MELBOURNE – On Monday, May 6, the United Nations released a report stating that 1 million of the planet’s plant and animal species are at risk of extinction.
The same day, one local teacher received word that she is being honored with an award for humane education – an approach that, in part, aims to empower young people to make positive changes in their world, including those involving the environment.
The teacher, Virginia Hamilton, works in the gifted education program at Quest Elementary School and she’s been selected as Teacher of the Year by the Academy of Prosocial Learning, a Pennsylvania-based organization.
As defined by the academy, humane education “encourages cognitive, affective, and behavioral growth through personal development of critical thinking, problem solving, perspective-taking, and empathy as it relates to people, animals, the planet, and the intersections among them.”
Mrs. Hamilton was selected from a pool of 40 U.S.-based nominees for her efforts as a teacher, but also those she has made as founder and president of the nonprofit Canine Commandos, which pairs students with animal training opportunities in order to improve shelter pet adoption rates.
“This year Virginia was the clear winner of the award, as she truly embodies the qualities of an educator who uses humane pedagogy to teach not only academic skills, but also positive prosocial skills to her students,” said Stephanie Itle-Clark, the academy’s founder and president. “The impact she is having on the learning and empathy development of the students will have amazing lifelong influence on the learners and the community as a whole.”
Only the academy’s second annual Teacher of the Year award recipient, Mrs. Hamilton, who has been teaching in Brevard for 27 years, started Canine Commandos in 2003.
That year, she had seen a show on Animal Planet discussing issues with dog adoption.
The show noted that many dogs in shelters were not finding homes easily because of behavioral issues, but that those issues could often be corrected through training.
At the same time, Mrs. Hamilton knew that a local shelter was euthanizing 50 percent of its animals due to a lack of space, so she came up with a service learning program in which children would train shelter pets, thereby making them more adoptable.
“The principal said, ‘as long as the parents are on board, I’m on board,’” recalled Mrs. Hamilton, who taught at Longleaf Elementary School during the program’s inception. “It’s been amazing ever since.”
Now, Canine Commandos works with 400 children in 26 schools training dogs and socializing cats, Mrs. Hamilton added.
This year, 69 percent of the dogs that learned basic commands through the program were adopted. That number is especially significant considering it represents a nine percent increase over last year’s success rate, Mrs. Hamilton noted.
To Mrs. Hamilton, who has been vegetarian for 25 years and vegan for the last five, practicing empathy is empowering for students.
“I truly think if you feel for another person, it’s empowering,” Mrs. Hamilton said.
“Especially with the warning that came out yesterday,” Mrs. Hamilton added, referring to the U.N. report. “We have to teach our young ones to make changes and fix the messes us adults have created. Teaching empathy empowers people to act compassionately to make changes in our world.”
For more information about Canine Commandos, visit www.caninecommandos.org/home.