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The City Journals

Animals teach leadership skills to Midas Creek students

Feb 27, 2019 04:09PM ● By Jet Burnham

Cary Drage, of Creature Encounters Utah, encourages students to apply their leaderships skills to take care of animals. (Jet Burnham/City Journals)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Students have gone ‘paws’itively Wild about Leadership with this year’s safari theme to emphasize their Leader in Me character program skills. 

Each month, students at Midas Creek Elementary focus on themes related to animals that exemplify leadership traits. At the end of the month, actual animals—bearded dragons, spiders, rabbits, lizards, bees and horses—visit the school.

“I think it’s really been fun for them,” said former principal Carolyn Bona, the creative mind behind the theme. “Most kids are very fascinated by animals, and so I think it’s a natural fit for our theme.”

Teachers nominate one student from their class each month who demonstrates the leadership trait of the month. The students are recognized in front of their parents with a presentation of a certificate and a bead for their leadership lanyard. Then they get a visit from an animal whose qualities exemplify the leadership skill.

The Stick Your Neck Out Like a Giraffe theme, which tied in with the skill of growth mindset, third-grade teacher Kathleen LeBeau looked for a student who was applying growth mindset thinking. 

“I chose a student I noticed several times during the week expressing what he is learning, what is hard for him and how he figured it out in our class discussions,” she said. That student, along with 31 others from grades 1–6, who won the leadership recognition that month and learned to brush and feed two horses that visited that morning.

Creature Encounters Utah brings a variety of animals, such as this tegu lizard, to the leadership recognition assemblies. (Jet Burnham/City Journals)

Bona said students have been familiar with some animal visitors such as bees, rabbits and horses, but they don’t normally have an opportunity to get up close and interact with them. In September, students had an up-close view of a beehive sealed in Plexiglas as they learned about the leadership qualities of bees. 

The habit Seek to Understand was taught with the theme Share the Pride of the Lion. Students learned to take care of their pride (family or classmates) by seeking to understand others through empathy and compassion. The visit of the Tegu lizard, from Creature Encounters Utah, fit in with this theme.

“I have been doing this for 40 years, and I am convinced that the emotional care of that animal is just as important as the physical care,” said Cary Drage of Creature Encounters Utah. He said a tegu lizard seeks out companionship and feels more comfortable in the presence of someone they have learned to trust.

Drage has provided many of the animals for the leadership recognition assemblies. He’ll be bringing tarantulas later this spring. He encourages leadership as it applies to taking care of animals, emphasizing the responsibility of “pet parents” to take care of animals in all aspects.

Teachers at Midas Creek incorporate the leadership skill-building in their classrooms as they look for a new student to recognize each month.

“We practice it, sing songs about it, role play and then recognize it when it happens naturally in the classroom,” said LeBeau. September’s theme—Take Charge Like a Rhinoceros—focused on being proactive, which is a skill her students enjoy learning.

“My third-graders feel so grown up when they can choose to not react to things that happen and instead choose how they will respond in difficult situations,” she said. “Young children love to practice being responsible for themselves and showing independence and capability of making choices that truly help them.”

Bona said she has seen this desire in members of the student council, who are responsible for morning announcements. 

“My mornings can be pretty crazy—sometimes I’m in meetings—but announcements happen like clockwork,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about it because I have student leaders that run it, and they love doing it. I think you want to try and get kids doing as much as they can for themselves, and I think you can do that through a leadership initiative. I think every kid has leadership in them in some form and greatness in them in some form, and teachers need to look for it.” 

AnneMarie Taggart, a fifth-grade teacher, promotes development of leadership qualities through classroom jobs. Every student is part of a group with a classroom responsibility—holding doors open for others, sharpening pencils, etc. 

“These groups have to work together to make sure everyone is included,” she said. “It forces them to communicate and work together just as a leader would.” Taggart said the focus on leadership skills has boosted the self-confidence of her students and influences them to be more kind and loving toward each other.

Megan Cox, who recently replaced Bona as principal at Midas Creek, promised to continue the wildly popular leadership program, which also includes an art curriculum for para-educators to teach leadership skills through art projects.