Teaching With a Rabbit
I am a middle school special education teacher at an inner city school in Tampa, Florida. When I tell people this their eyes tend to open wide and I hear such things as: “You must have so much patience!” or “Why?!” or “Wow! Middle School?” These reactions leave me with some mixed emotions. I am the older sister to a brother with severe disabilities. Being around people with disabilities is pretty normal for me. In addition to working with students with special needs, over 90% of my students live at or below the poverty line. A little over 60% of my school’s population is Hispanic/Latino(a), with a very large population being English Language Learners and/or recent immigrants and refugees. I could not imagine serving any different type of population. I laugh every single day, sometimes to keep from crying – and sometimes I do cry, but the laughter is also always there.
My co-teach classes are over crowded, my self contained classes underserved, but my students are incredible. I laugh with them often, cry with them occasionally, hold them when they cry over their dog that died that very morning, or when they experience their first heart break, I listen as they tell me how they miss their father in jail, or how they wish they could live with a different parent, I hear about their weekend football practice, and the great food their grandmother makes. I hear stories of parents learning English so they can communicate with teachers, family left behind in Cuba, and stories of friends and family lost to guns and drugs. And I see incredible academic and personal growth every single day.
One of my favorite things to see is how these students react when they find out I have a rabbit – yes a rabbit, in my classroom. I got Lola about a year ago through a grant program called Pets in the Classroom. When I first applied for the grant, I really didn’t think too much of it, other than what a cool addition to my classroom it would be. When I was approved for the grant and told my students we would soon be getting a rabbit, word spread quickly throughout the school. Everyday students I taught, and students I’d never even seen before would poke their head into my classroom door asking if the bunny was here yet.
When Lola finally did arrive, her presence was immediately felt. On her first day, I had my small, self contained class of students with Intellectual Disabilities form a small circle on our rug and had Lola hop around. The students immediately fell in love. Within a few weeks, Josh who, while is in the 6th grade, reads at a mid 2nd grade level and tries to avoid reading out loud, took a book, went and sat next to Lola and started to read to her, pointing out the pictures and giving directions – and I had nothing to do with this.
Misbehaving students would get sent to my classroom to clean out Lola’s cage as punishment. And every single one of them ended up falling in love with Lola, often earning reward time to come and visit with her. Students began asking their teachers if they could come and sit in my classroom and do their work so they could be near Lola. Many of my own ADHD and hyperactive students would simply stand near Lola’s cage or sit by her and then participate in class. Students were coming to school early to stop by my classroom to visit her, clean around her cage, and feed her. Many of these children weren’t even my own students!
During the first week of this school year I’ve had countless children coming up to me asking when Lola will be coming back, or how they’ve heard that I’m the teacher with the rabbit. It is incredible to see how the biggest, baddest middle school students will completely soften and lose their minds at the sight of a gray, fluffy bunny. Some of the most challenging students will run to my classroom so they can see Lola, and some of the “toughest” boys are actually afraid of this little bunny.
Lola serves a multitude of purposes. She brings a wide array of students into class, helps to teach responsibility and respect, calms students down, helps them focus, is a motivation tool, can be a positive or negative consequence, a non partial listener, and even comedic relief. The way students interact with her continues to amaze me every single day. She helps to create a trusting bond and ongoing connection between my students and I, which in turn, allows me to be an even more effective educator.
B.S.Ed, Exceptional Education
New York State Certified:
Childhood Education 1-6
Students with Disabilities 1-6
Exceptional Student Education K-12
Childhood Education K-6
Rachel Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org