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Meet Debra Corbett, 2009 National KIND Teacher

Debra talks about traveling with students to Costa Rica, the animal protection club at her school, and more

Debra Corbett, winner of the 2009 KIND Teacher Award, with her dog, Hondo.

Courtesy of Debra Corbett

They’re out to discover! An expedition is never out of the question for 2009 National KIND Teacher of the Year Debra Corbett, a 9-12 grade biology teacher, and her students at Assumption High School in Louisville, Kentucky.

Whether they are completing a summer of service-learning by rescuing sea turtle eggs to shield the species from extinction or educating about adoption and the impacts of the wild bird trade, her students know science is more than just an academic subject—it is a pathway of protection for all animals. Debra tells us how her animal protection club and humane science lessons have impacted her school and community.

Debra, you have taken two trips with students to Costa Rica in order to protect sea turtles. Could you describe some of the details pertaining to the sea turtle project?

I have taken two groups to Costa Rica and both times the work with the leatherback sea turtles was amazing. We did daily clean up of the beach to remove obstructions for the turtles, and the students worked directly with the turtles by assisting the resident biologists with data collection. The girls took measurements of the nesting females, such as carapace length and width, flipper length, and head size.

Students also rescued eggs. When an exhausted female would make her nest too close to the water line the girls would hold a plastic bag under her and catch the eggs as she laid them. The depth and size of the nest was measured and then a new nest was dug to the same dimensions in the turtle nursery where the eggs were then deposited. When the young turtles hatched the students helped them navigate to the water by gently nudging them in the correct direction.

The students just fell in love with the turtles. During both of these projects the girls attended informal classes where they learned about the biology of the animals and the survival issues they face. They were very surprised that the turtles take so long to reach sexual maturity, that only one in 1000 hatchlings make it to adulthood, that all sea turtles are endangered, and that they face many threats.

Did the students work with any other animals while in Costa Rica?

During the Costa Rica trips we also worked on reforestation projects and a scarlet macaw project where we cleaned and filled nest boxes for nesting pairs. None of the students realized that the scarlet macaws mate for life or that most exotic birds in the pet trade are taken from their nests as chicks. They also learned that a majority of them die during transport.

I noticed my students felt empowered by the trip to become active in helping to save the leatherbacks and macaws. I have also taken students to the Galapagos Islands and the Peruvian Amazon where we observed and learned about wildlife and worked on service projects.

Do you feel the trips impacted the future choices of the students?

Out of the two Costa Rica trips, a total of seven girls went into biology as a major in college, and they attributed their choice to their experience with the Costa Rican wildlife.

You have an animal protection club at your school. Could you provide more detail about your club and the activities the members complete?

The Assumption Animal Society Club has helped with dog adoption days at school, collecting supplies and money for local shelters, and community education on animal issues. When a homeless or unwanted animal is found, we work to find him or her a good home within our community. We also do a Christmas treat drive to provide shelter animals with a holiday treat.

The club members have held school presentations on the topics of dogfighting and puppy mills and we are already planning a major demonstration/education activity for next year’s seal hunt period.

Additionally our club sponsors student trips to learn about and view local wildlife. One such example was the Kentucky Elk days where students celebrated the reintroduced elk and the Indiana Wolf Park.

Your club works to promote adoption and rescue. How have you promoted adoption and rescue in the school community and in your classroom?

I really try to lead by example. My freshman classes have a pet poster where they hang pictures of their pets and we share our pet stories. All of my pets are rescued and they are all spayed or neutered, even the rabbit. I share this information with my students and I stress the importance of spaying and neutering their pets. I always tell my students about the dogs who are dumped near my home in the country and I enlist their help in finding the dog a good home. Most everyone in the school knows that I stop my car and move wild or dead animals out of the road. I believe that it is totally disrespectful to allow them to lie in the road and be continually run over. Moving them also keeps scavenging animals such as opossums from being killed.

Also, our school has a day in February where we offer mini workshops on various community topics. I present one on living with compassion as a way to help other animals and the Earth. My topic is "Showing compassion to domestic and wild animals." We discuss the importance of knowing where your food is produced, so you are not supporting inhumane treatment of animals. We learn about free-range farm animals and choosing other humane options. The workshop also helps students to find compassionate solutions to wildlife problems instead of thinking killing is the only option. I hope that students will view other animals as living beings with the right to a good life, instead of viewing them only as worth the value we can derive from them.

I continually integrate stories of endangered wildlife and the issues that they face into my curriculum. The unifying message of my entire biology curriculum is that all species are important for the health of the planet. One species affects another, including us. My classes have done school wide education on animal issues, such as plastics in the ocean and the importance of bats, etc. I also use the Jane Goodall and Mark Bekoff book The Ten Trusts: What We Must Do to Care for the Animals We Love. My students do class projects with the book.

What has been the student and school reaction to the infusion of humane education into the traditional standards-based curricula?

One of our school's values is care and stewardship for our Earth. The Assumption administration has been very supportive of the activities and subjects that I deal with in the classroom. They have approved classroom pets, such as our rescued green iguana and rabbit. The students love having classroom pets and they also learn how to care for animals. I always emphasize that iguanas are not good as pets. I have also brought dogs to school. My department chair, Sally Craven, is always supportive of bringing awareness of animal issues to the students—and she is the person who nominated me for the National KIND Teacher Award.

Have you seen a long-term or ripple effect in treatment of animals or community awareness over the last ten years of your teaching career?

I have seen a ripple effect over the past few years. Incoming freshman know that we will be working with animals and their stewardship. They bring injured or homeless animals to me and we care for them and find them a loving home. The girls who go on the eco-trips return and share their experiences with the others and what they learn is passed on. Each year it seems that the number of people choosing to live compassionately increases. I am proud to teach in a school that values stewardship of the earth.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us?

I am very grateful to be acknowledged with this award. I am a wildlife biologist by training and would love to work in the field with large predators, but the key to their care and preservation is education. This is why I became a classroom teacher. If I can pass on my love and understanding for animals, then it can continue to be passed on and they may in turn have better lives. This is my dream.

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