have a lot to do but now seem to be on a roll in terms of establishing successful environmental programs and have received acknowledgement for our efforts by the City of Mississauga. We also received national recognition for our efforts with the Weather Network who has now twice broadcast live segments from our school highlighting these initiatives.

  1. Why were these projects successful and what did they accomplish?
students FairTrade at school

Selling/demonstating Fair Trade products

These projects were successful because they were well thought out and implemented and once established fairly easy to continue and maintain. They were also established organically, that is to say for the most part they were initiatives born from the students themselves. Adults can come up with projects and ideas but it is always better to have the students develop that level of creativity and civic involvement because then they will be invested in the project and the rewards of the outcomes. I can plant a tree and that is all very well and good but what I have learned is that if I allow students to plant a tree then the community is invested.  The tree is less likely to be vandalized and the tree has the potential of legacy.  Ten or 20 years from now the young person who planted the tree will walk with their own child one day and show them what they were able to establish when they were young.

As adults we have to be mindful that students are perfectly capable of inspiring and motivating the movement to protect and enhance the environment. We just need to give them that opportunity.

  1. Have you noticed any changes in your students since these projects started?

Yes. I have discovered that students that were originally involved in our Green Team have gone on to serve on our Student Council and have graduated and become involved in the environmental movement on their own College and University campuses.  Certainly, we have created a spark and as an adult I get a tremendous appreciation from the warm glow light we have helped to foster.  It makes me hopeful for our future.

  1. You’ve formed some powerful and successful partnerships to make these programs possible. Can you share some of that with us?
planted foyer of school oct 12-2017

Canada 150 tree planted in school foyer

The City of Mississauga and the One Million Tree Campaign has been outstanding.  They have provided me with over 450 trees over the past 4 years free of charge. So long as the trees are planted on city property they have been there with the trees, spades, mulch and soil. The program to plant one million trees in Mississauga in a decade has been amazing.

The partnership we have with the Fair Trade organization has also been very good.

Another partnership we have begun to foster is with Riverwood and their Native Studies Program.  This has allowed us to bring Elders to the school and has given us a wonderful teaching and experiential opportunity.

  1. What quality / person / thing / circumstance do you ascribe as the greatest reason for the success of your environmental programs at your school?

The commitment of young people to effect change.

Young people are generally not happy with what they are inheriting in terms of environmental stewardship and are therefore invested in being the catalyst for profound and effective change.

  1. What were your greatest challenges in environmental education and stewardship?

There are two challenges I would state:

  • On a local level-Composting on a school site. This has been a problem as composting has the potential to attract rodents. So it has been difficult in dealing with this kind of waste removal on a school site.
  • On a global level-The current American administration has been very disappointing in terms of their policies regarding the environment. It gets a lot of press and it becomes then difficult to keep Staff and Students positive about the future. I know that when I left University we were encouraged to “think globally by acting locally.”  It is a message we continually have to make in the face of great challenge now.
  1. Could you share one of your most fulfilling moments since embarking on environmental education and stewardship in your school?
elder smudging

Elders Wendy and John Philips perform smudging ceremony

We planted Seven Trees to represent the Seven Grandfather Teachings of the Indigenous Peoples on April 28 last year. We invited an Elder to perform a smudging ceremony at the school and to name the trees that had been planted.  This was a great day in the history of our school. It was a ceremony that had so many levels of learning and experience involved. It was certainly a proud and rewarding moment.

  1. What do you hope to achieve in the bigger picture with your programs?

It is my hope that young people continue to feel empowered to effect positive change for our environment. My role is to facilitate students with opportunity. Watching them flourish from that point is what is outstanding. To see students come back as effective community leaders, to see them go out in the world and be part of the solution as opposed to being part of the problem is what I hope to achieve.  I also hope for my own grandkids to walk on the school property one day perhaps when I am long gone and remark, “Man, did he help plant a lot of trees…”


Thank you, Joe, for sharing this inspiring wisdom and commitment by our youth. They are our hope for the future.



Ontario EcoSchools

Munteanu, Nina. 2016. “Water Is…The Meaning of Water” Pixl Press, Vancouver. 586p.


nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit for the latest on her books. 



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