May was Teacher Appreciation Month—and naturally, that means that TeachKind hosted its annual Teacher Appreciation Contest as a way to honor and celebrate the wonderful humane educators out there who are bringing animal rights and compassion into their schools. We heard from teachers across the country who are incorporating kindness to animals into their classrooms in many different ways, and we’re impressed and deeply inspired by the passion, creativity, bravery, and dedication that so many of you show in your quest to teach empathy for animals.
With so many fantastic teachers in the running, it was hard to choose—but we hope these compassionate and hardworking humane educators will inspire you as much as they did us. Meet our fabulous 2019 Teacher Appreciation Contest winner and runners-up:
Stephanie McLaughlin, Moanalua High School, Honolulu, Hawaii
Stephanie is a longtime vegan, animal rights activist, and high school teacher—and she finds ways every day to incorporate kindness to all species into her work as an educator. She serves as the faculty adviser to her school’s animal rights club, which she started in 2005 and has been running ever since. The group meets each week over a vegan lunch to discuss various animal issues. Club members have attended advocacy trainings at a local animal shelter, campaigned to end dissection in their school, and lobbied senators, encouraging the passage of bills to help marine mammals, and they host an annual all-vegan potluck on Earth Day to introduce even more students to healthy vegan options. In May, they attended a demonstration against marine mammal captivity at The Kahala Hotel & Resort for “Empty the Tanks” Day. The demo, which protested the hotel’s captive-dolphin “experiences,” was attended by members of the community and local animal rights groups, giving students the opportunity to meet other activists and speak with the public about animal issues. They even created their own posters and informational brochures to share at the event.
As an English language arts teacher, Stephanie creatively incorporates animal rights issues into her curriculum. For example, when teaching Lord of the Flies, she works in a unit on the link between cruelty to animals and cruelty to humans to help students understand the ways in which we’re all connected—and she uses The Call of the Wild to introduce students to ways they can speak out against companion-animal abuse, neglect, and the cruel dog-sledding industry. This school year, she also introduced a lesson in which students researched and wrote papers on the plight of orcas and created “empathy projects” to express what they’d learned, which included poetry, visual art, letters, and more. They finished the year by watching videos and researching animal behavior in the wild vs. animal behavior in captivity and writing essays arguing against captivity. In all of Stephanie’s lessons, she focuses on providing students with the facts on both sides of every argument and allows them to reach their own conclusions—which are almost always compassionately on the side of animals and their well-being. In fact, as a result of her lessons about marine mammal captivity, all of her 160 students have pledged never to patronize any business that keeps marine mammals captive.
Stephanie speaks out about important animal issues across the board. She is open about her vegan lifestyle—always sharing easy animal-friendly recipes—and screens documentaries such as Forks Over Knives in class. She also shares PETA videos about dissection and makes sure that her students are aware of Hawaii’s dissection-choice policy, which allows students to opt out of dissection in favor of a humane alternative with parental permission. She also lets students know about their right to opt out of field trips to places that imprison animals. As a result, students are more aware of their power to make animal-friendly choices at school and in other areas of their lives.
As an active part of the TeachKind network for years, Stephanie has been using PETA materials in her classroom for over a decade. In fact, this helped lead her toward a vegan lifestyle. In 2004, a student who saw a PETA poster about animal exploitation in the entertainment industry hanging in the classroom did some research on her own and discovered the horrors of the meat, egg, and dairy industries and decided to go vegan. She brought this information to Stephanie, who still ate animal-derived foods at the time, and encouraged her to watch “Meet Your Meat” and other PETA videos about the food industry. Once Stephanie did that, she realized that as someone who loves animals, she couldn’t continue consuming them, so she went vegan—and the following year, she started her school’s animal rights group. The rest is history!
Stephanie is a truly stellar animal rights activist both in and out of the classroom. She sets a positive example for all her students with her vegan lifestyle and makes sure that they understand how to make animal-friendly choices. She’s passionate about helping animals and believes that this inspires her students to do more for them, too.
Congratulations, Stephanie, and thanks for all the wonderful work that you do for animals!
Dennis Yong, Canyon High School, Santa Clarita, California
Dennis is an environmental science teacher and the adviser to his school’s environmental club—and he goes above and beyond when it comes to teaching students the impact that their diet and other lifestyle choices have on the well-being of animals and the planet. In class, he dives right into the problems with animal agriculture and hosts a “compassion challenge” in which students commit to going vegan or vegetarian or trying Meatless Monday for a month at a time in exchange for a sticker on their “compassion badge”—which he laminates for them to keep at the end of the year as a reminder of their progress. He encourages students to discuss these choices with their families to make them aware of the reasoning behind them and shares tips on finding vegan-friendly meals in restaurants—as a result, some of his former students have stopped eating animals altogether. He created a “Guide to Going Veg” booklet that he distributes to his students and recently hosted PETA staff members in his classroom to give presentations on the benefits of a vegan lifestyle. He also screens documentaries such as Cowspiracy and Blackfish in class and offers students extra credit for watching and writing a reflection report on Earthlings. He also teaches biology and ended the use of animal dissection in his curriculum in favor of superior, animal-free alternatives. He talks with his students about the reasons why exploiting animals for education violates the Golden Rule. His environmental club regularly discusses the impact that eating meat has on animals and the environment, and it hosts outdoor clean-ups to pick up trash that’s affecting local wildlife.
Dennis also leads by example to inspire his students to make kind choices. He records fun videos of himself eating meat-free meals in restaurants, showing off the vegan milk selection in his refrigerator, and humanely trapping and releasing insects in his home—and then shows the videos to students to give them a glimpse into his animal-friendly lifestyle. He also teaches them about the reasons why exploiting animals for entertainment is wrong and why refusing to support businesses that keep animals captive is the best way to make a difference, informs students about animal testing and why we should live cruelty-free, and urges them to adopt animals from shelters instead of buying them from breeders or pet stores. (He adopted his own cat from a local shelter.)
Keep up the fantastic work, Dennis!
Melissa Colby, Valley Inquiry Charter School, Salem, Oregon
Melissa is a fifth-grade teacher and the founder of her school’s animal rights club—and she’s creatively incorporating kindness to animals into her curriculum. As a proud vegan, she introduces her students to the many benefits of a compassionate vegan lifestyle by bringing in delicious food samples, sharing photos of meals she’s had in local restaurants, sporting T-shirts with vegan messages, and focusing on the many animal-free ways to get essential nutrients when teaching about nutrition. She even had a guest speaker from an animal rights organization visit her classroom to speak to her students about the problems associated with animal agriculture. In February, she hosted a month-long raffle challenge to encourage students to make kinder choices—some of the many animal-friendly options included choosing vegan meals in restaurants, committing to Meatless Monday, volunteering at the local farm sanctuary, and watching documentaries like Food, Inc., or Cowspiracy. In addition to covering vegan issues, her students have also done research projects on ways to help endangered species, studied the effects that pollution has on local wildlife, and raised money to help animals in need.
Melissa started her school’s animal rights club this year after realizing that many of her students showed an interest in animal rights and other social justice issues. Members of the club researched cruelty in the pet trade and why it’s important to adopt animals from shelters instead of buying them—and they ended up being so passionate about the issue that they created presentations to share with the rest of the fifth-grade class as well as with younger students in the school. They also held a fundraiser to collect supplies to support a local cat shelter and volunteered at a local farm sanctuary, where they were able to meet animals rescued from the food industry—this was such a hit with the group that Melissa scheduled a volunteer day at the sanctuary that was open to the entire student body. Around 25 families participated. Several let Melissa know that they planned to continue volunteering, and she’s had multiple families contact her for advice on going vegan.
Thanks for inspiring students to choose kindness, Melissa!
Ron McGill, Rivera Middle School, Pico Rivera, California
Ron is a middle school speech pathologist who is seamlessly weaving animal rights lessons into his curriculum and teaching students about activism and how to embrace an animal-friendly lifestyle. He was vegetarian for over two decades before going vegan and uses PETA materials, activities, and lesson plans in his classroom regularly. Some favorites include TeachKind’s rescue stories and PETA’s student-friendly environmental leaflets. Lessons on animals are the norm in his classroom, and he focuses on facts about them and the many similarities between human and nonhuman animals. He supplements these lessons with engaging videos, such as the animal-friendly films Okja and Charlotte’s Web and Genesis Butler’s TEDx Talk on why it’s wrong to eat animals. He also teaches students about the perks of a vegan lifestyle by bringing in delicious food samples like vegan chicken nuggets, and he even hosted an end-of-the-year Beyond Burger sliders party for them. In addition to focusing on the ways that a vegan lifestyle benefits animals, he also teaches students about the environmental devastation that eating animal-derived products causes and discusses the health benefits of vegan living. Many of his students have expressed an interest in going vegan and have taken PETA leaflets home to share and discuss with their families.
In addition to inspiring his students to make compassionate choices, Ron is also making an impact on his colleagues and community. He brings delicious vegan food to his school’s potlucks, slips vegan starter kits into each of his colleagues’ mailboxes on Earth Day, and has even guided colleagues who are experimenting with a vegan lifestyle to improve their health. His open-minded, friendly, and generous approach to teaching about animal rights has made it easy for him to inform students, parents, and colleagues about these issues—so he’s been able to make a huge difference for animals.
Thanks for your dedicated and inspiring work, Ron!
Congratulations to all these creative and compassionate educators! Are you ready to up your game for next year’s contest and put yourself in the running? We’ve got your back: Sign up for TeachKind’s Lesson of the Week for year-long inspiration on incorporating kindness to animals into your classroom.