Lessons from Shaq

The fear of thunder

Shaq..waiting for the thunder to stop.

Spending the last few weeks in Adelaide, Australia and spending a great deal of my time on the road, I have struggled with missing my dogs.  I am lucky that I have a great friend who is making sure that they are taken care of and loved as I am gone, while also getting to stay in their house (they have been there more this year than I have!).

Often I have written about my dog Kobe, who had passed away a couple of years ago, and Odom, who is finally growing out of the puppy stage, but have said little about Shaq (yes, they are all named after people that played for the Lakers at one point).  I always wondered about why Shaq has had little face time in my online world, and I guess part of it is that she is extremely camera shy (she literally runs when you get a camera out sometimes) and has always been timid.  But as Shaq grows older and starts to move into the final stages of her life (she is 13), I have missed her more than ever on this trip.

You see, Shaq was not really what I ever wanted in a dog when I first got her.  She was extremely shy and as Odom and Kobe were extremely affectionate she was always somewhat despondent.  Rarely would she enjoy being petted and she was extremely weary of new guests.  She is all bark, with maybe a touch of bite (if you try to cut her nails) and has stressed me out on several occasions.  As Odom and Kobe would often want to sleep on the bed, Shaq would often sleep beside and just want her own space.

I struggled with this for many years, but I just kept giving her love, giving her love, and giving her love.

As she got older though, I always appreciated that although she would not sleep in the bed, she was always near by. Always.  If I was in my office, she was in the office at my feet.  If I was in the kitchen, she sat close.  When I would watch TV, she would be sitting on the couch beside me (yeah, they have the run of the house).  Once in awhile though, while I was sleeping, Shaq would sneak on the bed and lay close.  Although it was always on her terms, she was always there. As I said, she was sometimes tough, but I just kept giving her love and her presence in the room was aways amazing.

Always close…but not too close.

cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo shared by gcouros

I truly believe that you can learn a lot from animals, and if you let them, they can make you better people, so as I thought about Shaq and how much I miss her, one student popped up in my head over and over again.  For the sake of the story, I will call him Sam.

Sam came to my school when I was principal and I knew that he had a special heart but struggled as well.  I had known that he had some issues with his temper and often would get into trouble.  At one moment he was the kindest boy ever, and in the next, he would be yelling and swearing.  Too often we focus on the second part, yet I always try to find the positive in every kid and knew that if you kept working with Sam, he could be a good kid.

One time Sam was extremely upset in a school assembly and for the safety of others, he was sent to my office.  He came in and he was extremely escalated and was swearing a great deal.  10 years ago I would have yelled at him as he escalated as I didn’t know what to do but I have learned that is about as effective as yelling at a class when you need them to be quiet.  I wanted to model the behaviour that I would expect out of Sam so I calmly said, “when you are ready to tell me why you are upset, I will be ready to listen.”  He kept swearing and I sat there doing work on my computer.  I just kept telling him that I was going to wait for him to calm down but I wanted him to stay in the office with me.  Again, 10 years ago, I would have asked him to leave, but I have learned that often times with kids like Sam that when you actually cut off that physical proximity, you teach them that when times are tough, you will easily abandon them.  Now I just wait and make sure that we are in the same room.

Shaq taught me this that even when it seems tough, keep giving love, keep giving love, keep giving love.

So as Sam calmed down, he talked about what was upsetting him and also talked about how he was sorry about the language that he used.  I told him how much I appreciated everything that he had said and he had done some work with the custodian and myself so that he could help around the school.  This was not the last time Sam had one of these temper tantrums, but he got better and better over time and I felt that he knew that I wouldn’t ditch him when times were tough.  When I moved onto a different position and left the school, I promised Sam that I would come back and check in on him and I smile every time I see him still.  In a farewell, Sam said, “Every time I get in trouble, I will think of Mr. Couros.”  His wording made me laugh but I knew exactly what he meant and was glad that he knew that I had cared for him.

The reason that I think of Sam when I think of Shaq is because no matter how tough they seem to be, they are always there.  Shaq is always in the room near by, while Sam was the first kid to school every day and one of the last ones to leave.  This was a happy place for him and the proximity for both was something that they each craved.  We often overlook the fact some of the kids we struggle with as teachers and show up every single day, are the kids that need us the most.  Anyone can teach the well-behaved kids; the ones that we struggle with are the ones that make a great teacher.  Sam pushed me to get better and taught me to be patient, calm, and caring when it was sometimes hard to do so.  People show their true worth when times are tough, yet when we go through those things together with someone, we come out with a much stronger relationship.

I still see Sam every now and then and he smiles and is excited to see me and I him.  He still gets in trouble now and then, but I know that he is in good hands and is cared for.  As he becomes a young adult, I am so proud of how much he has grown up and I will continue to watch him grow and develop.

After 13 years with Shaq, she is now crawling into bed and nestling right beside me every single night I am home.  It has taken a long time but I appreciate it a great deal because she taught me that if you keep giving love, eventually that love will be returned in spades.  Dogs have a funny way of making us better and teaching us to be kinder people to all those that we encounter.

As Shaq and I her deal with her cancer and she slowly goes into the night, I will always be thankful that she was and will always be close to my heart, no matter her physical distance.


cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo shared by gcouros



  1. Hi George. You are right we learn so much from our furry friends. I believe we are so fortunate to have been given the opportunity to share our lives with our wonderful dogs. The love we give them is returned unconditionally. I know that no matter what sort of day I have had Ellie will be at the back door waiting for me with her wagging tail and this brings a smile to my face and makes my day. Enjoy the rest of your trip to Australia but, even more importantly, enjoy the lovely welcome you will receive from Shaq and Odom when you return home.

  2. I have or have had several Sams/Shaqs as students. One in particular came to me having moved from school to school not coping, being suspended and sent home for "inappropriate behaviour". On his 2nd day of school with me he had a 'melt down' and I spoke to him quietly and calmly. He grumbled "I guess you will send me home now, because I have been bad" quite angry with himself. I replied calmly "No, I don't send anyone home unless they are sick, we are just going to have to work out how we can manage better".
    Not since that day has he ever worried that we couldn't work through a problem!

  3. Thanks for the stories, George. I think that it would really powerful to collect as many of the "Sam" stories we can. Gathered together, they would serve as both a reminder of what it is that we are called to do and as a touchstone as we move around the education world talking about change.

    I have a couple to contribute!

  4. This post really hits home for me for many reasons. I am a complete and utter dog lover and Shaq reminds me a lot of my Sunny. He is very stand-offish and hates strangers and wayward plastic bags. He'll hide in places he can't fit because he is scared of everything. He got out once and I had to chase him 5 blocks in bare feet to have him bite me because he thought I was a stranger. Most owners would have had him taken away after that, but like you said, you have to keep giving love.

    We have to be there for our students. We have to show them what compassion can look like. They have to know we will not give up on them no matter what happens. My first year teaching, our principal encouraged us to find a student and 'adopt' them throughout their years in school. He wanted us to focus on a student that didn't have it all together and didn't have the perfect home life. This is what we should all be doing. We need to invest in our students' lives like you did with Sam. :)

    Thank you for a beautiful post, George! :)

  5. Your post me me cry and laugh at the same time. I have now had 6 Shaqs in my life from rescue homes and despite their backgrounds, anxieties, barks and bites; building relationships through trust, consistency and unconditional love have given back to me tenfold. I have taught many kids with barks and bites too and their basic needs were no different. If we truly want to build meaningful and lasting relationships with our students don't let them down- be there even when they keep biting and barking because you may be their last place of 'rescue'. Cheers. Karen @kazk62

  6. Thanks for the timely post, George! This year I have an entire class of Sams and Shaqs. It is easy to get lost in the challenging behaviors and take things personally. Your words here are helping redirect my focus back on the most important part of my job, connecting and building relationships with students who are usually given up on before they are even given a chance. “We often overlook the fact some of the kids we struggle with as teachers and show up every single day, are the kids that need us the most.” -> This may very well be the spark I've needed to remember why I became a teacher and why my students deserve my very best. Thank you.

  7. George, I am so sorry to hear about your ill pup. I have a medium-sized mutt that I have had since she was a brand-new puppy – she's now just over a year and a half old. Her name is Georgia.

    I'm looking for something profound to say, but I don't have anything. I'm not currently teaching or tutoring, but I when I was, I don't think I fully understood the love and patience you can show another living thing until now.

    In the 4-8 months old range, I must have thought about giving Georgia away a dozen times and came close to making phone calls/ sending messages on facebook a couple of times. I kept coming back to the fact that I had chosen to bring this little creature into my home and she deserves the effort, patience and love that I had planned to give her.

    The work has paid off in spades – my dog is amazing, even though she is still certifiably insane. She puts as much effort into our relationship as I do, and I can't imagine my life without her. I can only hope that this period of growth will translate to my efforts in the classroom and in having more patience for others, when/ if I return to teaching.

    I hope your pup is comfortable. I truly enjoy interacting w/ you on the interwebs – you seem genuine. Thank you! – Sarah @sbethm

  8. Funny! My first follow was Shaq as well. Struggled with which one was the REAL Shaq. Talking Social Media and specifically Twitter and Google Alerts to my Superintendents this Friday as a way to communicate with community and your article came up in my resource search! Using it! Thanks!

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