Notes From New Mexico: Learning From Kenya and Murphy and Otis and Roxy
By Kary Schumpert
We can find lessons anywhere, when we are open and willing. We can find inspiration anywhere if we look hard enough. We can find value in every experience, every success, every misstep. Most recently, I have found new lessons and inspiration from some dogs I know. They have helped me improve my teaching and my patience.
I love dogs. Love them, love them, love them. You’d think that with my affection for these furry, friendly creatures that I have seven of them. Alas, no. I had a dog, Opie, one of the loves of my life, who died almost six years ago. Since then, sharing space with roommates, apartment living, planning for a move, juggling a crowded school and work schedule, and then apartment living again, mean I would not be a good human companion for a dog. Luckily, a fur lover can find her fix, come heck or high water. In my case, one of my dearest friends has two dogs and has been willing to share his canine companions since I moved to Albuquerque a year ago. I get to housesit when he goes away for occasional weekends. Sometimes, I think, he might travel just so I can hang out with his two beloved dogs, Murphy and Kenya. Sometimes I know that the “favor” is really for me.
I love Kenya and Murphy and that they welcome me, with much wiggling and excitement, into the house as if I lived there. Kenya shows extreme patience and calmness and we enjoy sitting on the back patio together, pondering beauty and the wonder of life. She also loves when I rub her lower back, near her tail. Sometimes, she greets me standing backwards, with her tail and back front and center, as if I might forget that she wants a good rub. Murphy was a neglected dog until my friend rescued him from a sad household. Now, he seems so happy and grateful to be in a house of love, company, and treats. He loves naps and wakes up like a little kid, groggy and a little upset to have to get up, but then he snaps out of it and follows me eagerly to see what will be the next adventure.
After much time, extensive volunteer training, and a strict background check (stricter, I think, than my background check to work with elementary students as an environmental educator), I began volunteering with the local humane association as a dog walker. Once a week, I get to walk shelter dogs around the organization’s campus. We volunteers take notes about their behavior so that it helps them to become adopted. Sometimes, it’s my favorite two hours of the entire week, outside of teaching. I tend to love the ones that no one else wants: the shy gentle, older senior dogs. At least for now, my apartment comes with a strict no animals policy (I hide the fact that I keep a bin of composting worms in my living room). Otherwise, I’d be the crazy dog lady of the neighborhood, for that I am sure.
A few months ago, a volunteer from work mentioned that she also walked dogs at the humane association. Then she talked about having two dogs of her own, and that she and her husband were going to be taking a long RV trip to the Pacific Northwest, and would I like to dogsit? Heck yes, the words were out of my mouth before hers were hanging in the air. Otis is the shy “old man” dog who guards the backyard with much reverence and barking. Roxy, with her large size and puppy-like fervor, just wants to be loved and is scared of thunder.
So, the last few months, after very little dog interaction, has been brimming over with dogs and fur on my clothes. I now use a lint roller with the enthusiasm I did years ago, when Opie’s black fur seemed to be everywhere. My favorite sound, and it’s easy to fall asleep to, is the dogs snoring contentedly nearby. Just today, my friend, while making holiday travel plans asked me to dogsit in November and December. I enthusiastically texted back “yes” after barely checking the dates.
As a new person in town, I often refer to myself as an overeager puppy, “Play with me! Play with me! Play with me!” as I try to build a friend and professional network and a social life. As an environmental educator in a team, I’m the obvious puppy in the group: the first to say hi, the first to share, the first to back away at the slightest scolding.
I realized that dogs and what I have learned from them is much greater than my weekly walks or occasional housesitting stints. What I have learned from the shelter dogs, or my frequent furry companions, is that I have a lot to learn from them and from teaching. I love that, even in my twelfth year as an environmental educator, I have more to learn and that my enthusiasm has never abated.
Always, always, always, be enthusiastic. It doesn’t matter if it’s the fifth time, of fiftieth time, that you have taught about a certain topic. For someone, it’s their first time learning about it. Don’t ruin their sense of discovery by your lack of enthusiasm. Dogs seem to always be excited every time they go for a walk, or eat a meal, or play a game of fetch. There is magic in the every day. There is always something amazing just around the corner.
Find comfort in the routine of a day or a place. Dogs love to have their meals in the same spot, chew on the same toy, and sleep on the same cushion. Sometimes, teaching can feel monotonous. Maybe you teach six sections of middle school science and by the last class of the day, you are exhausted. However, by the last class of the day, you have figured out the quirks from the morning lab or have found a new way to explain the day’s project. Take comfort in the sameness and figure out how you can mix it up, while enjoying your students and improving your teaching along the way.
Never underestimate the beauty of going outside. The dogs I know tend to love to sleep in the sun, and always welcome a walk, no matter how short, around the block. No matter if you teach in a concrete urban center, or are a nature-center based educator, when you can bring your learning and teaching outside, you are opening up (literally and figuratively) new worlds to your students. You can write poetry with your students about the grey sky and grey concrete, while finding the splash of blue from a jay, or the call of a crow. You can study mountain streams, while hiking and finding new flowers with your kids.
Let someone else take the lead. Some of my favorite walks with dogs are the ones where I let them take the lead. I still hold onto the leash firmly, but I’ll follow their sense of smell where they seem to want to go. As educators, even those of us who strive hard to work in student-centered learning environments, we sometimes take the teaching away from our students. Yes, they need guidance and frameworks and so forth, but we often take the lead and forget to listen and learn from them. The other day, a third grade student shyly started to ask me a question. I began to anticipate his question, and almost, ALMOST interrupted him, but I caught myself just in time. Instead, he asked such a unique and thoughtful question that I needed to pause to carefully consider my answer. Recently with a group of first graders on a field trip, I found a different route thanks to my enthusiastic hiking buddies.
Take time to share your thanks. Dogs almost always will give you a wet nose sniff in thanks for a walk or a meal or just because. When was the last time you said thank you to your students? What did they teach you today? What did they share with you about their day? How did you show your gratitude for the daily lessons they teach you: about being a teacher, about humanity, about showing empathy? How can you together show gratitude for another member of the staff who always goes the extra mile? How can you show gratitude for even the most frustrating and difficult experiences and students?
Sometimes, it helps to go back to the simple. For the dogs I walk, and the dogs I sit, most of them keep it pretty simple. Kenya enjoys quiet naps in the front room. Murphy always has a toy in his mouth. Roxy puts all of her weight on your foot as you walk around the house. Otis likes to lie down in the grassy backyard, right by the back door. In all of our concern and consternation about standardized testing and concentrated curricula, we tend to complicate the teaching and learning. We want to use lots of materials in our math labs or we take a long time coming up with an engaging assignment. Sometimes, taking away the complication from our discussion, our materials, our classrooms, our assignments leaves room for new creativity, and new ways to learn. Sometimes, it’s the simplest way to get from A to B. It doesn’t mean taking away complexity, but instead leaving room for it.
Do what you love and find a way to keep falling in love with it. Dogs, as a whole, love running, eating, walking, napping, and doing it all over again the next day. Teaching, is more of an avocation, rather than a simple way to earn a paycheck. Usually, you are in a teaching job, whether in formal or nonformal education, because you love kids and have inspiration for the next generation. I do understand how one can get burned out, stressed out, and even grossed out by the day to day of teaching. For me, teaching is what gets me through the day. The students are my muse, my joy, my passion. I tend to have more energy at the end of a day teaching, despite the fact that I am an early bird. I find ways to rejuvenate on the weekends and during longer teaching breaks. Sometimes, all it takes is a bright grin from a kindergartner or the sarcastic remark of a teenager to remind me that I am in the right place.