Most of my professional experience has been in teacher training and preparation. Without fail, most prospective teachers, particularly those younger and newer to the work, cite the following as their reasons for going into teaching: “I just love English,” “Math has always been my favorite subject,” or . . . “I love working with kids.” Well, that’s great. But it ain’t enough, especially if you’re serious about making a difference.
When I hear people just getting into, or already active, in the animal welfare community say things like, “I love pit bulls,” or “I’m a dog person,” or the ever-dreaded “I’ll never own another breed other than this one,” my hackles go up. Because phrases like these signal to me that someone has most definitely lost sight of the forest for the trees, perhaps before they even knew that they are in fact standing in a forest.
In teacher education, when we are confronted with students preoccupied with their particular content (i.e. mathematics, chemistry, English), we see it as our responsibility to help reorient that focus, bringing teaching and learning to the foreground while appropriately situating their subject matter in that context. Because teaching is not about teaching English, or math, or social studies, and it’s not just about “teaching kids” either. It’s about facilitating learning for individual students in a particular educational, social, and political context. If you’re going to teach English effectively to a group of 10th graders, then you need to know a heck of a lot more than how to write a clever analytical piece on Catcher in the Rye and what the word “parallelism” means. You need a critical understanding of teaching and learning theory, a desire to engage and support students individually, and a good grasp of how the subject you’re teaching fits into the larger world picture.
Similarly, if you’re serious about helping “pit bulls” and contributing to efforts to change public perception of them (or any other breed for that matter), then you’re going to need much more than a fondness for their big-mouthed smiles and your favorite Cesar Milan quote. You’re going to need an understanding of the animal welfare community as a whole. You’re going to need a desire to learn about dog behavior and training, not by watching Dog Whisperer and Pit Boss (neither of which will teach you anything about dogs), but rather through actual reading, research, and the seeking out of professional resources and information (i.e. Sophia Yin). You’re going to need to immerse yourself in the community and practice in which you are interested in becoming a member of; not by starting your own rescue right out of the gate, but through thoughtful service learning experiences with experts in the field (i.e. Best Friends Animal Society). Most importantly, you need to approach such a community as just that–a community. Not a cult.
It was probably pure coincidence that Best Friends Animal Society happened to be my first exposure to the animal welfare community at the time that I chose to jump on the “pit bull” bandwagon. Luckily for me, I had stumbled onto genuine professional expertise in the very field I was interested in entering. The folks at Best Friends do not know everything, nor are they perfect. More important to point out though is that they don’t pretend that they are. They operate with one simple premise: do right by the animals in their care, and by the animal rescue and welfare world. Because they operate with this fundamental principle in place, they are forever revisiting and reevaluating everything they do in the context in which they do it. Sure, plenty of them will say they love pit bulls, but never without an understanding of where to appropriately place that love in the grander scheme of their work.
“Pit bull” rescue and welfare, and the movement to rehabilitate the reputation of pit bull type dogs is a constant concern for me. But I don’t identify myself as a “pit bull person”, or a “dog person” for that matter. When people ask me what I do (an annoying question to begin with (I eat, I sleep, I breathe, how about you?), I typically say that I work in “humane education”. Because even though I, like many, am a novice–an unpaid one at that–in relation to such work, humane education is a more accurate description of the larger context in which I think and act. And knowing this helps me understand my own role in that world and better arms me to be a productive, thoughtful member of it, rather than a blind follower in it.
Some might argue, “Well, why should just loving reading or mathematics prevent me from contributing to students’ education? Can’t I help too?” Sure you can. Volunteer your time as a tutor after school. Work as an assistant in a classroom led by an expert teacher. Intern at a summer camp for kids. But don’t go out and start your own tutoring company or sign up for a quickie teaching credential. Not everyone has time to thoroughly educate themselves about animal welfare and dog behavior. And that’s okay because most animal welfare organizations need open-minded, committed volunteers eager to help and willing to learn from more informed leaders. But letting the notion that you love “pit bulls” transform into starting your own pit bull service dog program or founding a rescue group the next day is counterproductive and irresponsible.
Preoccupation with learning a specific content and mastering “basic skills” rather than an emphasis on genuine learning and the fostering of critical thinking is what led us down the path of standardized testing, a phenomenon which has almost single-handedly destroyed our public education system, when it was supposed to help save it. Uninformed obsession with “pit bulls” and day-t0-day rescue of them and other commonly abused or misunderstood breeds of dogs will do the same, unless we learn to adjust our focus in order to capture the full picture, not just the pit bull in it.