Top tips from a Zoo Educator

Having recently made the transition from primary school teacher to zoo educator, Heather Bellinger outlines what she’s learnt during the shift in a special blog to mark World Teachers Day 2019.

I love teaching. Having struggled myself with dyslexia, ADHD and dyspraxia, I grew up wanting to be the person that I didn’t have when I was at school. I’ve been a fully qualified teacher for the last 5 years but have been working in education of some form or another since my late teens, teaching everything from dance lessons to forest school. Alongside this I’ve gathered lots of animal care experience by volunteering for different animal parks around the country as well as local animal shelters and organisations in my spare time.

Photo - Close-up of a caterpillar on a blade of grass being held up to the camera
Heather Bellinger with a caterpillar during Family Nature Club at ZSL London Zoo

This year I made the move from formal to informal learning, leaving teaching in a school to become a zoo educator and share my passion for wildlife, animals and conservation. It’s been an amazing transition.

Apart from the fact that I hear lions roaring on the way into work and wander past otters to get to the office, focusing on teaching a subject I’m passionate about has been transformational. Everyday is a school day here at the Zoo, but I’m not just growing my own subject knowledge but also a host of new skills and ideas to bring to my teaching.

And so, in honour of world teaching day, I wanted to share some of the key things I’ve been thinking about since I started here at ZSL, in the hope teachers of all varieties might find them helpful too!

Photo - Portrait shot of Heather with a rat sat on her shoulder
Senior Learning Officer Heather Bellinger with one of the education team's rats

  • As a teacher in any form – formal or informal – you must be prepared to wear lots of hats –educator, comedian, performer, storyteller, expert, first aider…
  • Be bold with new ideas when creating lessons/workshops/activities – it might not work but alternatively it might be the best thing ever!
  • Children get inspired by those “wow” moments – create them in your classroom.
  • Things WILL go wrong – whether that’s an inopportune fire drill on a rainy day or a monkey walking into the classroom (as has happened a few times in our rainforest classroom!). As a teacher you must always think on your feet and expect the unexpected. Particularly working with children and animals!
  • Know where the nearest toilets are At. All. Times.  
  • Technology can’t be trusted - always have a backup plan if the computer/iPad/camera doesn’t work.
  • It’s ok not to know the answer to every question a child throws at you – you are only human, not Google.
  • Children always say the funniest things at the most inappropriate times.
  • I’ve learnt a lot recently about using my voice differently for different audiences – EYFS requires softly spoken and simple language, whilst with young adults more complex language can be used - but keep it relaxed and friendly yet authoritative. Voice projection has also been key too, particularly when trying to get the attention of a group of children when a lemur is stealing the limelight! 
  • Know ALL the silent signals; clapping, one hand up, 1,2,3, shhhhhh. I make sure to speak to the visiting teacher at the beginning of a workshop to find out which one the class is used to.
  • Getting children outside and in nature is ALWAYS a good idea for all subjects.
  • Don’t lose your passion – if your hearts not in it make a change. Its not fair on the children or yourself.
  • I’ve realised that my teaching style can be me! I don’t have to be like anyone else. Find your own style and go with it - if it works, it works.

And finally: be the inspiration you needed as a child.

 

Happy World Teachers Day!

 

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