Empathy and Kindness, Pet-Style

A few days ago, our family lost our beloved 17-year-old mini poodle, Muffy.Muffy Aug 2012  Saddled with a girl’s name, Muffy lived a pretty healthy life. Though he endured infirmities as a senior, we accommodated him by finding snuggly blankets, adjusting his water bowl to a comfortable height, and carrying him in and out.

In his younger days, I brought Muffy to school and the students made him an instant celebrity.  He’d never had so many stories read to him in one day.  The students showed empathy and kindness, something we now have entire curricula to teach.

I admire teachers who keep pets in the classroom because they seem to have a special insight into children. Their focus tends to be less about teaching children responsibility and more about what each of us learns from animals. I know educators who bring their dogs to school and I’ve seen how stroking them helps evoke a kind of mellow grace in students. Especially in older students.

Other colleagues of mine have created ingenious roles for animals in schools.  One kept an aquarium with a student desk and chair parked in front of it. She’d read that watching fish could help children self-regulate, and she had a couple of students in mind.  The rest of the class wanted to use the aquarium for quiet thinking, too.  Soon she had to post a sign-up sheet.

Another teacher kept a rabbit hopping around freely.  You might think that would distract first graders, but not at all. The children easily integrated the rabbit into their routines and learned to step carefully around him.  The rabbit used a litter box, too.

In one urban school, a teacher kept two guinea pigs in a huge cage on legs. She made it into a writing center.  Children drew their chairs around all four sides, some propping up their feet on its edge.  The guinea pigs went on with their lives as students watched them and worked on writing projects.  Each child who wanted to hold one knew the procedure for letting out the guinea pigs, always putting the animal’s needs first.

Empathy, kindness, care, grace, sharing, patience–that’s a short list of what students learn from school pets. How lucky the world is when children carry those forward.





The Crème de la Crème

What kind of teacher are you?  What are your ideals?  Perhaps they are as Maggie Smith explains in her Oscar-winning performance in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, “goodness, truth and beauty.”   Or you might be like Sidney Poitier’s unforgettable Mark Thackeray in To Sir With Love, who teaches urban high school students to respect themselves and each other, despite stubborn racial and social-class conflicts.  He tells his students:  “…I teach you truths. My truths.”

These movie teachers touch upon a reason why we teach:  we have ideals and truths that we bring to the classroom and that fuel our desire to continue in the face of sometimes daunting odds.  They keep us going because ideals are our deeply held beliefs about what’s important and what’s right.  Using ideals to guide us makes teaching richer and makes the world a better place.

Holding on to your teaching  ideals today is challenging. Teaching today is more demanding and complex than ever before.  New teachers I know spend 6 days a week teaching classes, going to meetings, doing curriculum work, conferencing with parents, students, and specialists, planning lessons, assessing student work, and completing endless other tasks.  In such an atmosphere, it it’s easy to forget that goodness, truth, and beauty, and (your ideals here) do matter in the world.

For these reasons, it’s important to know your ideals and articulate them into your teaching philosophy.  When you do this, you create a tangible touchstone for yourself that helps guide your work.

Consider how Miss Brodie addresses her students on the first day of school.  She informs her students they are “the crème de la crème.”  Its meaning is direct and unmistakable. View a brief clip from the movie here and see what you have in common with Miss Brodie’s message.  It poses food for thought about what we say to our students and how we demonstrate our ideals.  Do we use challenging vocabulary? Who are our favorite artists?  Do we hang fine art in our classroom?  Do we state to our students that they’re the crème de la crème?

Like Miss Brodie, many teachers regard teaching as their vocation and are deeply devoted to their beliefs.  I think it’s because our journey to –and through—teaching is a uniquely personal one.  Mark Thackery didn’t realize how much he taught his students–and how much he learned from them–until he was ready to quit in frustration.  Stark differences in culture, experience and socioeconomics challenged every one of his truths until he surprised himself by deciding to stay.

Whether you’re teaching high school, elementary, or–like Miss Brodie–middle schoolers, we all have deeply held beliefs about teaching and why we choose to teach.  Remember to keep them on your mind and celebrate their growth.