Bill Thomas, whole-school sustainability

Bill Thomas and his solar.jpg

Image: Bill Thomas among the solar array on the Bentleigh Secondary College roof

Profile: Bill Thomas, secondary science and sustainability, Vic

Professional career

I started out training and working as a Marine Biologist, but an accident took me out of the field. While I was recovering I undertook a Diploma of Education and began my career in teaching. I have been a member of the teaching staff at Bentleigh Secondary College since 1985, but for many years I ran parallel careers, teaching part-time and running a photography business. In 2006 I was appointed Head of Sustainable Practice as a leading teacher Bentleigh Secondary College. I am celebrating 30 years at the school in 2015.

How did you get into teaching sustainability?

Urban kids’ experience of the natural world can be quite limited. I have spent a lot of time in the bush and on the water, and being grounded in science, I see and understand the consequences of human impacts on the environment. My interest in teaching sustainability is completely selfish – I have three children and I want a better world for them.  


Over the last three decades Bentleigh Secondary College has been recognised as a shining light in environmental education. With the commitment of the whole school community, we have developed the 6.5 hectare site into a rich learning opportunity with an Urban Forest, a large wetland that treats six million litres of water annually, Indigenous food and vegetable gardens and a Meditation and Indigenous Cultural Centre.

About five years ago, encouraged by other educators, I realised we should start communicating what we were doing to the world beyond Bentleigh. In November 2012 the College was named the Most Sustainable Education Institution globally in the International Green Awards, and in 2013 won the Victorian Premier’s Sustainability Award for Education.

I have been personally recognised for my work in many different forums: I received the Public Service Medal in the 2011 Queen’s Birthday Honours List and was named the Prime Minister’s Environmentalist of the Year in the same year. In 2012 I was awarded the United Nations of Australia World Environment Day Individual Award for Outstanding Service to the Environment as well as the prestigious Winston Churchill Fellowship, allowing me to travel extensively through Scandinavia in 2013 researching sustainability education.


Interest in and understanding of environment and sustainability issues is growing in the Australian community. Bentleigh Secondary College’s environmental projects are deliberately designed to include the students. We ensure that building, excavation and planting are all done in class times. It is so easy to engage kids when they learn in their own environment and sustainability is applicable to every subject in the curriculum. The Green Machine, Bentleigh Secondary College’s student green team (Years 7 to 12), produces incredible environmental warriors.

The environment provides secondary students with real data to work with – this is very empowering learning. Organising events and communicating sustainability is a great way to develop leadership skills. Engaging in sustainability in teaching has been personally and professionally very rewarding for me.


Note: Bill's work has also been showcased in the 'teacher feature' section of the Australian Institute for School Leadership (AITSL) website. Visit the AITSL website to watch his video at