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Teacher Suspended for Showing Students Footage of Animal Abuse: What Should Have Happened Instead

Written by Zoe Weil | 4 Comments | Published on February 4, 2016 | Filed under Humane Connection
The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Humane Education website at http://humaneeducation.org/blog/2016/02/04/teacher-suspended-showing-students-footage-animal-abuse-happened/
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factory farmed pigs crowded together

This blog post was originally published on Common Dreams. Reposted here under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

by Zoe Weil

Michael Fields, a science teacher in the Au Gres school system in Arenac County, Michigan, recently showed his fifth grade students an undercover video produced by Mercy for Animals (MFA). Depicting horrific cruelty toward pigs and piglets in a facility providing meat for Tyson Foods, the video reveals animal abuse in modern agricultural facilities that is not only legal, but all too common.

Upset that their 10-year-old children were shown such graphic footage, some parents brought their concerns to school administrators. The school board disciplined Mr. Fields with a six-day unpaid suspension. Case closed.

Unfortunately, this case should be wide open for a much deeper analysis of what topics we should be teaching students and at what ages. We must diligently explore how and when we teach children about critical real-world issues of injustice and cruelty in which we are complicit as a society and as individuals.

As a humane educator with more than 25 years experience teaching young people about the interconnected issues of human rights, animal protection, and environmental preservation, I believe that Mr. Fields should not have shown his fifth graders the MFA video. Such footage isn’t age appropriate and could easily traumatize children. It could also overwhelm and then desensitize them to animal cruelty, inhibiting rather than encouraging personal evaluation of their food choices and engagement in community and legislative action to extend anti-cruelty protections to pigs.

Yet, ten-year-olds should learn about where their food comes from, and food production ought to be among the topics taught in school. There are few systems more intricately and intimately connected to personal and planetary health, justice, and ethics than agriculture. And few personal choices have as big an impact on our collective well-being.

Which is why the decision to suspend Mr. Fields for six days misses the mark.

Here’s what should happen instead:

  1. The students who were shown the MFA video must be given the opportunity to discuss and grapple with that footage with caring, informed mentors and teachers (including Mr. Fields) who can help them process their thoughts and feelings, learn more about agricultural norms , and understand the role they can play in protecting animals from abuse. As Joan Baez said, “Action is the antidote to despair.” If Mr. Fields’ students are experiencing trauma from what they saw, they need to be provided with positive outlets for participating in meaningful change.
  2. The school faculty, board, PTA, and administration can and should use this situation as an opportunity to assess how and when to teach students about issues that affect their lives, as well as to evaluate curricula and pedagogy for relevancy and meaning in today’s world.*
  3. The school can and should consider its own complicity through the school cafeteria, not only in animal cruelty, but also in environmental destruction and human rights abuses, and engage with students who have now been, albeit inappropriately, exposed to the issue through the MFA video. In this way, the school can turn an unfortunate situation into an opportunity to make positive changes.

The Superintendent of the Arenac County schools said it’s the school’s job to protect students’ physical, mental, and emotional safety. Much mental and emotional safety comes when children learn to have agency, to contribute meaningfully in the world, and to cultivate qualities such as integrity, compassion, and kindness. Teaching about relevant ethical issues that are related to students’ everyday lives provides just such an opportunity, as long as the issues are presented age-appropriately and with a solutions-focused lens that enables youth to successfully tackle the systems that perpetuate injustice and cruelty. Physical safety comes in large part when students’ health is protected, which makes the unhealthful foods offered in most school cafeterias ironic in this context.

Several years ago, I began a presentation to a class of fifth and sixth grade students by asking them to share what they thought were the biggest problems in the world. Their list filled a white board. They already knew about a multitude of grave threats, challenges, and abuses in the world. What they didn’t have was hope that these problems could be solved.

In fact, when I asked them to raise their hands if they thought we could solve the problems they named, only six of the forty-five children did so. Alarmed, I quickly shifted my presentation and asked the children to close their eyes and imagine themselves at the end of a long life, living in a much better world. I described clean air and water, a future without poverty and war, a world in which we treat each other and other animals with respect and compassion. Then I invited them to imagine a child asking them this question: “What role did you play in helping to bring about this better world?” With their eyes still closed, I asked them to silently answer the child’s question and to raise their hands if now they could imagine us solving our problems. This time nearly all raised their hands. Hope restored, I carried on with my presentation, the goal of which was to engage them in the exciting and meaningful work of creating positive change in the world.

While Mr. Fields demonstrated poor judgment in showing his students graphic depictions of violence and cruelty, most ten-year-olds have been exposed to extreme images of violence through films and TV, video games, and news reports. Being immersed in so much casual violence, often meant simply to entertain, may inure them to issues of justice and produce apathy rather than agency and cynicism rather than practical hope. It’s our job as a society and through schooling to ensure that students receive the knowledge, tools, and motivation to both care and to be solutionaries.

Mr. Fields’ decision to show his students graphic footage of cruelty, and the reprimand that followed, must not be the end of this discussion. Instead, I hope the Au Gres school district will make Fields’ error in judgment the beginning of a necessary conversation about the purpose of education in today’s world and the importance of teaching children – in age-appropriate ways – how to be engaged and informed problem-solvers for a better future for all.

* My new book, out in March, The World Becomes What We Teach: Educating a Generation of Solutionaries, provides many resources for doing this.

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About Zoe Weil

Zoe is the co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education She's the author of several books, including Most Good, Least Harm; Above All, Be Kind; and The Power and Promise of Humane Education. See her TEDx talk, "The World Becomes What You Teach": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5HEV96dIuY

Contact Zoe View all articles by Zoe Weil

4 Comments

Alice-Leigh Mason says:

Wonderful article and critically valuable points! I hope this is shared and heard widely.

Zoe Weil says:

Thanks Alice-Leigh

barbara chapman says:

So children can be taught all types of sexual deviations and told that’s ok experiment, they are no longer taught manners, they are allowed at a very young age to make their own decisions however inappropriate, but they can’t be taught it is cruel and unacceptable to abuse animals. What a sick World we live in.

Scott Reeve says:

Thank you for highlighting this story Zoe. Your article was great and your pioneering work speaks for itself. I have experience with this issue, so here is what I can offer to the discussion:

I’ve been a vegan and teacher for over ten years introducing students from kindergarten to high school about how animals are treated in our society specifically Pets, Food, Clothing, Sport, Entertainment and Research. But one day I learned a valuable lesson when I showed an animated “graphic” video of animal cruelty (it wasn’t even real footage) to a class of ten-year-olds. The next day, a few of the parents called the school very upset because their kids had nightmares about what they had seen and I had some explaining to do. Therefore, if a teacher / school / group wishes to show children any kind of graphic animal cruelty footage, here are my recommendations:

1. Teachers, students, parents and principal know and agree to the showing. The school may even wish to give the parents the choice of attending the class on that day or make the video available beforehand, so they have a chance to watch it themselves and make their decision. If parents are on the fence, reminding them there is ample violence in cartoons, music, movies, TV/news, and especially video games kids have already been exposed to and the real purpose is to inform kids (if they are meat-eaters) “Where do animals products come from?”
2. The students are over 12 -16 years of age depending on video content.
3. The students understand what they are about to see is graphic and real (not a movie or video game), and therefore have the option of leaving the room at any time during the video.
4. They have been well-prepared about the entire content of the video for weeks in advance.
5. There is a responsible and flexible follow-up plan after the video depending on the kids’ reactions … write an essay how they feel, draw pictures, read more books, group discussions about why and possible solutions to problems, field trip to an animal sanctuary etc…

Alternatives to help kids understand animal cruelty without showing graphic, real footage:
a) Show animated kid videos such as “The Meatrix” or the song “I Want to Live Quiero vivr”
b) Show actual vegan kid’s videos on YouTube made by “Bite Sized Vegan” or others.
c) Choose from a growing number of vegan children’s picture books such as “The Three Pigs Save the Earth” and “Not a Nugget”.
d) Draw pictures / conduct art activities.
e) Role play – put stuffed animals in a confined space and discuss how they feel.

What we, as vegan educators want to accomplish with a new “Animals in Society” curriculum:
1. Teach students to respect all life, big or small, and appreciate the beauty of nature and how animals have intelligence, emotions and families.
2. Teach students the role animals currently play in our society and how this has evolved. Positive roles as animal helpers / negative roles as being confined and abused.
3. Teach students specifically the process of “farm to fork”.
4. Teach students about health, environmental, ethical sides of animal use in society to help develop their critical thinking skills so they can make informed choices. Discuss both sides of the debate – what vegans say and what meat-eaters say.
5. The history of veganism and its pioneers plus the future of veganism and its current global trends.