Classroom: Everything I Need to Know About Teaching I Learned from My Dog

Mike Lawson • Commentary • September 8, 2016

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I always had dogs growing up, and they were an integral part of our family. When I was a senior in college my family had to say goodbye to our dog of 12 years, Lucky.

Lucky was in my life for 12 years, which was a significant part of my time growing up. Naturally, I had to have another dog. This time, the dog would be mine. My family had always adopted dogs, so I was going to do the same. I knew I wanted a boxer, so I set out on to find my new dog. Miles was 4 months old when I found him at a foster home in Ohio. I connected with the foster home and was able to drive out to pick up my new pup! 24 hours later began my new journey with my dog, Miles. Coincidentally, I was also beginning my new life as a music educator. Little did I know that there would be so many incredible parallels between dog ownership and teaching. And so it began, December 2008, my epic journey with Miles and the start of my new career as a music educator. In no way do I see children and dogs as equal creatures, that may be offensive to some, but I found that they do share similar behavioral tendencies, especially children in a classroom environment. Miles has taught me so many lessons about teaching and life, so I had to share them.

Lesson #1 Keep calm and be patient

I never thought I would be able to train my dog to come when I called him, or sit on command or even what he should do to signal me that he needs to go outside. When I looked at his progress with training on a day-to-day basis, it was very difficult to see improvement. Yet, six years later, he is quite competent in all of these tasks. I even get “wow, your dog is so well behaved, how did you do it?” Now, it did not take six years, and in fact, only took a couple of months to get the basics. I remember feeling the same sense of “how am I going to get this group of 26 kindergartners to sit on the carpet in a circle when I ask?”. It took patience, repetition and some gentle coaxing- just like it did with Miles. I’ve heard the phrase “don’t smile until Christmas” used a lot when talking to other teachers about classroom management, and I did not really get it until a few years into the profession. Look, you have to smile; it’s a universal form for kindness and affirmation. We have to be persistent and patient with our students. Your classroom culture will blossom over time. After five years of teaching, I noticed that I always had a revelation when the students returned from their December break. Those first few weeks of the New Year, they just seemed to finally get it. It can be really difficult to keep yourself cool, calm and collected throughout these first few months of school while we’re “training” our students. After the first month or so I always wanted to scream out of frustration, “why isn’t this working?!” My tasks were seemingly simple, but you have to remain patient. We all know that screaming in the classroom is completely ineffective, and it’s the same thing when it comes to yelling at the dog. The kids shut down, and the dog becomes scared, and mistrust begins to develop. Nothing gets accomplished, and if anything, you have only made things worse. Keep calm and patient with your “training” to achieve the desired results. Soon others will be saying, “wow, your children are well behaved and so responsive, they are a joy to work with!”

Lesson #2 Consistency

I had my first “new teacher” orientation where I was asked to sit through all of the The First Days of School films by Harry Wong. An important takeaway from the films stressed the importance of establishing routines from the very start of school. For example, where do the students go when they first enter your room? Or how do they enter the room? How should they behave when doing those tasks? The Skillful Teacher by Saphier et al., also mentions that clear communication and standards are the first steps in creating an effective learning environment. Considering this advice, I thought immediately about my recent experiences with my “First days with Miles”. He needed to know the basics as well. Where is his bed? Where does he eat? Where does he go to the bathroom? These are such basic principles when training a dog, and so important to their existence and need for a stable and balanced mind. The parallels seemed way too similar. Just like a dog, our students need to know what do, where to go and essentially where they belong.

Lesson #3 Trust and Leadership

Trust. This is such a strong and important word, not only as a teacher or dog owner, but in our interactions as professionals, colleagues and friends. Before I adopted Miles, he was living in a “puppy mill”. These are horrible places where dogs are treated in the most disgusting of circumstances. Just like Miles, our students enter our classrooms with diverse backgrounds and experiences. It is our job to be leaders in our classrooms and establish a safe environment where trust is in the culture. Cesar Millan, the star of National Geographic Channel’s Dog Whisperer, encourages owners to become the “pack leader” as the most important thing we can do for our dogs. The “pack leader” provides rules, boundaries and limitations for the dog pack. They pack leader is calm, confident and uses body language and eye contact to communicate. I like to keep these thoughts in mind when establishing the culture within my classroom and ensembles. Students will reflect your energy. Both Abraham Maslow and Erik Erickson, developmental psychologists, believe that establishing trust is the first step towards fulfilling our basic physiological needs. In Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” physiological fulfillment, the lowest need, has the greatest strength until it is met. Providing our students with clear guidelines and boundaries for the classroom allows students to feel safe, meeting their physiological needs, and ultimately ready to learn and be successful. For example, I have every student play alone on a regular basis. To some, this may sound really scary. Before the first student plays I always remind them that “we are supportive of each other, if you make a mistake it is OK, and if you really like what you heard- tell them!”. I hold these expectations to my students, and model the desired behavior. If I provide feedback, I give it to every student in a safe and encouraging way. I give the same amount of time and attention to each student when they play, creating an environment of equity. They feel so safe, that most of my students love playing alone and for each other. This really allows for an authentic assessment of every child’s development as a musician. Like the pack leader, I do my best to model and provide the leadership that I expect my students to have for each other. Millan says this about the pack leader “They are honest. They are real. They accept. They are in touch. They are present. They are respectful. They are balanced. And they know their pack.” I really love this. Remember that our students are the pack and we are the pack leaders.

Lesson #4 Care and Affection

Dogs love affection. Children love affection. Affection is the third tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. With Miles, I can leave my house for 15 seconds to get the mail, or be gone on vacation for a week and Miles always greets me at the door with pure joy and excitement- tail wagging, “smile” on his face, wanting affection in return. At night, all he wants to do is sit with me, or throw his squeaky tennis ball around. He loves our walks together. Millan says, “Love and affection is one of the greatest gifts you can give your dog”. Children need and deserve the same from us as teachers. Children need to know that “somebody significant cares about me”. Yes, we are significant. Be interested in your students, ask them how they are and take a moment to find out a fun fact about them. Maybe take a moment to throw the ball around with them at recess I feel really fortunate as a music teacher, because I get a chance to spend more time with my students than other teachers because of concerts, field trips and after school rehearsals. The result of these efforts is a deeper, more invested relationship with my students, allowing for endless opportunities for learning and making music. Millan also encourages dog owners to only give affection at the right time. For example, Miles gets my attention when he is behaving appropriately, in a calm state of mind or completed a desired task. In the case of my students, I think Millan’s words can be translated into “genuine caring” for our students. Be sincere. We have to set our boundaries in professional way, but find a balance where we show genuine love and care for every student.

I could go on and on about my experiences as a developing teacher and dog owner, I think about the parallels everyday. We are such important figures in the lives of our children (and our pets!). Miles and I also make pet therapy visits to a local nursing home. I get to see the results of our work together being shared with others- and making a difference in the lives of those who really need it. It’s like when our students can share themselves and their music with our community. Both cannot get to this high level without a great “pack leader” first. The fruits of our efforts as teachers are significant, and we really can make a difference.

Cami Tedoldi is currently the Director of Orchestras at Foxboro Public Schools. She is also an active conductor and clinician. Cami received her undergraduate degree in Music Education and Flute Performance from The University of Massachusetts and her Masters Degree in Music Education from the Boston Conservatory of Music.

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