Educating Young People to Change Lives and Protect Animals: An Interview with Debra Corbett
Thinking back on our interactions with animals during our time as students, some of us remember a hamster incessantly running on the wheel in his cage in the corner of the classroom or maybe even a trio of goldfish that swam in a fishbowl perched on the windowsill. However, if you were in Assumption High School science teacher Mrs. Debra Corbett’s class, your interaction with animals inside and outside the classroom may have included unique, eye-opening experiences such as taking a test while stroking an iguana or visiting Costa Rica to work with sea turtles.
Corbett has always been an animal lover. She was raised by a father who was a “farm boy” from Missouri and was raised with many dogs. Summers were spent among the chickens, cows, and mules on her grandparents’ farm.
“The more I learned about and discovered the way that animals live, the more I loved them,” said Corbett.
Corbett did not immediately attend college after finishing high school, and, instead, she spent her time working a myriad of jobs, including one in a meat packing facility. Eventually, she enrolled at Iowa State University and received her Bachelor of Science in Fisheries and Wildlife Biology. After working as a naturalist and volunteer with several animal organizations, Corbett decided to attend University of Louisville where she got her Master of Arts in Teaching.
Corbett began teaching at Assumption High School, an all-girls Catholic high school in Louisville, Kentucky, sixteen years ago and has left a huge impact on many young people. She currently teaches Biology, Marine Biology, Astronomy, and a class on vertebrates.
Assumption High School emphasizes personal growth and community involvement. The school’s goals and values align well with those of Corbett and compliment her teaching style and incorporation of animals into education.
“I love working with the girls,” said Corbett. “We work to educate the whole woman.”
Bringing Science to Life
For the entirety of her teaching career, Corbett has made sure that animals play some role in her classroom. She strongly believes that the human-animal bond helps people of all ages and wants to make sure that she is communicating this to her students. She feels that the more commonplace technology is in our lives, the less bonded we are to the natural world. Seeing this fact as both sad and dangerous, she strives to connect her students with the world around them. Even before she regularly had animals in her class, she decorated the room with pictures of animals and encouraged her students to bring in pictures of their own pets.
“I’d tell the girls, if you’re having one of those days, go look at the pictures of your pets,” said Corbett. “It helps.”
Several years ago, Corbett invited a family friend to bring his 15-foot python into her classroom. The room full of teenage girls was at first filled with fear. But, after learning all about the biology of the snake and seeing his laid-back personality, the students loved being around him and became comfortable enough to pet the creature. This experience solidified Corbett’s belief that people learn to be compassionate and excited about animals when they have the opportunity to be educated and exposed to them. She then decided to start bringing in one of her five rescue dogs to help alleviate stress when it seems that the students could use some time with a dog.
The real star of Corbett’s classroom and Assumption High School, though, is a rescued iguana named Iggy. From the very first day when the school rescued Iggy, she has been a hit across campus. Her laid-back demeanor and friendly spirit bring comfort, relaxation, and smiles to the high schoolers. Iggy spends the week living at Assumption High School and comes home to stay with Corbett on the weekends. While at school, she can be found in Corbett’s science classroom where she often scampers around the room, receives attention from students, and naps.
Iggy has had a huge impact on students, specifically those with learning challenges such as ADHD. Her presence often calms overanxious students and holding her while taking a test has helped many students cope with test anxiety.
Corbett uses Iggy to teach the girls about respect for animals and help them to understand that animals are not toys or things and should not be feared. Instead, animals have their own unique personalities and emotions and have many of the same needs as humans: food, space, shelter, companionship. By pointing out the similarities between humans and animals, Corbett hopes to prepare the students to make their own decisions, pertaining to animals and their uses as cosmetic testers, food sources, and pets.
“Exposure to the living being helps [the students] develop as caring, compassionate human beings,” said Corbett.
Many students have spoken to Corbett years after graduation and told her that her emphasis on being educated enough to make choices that affect animals have helped them make decisions as adults.
An Impactful Iguana
“Iggy the iguana is a rock star and a huge recruiter for Assumption High School,” said Corbett, “When prospective students come to tour the school, meeting Iggy is often on their list of top three memories from the day.”
The school’s administration trusts Corbett and is very supportive of Iggy not only because she brings biology to life, but also because she leaves a huge mark on current and prospective students. The school is such a fan of Iggy and her impact that they pay for all of her expenses such as food and lights.
Corbett is very responsible with her animals and has found that it is not often the animal that needs training but, rather, the students. She explains to her students that they need to conduct themselves in a certain way in order to share the classroom with an animal and keep it from getting scared. She relates the students’ behavior to the animals’ behaviors in order to illustrate the fact that if the girls are appropriate with the animal, the animal will be appropriate in return.
“If someone was pulling on your hair or poking you, you’d push them,” said Corbett. “Well an animal can’t push you, so it has to react to this behavior by biting.”
It is lessons like these that transform Corbett’s students into better pet owners and people who share the world with animals.
Education Outside the Classroom
Along with incorporating animals into the educational process, Corbett also encourages involvement with animals and animal-related causes outside the classroom. She is the advisor for Assumption High School’s Humane Action Team which works to “help animals.” The organization puts on at least one adoption event per year where local organizations bring their animals to the school to be adopted by members of the community. The group has also taken on other projects such as a school-wide initiative that taught students about using recycled toilet paper to avoid cutting down more trees and destroying the habitats of tigers. New this year, the Humane Action Team is planning an Assumption High School Animal Week that will help students learn about animals and gain awareness for the issues that animals face.
Corbett has also taken groups of students on “Eco Trips.” During these roughly eight day trips, Corbett and her students have traveled to locations such as Costa Rica, the Galapagos, and the Peruvian Amazon to learn about the animals who live in these areas. The trips are open to any girls in the school and often include a service component such as helping with sea turtle rescue.
“At least two girls on every trip decide to go into biology as a career and say that the Eco Trip is what made them decide to do so,” said Corbett.
Passion for Teaching about Animals
Corbett’s passion for teaching young people about the amazing world of animals has not gone unnoticed. She was recognized as the Humane Society Youth’s National Humane Educator in 2009. This award meant a great deal to Corbett and is her most cherished distinction. The award also included the opportunity for Corbett to become certified as a Humane Education Specialist in 2010.
Corbett plans to keep fostering the human-animal bond among young people. While she has had thoughts of establishing a nonprofit dog rescue or writing a children’s book about her dogs, her heart is in the classroom, educating young people and exposing them to other species in order to change their lives and protect the lives of animals.