Meet the Winners of TeachKind’s 2024 Teacher of the Year Contest

May is National Teacher Appreciation Month, and in celebration of compassionate educators, TeachKind is announcing the winner and runners-up of our 2024 Teacher of the Year Contest. We heard from teachers from across the U.S. who are taking the phrase “feed two birds with one scone” to the next level, providing high-quality academic instruction while simultaneously helping students develop empathy for all animals and become competent and compassionate citizens of the world. We’re pleased to recognize three outstanding humane educators who are creating a kinder future—and to celebrate the creative ways they’re doing so, both in and out of the classroom.

Text that reads 2024 Teacher of the Year Contest TeachKind Meet the Winners

Thank you to everyone who entered or nominated someone for this year’s contest. With so many inspiring entries, narrowing them down was difficult, but these educators will surely impress you as much as they did us. Meet our remarkable Teacher of the Year and runners-up:

TeachKind’s 2024 Teacher of the Year

Zachary Behlok (Ember Academy, Melbourne, Florida)

Zachary Behlok is a K–3 teacher at Ember Academy in Melbourne, Florida, where he has proudly worked since September 2022. As an educator and a behavioral therapist, he is dedicated to supporting young neurodivergent students by following their lead and employing a whole child–centered approach to help them reach their fullest potential. He is passionate about teaching his students to show kindness toward all animals, no matter their size, and rewards them for carefully removing insects from the classroom in order to release them outside and for discussing animals’ right to live. His path to kindness and vegan living was initially sparked by his study of philosophy, ultimately leading to the realization that he didn’t want his future to be only about himself. He decided to leave animals off his plate years ago during one particularly memorable dining experience. As he prepared to dig into a dish of crawfish, for the first time in his life, he looked an animal in the eye as he was about to eat them—and he was deeply shaken. In that moment, he realized that he wanted to dedicate his work to protecting animals and teaching others to do the same.

At Ember Academy, students participate in biweekly cooking classes, working together to prepare food to share. When Zachary first joined the team, all the meals included dishes that contained animal-derived ingredients, like meat and dairy. To inspire compassionate change and support budding relationships with his colleagues, he began suggesting vegan menus. Before he knew it, he had unofficially taken over the role of menu development, thus ensuring that all food prepared on school grounds would be plant-based and nutritious. His co-teachers were initially just grateful for the help, but eventually, their collaboration created space for them to discuss the issues involved in factory farming, something many of his peers were unaware of and which understandably horrified them. In addition to introducing students to exciting vegan food, he has worked to ensure that school field trips support kind venues like the local botanical garden, local nature trails, a planetarium, and accredited sanctuaries—trips to SeaWorld or other places that exploit animals are now off the table. He has advocated for ending animal dissection at his school and has helped his school transition to using superior, non-animal dissection tools, including Biosphera and Expandable Mind software. (Learn how your school’s science department might be able to score free non-animal teaching resources.) Zachary also teaches on the college level and provides free materials, lectures, courses, and presentations on nonhuman animal ethics and nonhuman animal consciousness at The Lawn Chair Philosophy Foundation (where he is also the vice president of the advisory board) and has published books and scientific articles on animal welfare, animal rights, and conservation. In his free time, he enjoys reading, spending time with his wife and animal companions, and going on nature walks.

Congratulations, Zachary, and thank you for all that you do for animals!

TeachKind’s 2024 Teacher of the Year Runners-Up

Josie McClain (Paloma Elementary School, Gila Bend, Arizona)

Josie is working to instill compassion and respect for animals in her second-grade students at Paloma Elementary School in Gila Bend, Arizona, through the ways she talks about animals, with the resources she uses to teach about them, and by setting a positive example of how to treat them. One way she does this is by talking with her students about her activities outside the classroom, which include caring for five rescued cats and a dog, and about the importance of treating animal companions as valued family members. She has been vegan for 10 years and is open with students about how she meets her protein needs with animal-free foods. Because her school is located in a small, rural district in Arizona with limited access to fresh produce and readymade vegan options and because her region lacks resources and education on vegan eating, she introduced a windowsill garden and aquaponics system into her classroom, complete with an artificial fish (as live fish don’t belong in the classroom), to help students understand plant life cycles and offer them an opportunity to try new foods, like oyster mushrooms and wheatgrass. Her class throws smoothie parties, making the drinks with the plants they grow, which they share with other classrooms as well. And because a classroom is never a suitable home for an animal, instead of having a “class pet,” her students help care for Ratty (a plush rat from TeachKind) and class plants, including snake plants, bamboo, and pothos. Because Josie’s students were inspired to help turkeys, who are often eaten on Thanksgiving, each November, her class collects money to sponsor a rescued turkey. Year after year, the students aspire to raise enough funds to “adopt” all the turkeys at the sanctuary. She has also been rocking TeachKind resources and incorporating must-read compassionate books into her classroom library, including Junebug: No Life Too Small and Hey, Little Ant. Her students often join her at lunchtime to help pick up trash and find ways to recycle a variety of items, helping the environment and the animals we share the world with.

Thank you, Josie, for teaching your students that even small daily choices can have a big impact!

TJ Long (Sawtooth Mountain Elementary, Grand Marais, Minnesota)

TJ knows how important it is to set a good example for his fifth-grade students at Sawtooth Mountain Elementary in Grand Marais, Minnesota, so he works to instill compassion in them by teaching them the importance of respecting animals and the planet we all share. He shares books with kind messages with his students and ones that highlight issues in human and non-human animal interactions, encouraging them to see animals as someone rather than something and to never refer to them as “it.” He talks openly with his students about speciesism, the human-held belief that all other animal species are inferior, and shares why he has chosen to be vegan for the past 13 years. His curriculum includes class projects about the ethical problems with using animals for profit. TJ takes his students to explore the nearby forest regularly, encouraging them to be good stewards of the Earth, which many other animals also call home, and to respect those they observe in nature. He works to incorporate humane education into all that he does at school, and his students are becoming more compassionate.

Thank you, TJ, for bringing animal activism into your classroom!


Congratulations to these kind teachers, and thank you again to everyone who entered or nominated a kind educator for the contest. Every teacher can help instill empathy and kindness in their students, just like our Teacher of the Year and runners-up. By sharing our collective work to make the world a kinder place for all, we can inspire those around us to make changes in the way they talk to and teach the children in their lives.

Are you ready to up your game for next year’s contest and put yourself in the running to be TeachKind’s 2025 Teacher of the Year? We’re here to support you! Sign up to receive TeachKind’s newsletter below for year-round inspiration, resources, and guidance for incorporating kindness to animals into your curriculum—and don’t forget to follow TeachKind on TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and TPT.

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