37: Puppy Therapy

37: Puppy Therapy

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

Puppy Therapy

There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.

~Bernard Williams

I loved teaching fourth grade and I loved acting like a kid with the students. I used humor to reach them. Our class mascot was a rubber chicken in pajamas that went everywhere with us. Our days ended out on the playground doing the chicken dance together. Learning was accomplished through participation and teamwork, emphasizing much-needed social skills along the way. The kids loved our unique classroom style, and it worked — they were motivated and enthusiastic.

Then, one year, I was assigned a particularly unreachable student. Jeremy had been born with fetal alcohol syndrome, which probably accounted for his severe learning disabilities. He was impulsive and had no attention span. He also had few social skills and always seemed ready for a fight.

Jeremy didn’t smile and he clearly didn’t want to be in the classroom. Getting him to lighten up became my goal that year. Oh, sure, I wanted him to read, write and know his math facts. But more than that, I wanted him to experience happiness and excitement about learning.

I modified all his fourth grade work to make it easier for him. I let him take many of the tests orally. He needed encouragement or he would stop trying. I needed to boost his self-confidence.

I tried so many of my usual methods but I wasn’t reaching him. So I set up a conference with his mother. When I told Jeremy, he just shrugged. Then, without making eye contact, he said, “My mom won’t come. She never comes to conferences.”

“Yes, she will,” I said, more confidently than I felt.

“No, she won’t,” said Jeremy. “Wait and see.”

Now this woman had to come, if only to show Jeremy that people could change. I added a little note to my conference request. “If you are unable to come, I will be glad to drive over to your house to meet with you there. Just let me know what day and time is good for you.”

Lo and behold, I got my conference! In the first five minutes, I understood a lot about Jeremy. His mother turned her back on him while we were talking. She never once looked at him. She did not speak any words of encouragement. She expected the worst.

At other conferences, teachers had told her everything that was wrong with Jeremy. Instead, I told her about the effort he was making and that he was trying. His mother had never had a good conference before. She did not believe in her son.

I realized that Jeremy was on his own as far as his education. He had no homework help. No one checked his planner. So Jeremy’s homework became morning work. Each morning, he rode his bike to school early and worked in my class before school.

Yes, he still got in trouble in the cafeteria and in the halls. But while he was in my class, he knew the rules and followed them.

I continued to work with Jeremy on his academics. He had a long road ahead of him and always would. But I had more pressing matters: I still needed to make him smile.

How I tried! I walked beside him in line and told him funny stories, acted pretty silly for a teacher, and even put him in charge of R.C., our rubber chicken. No smile. A permanent scowl wrinkled his brow.

My husband heard about Jeremy every night. We discussed how to get him to lighten up. He needed so much more than I could provide. And I only had until June.

After the winter holiday break, my husband brought our brand-new miniature Dachshund puppy, Maggie, to school to show my students. I talked about her all the time, and the kids were looking forward to meeting her. At the end of the day, George, my husband, was waiting outside our classroom door with Maggie in his arms. The kids could pet her, but not hold her, just in case she wiggled her way out of their arms.

George and Maggie were immediately engulfed in a sea of fourth grade students all wanting to pet her. Maggie was a kisser, so each child was repaid with very wet doggy love. Jeremy stood near the back of the group watching. I took a chance.

I offered to let him hold my beloved puppy. He agreed. I had him sit down, and we placed Maggie in his lap. Of course, within three seconds, she was all over his face and licking it from forehead to chin with her own brand of puppy love.

Jeremy exploded with giggles. The whole class stood and watched, knowing that something out of the ordinary had just happened. Jeremy lay back on the ground and allowed her to lick him all over his face until we took pity on him and pulled her off. No one else asked to hold her; everyone knew it was Jeremy’s time. My husband and I were both in tears watching Jeremy get his puppy-love therapy.

Jeremy would be about thirty years old now. I hope he remembers that day as vividly as I do. I don’t recall his reading score or his math progress from that year, but I remember the sound of his laughter. I still see the crooked little grin that appeared more frequently with each passing day after Maggie the puppy’s visit.

I don’t know if I affected Jeremy, but he most definitely affected me. The memories I have of Jeremy embody what teaching is truly about. Teaching is not about test scores and mastery of tons of information. Teaching is all about heart.

~Jeanne Kraus

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