Twelve years later, Vernon Secondary School resource room teacher Andrea Schiiler, and her beloved golden retriever Honey, continues to change the face of education for students with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities.
It’s her innovation, ingenuity and compassion for her students, education and the community that led colleague and physiotherapist Cindy Keith to put forward her name as a local hero in education.
“I have always felt the never-ending support of Ms. Schiiler,” Keith said.
Schiiler said she’s always felt more like an advocate than a teacher to her students.
“I really believe that A) they have a lot to offer and the more we’re out there and showing that that’s important, and B) they have a right to a good life and to have meaningful opportunities to contribute to society.”
In her time working with VSS students, Schiiler helped create procedure and protocols around animal care and more recently, created a job skills program that sees students working different roles in the production, marketing and sales of homemade dog biscuits.
The Project for Pawsitivity saw students develop and test a recipe pre-COVID and now, students are making dough and baking up a storm in the cafeteria.
The students are the creative masterminds behind the labelling, marketing and sale aspects, with support from Schiiler and the team in the resource room.
“I’m already seeing the benefits of this program already,” she said of the social enterprise, noting she’d like to base the project out of a commercial kitchen one day.
The label, of course, features four-year-old Honey.
Honey is a regular at the school and the inspiration behind the Project for Pawsitivity itself. Schiiler said a student wanted to make Honey treats for her birthday and the idea just snowballed naturally.
Honey’s presence in the hallways not only supports the mental health and wellness of typical students, but it also builds capacity in students with delays.
“She supports kids with their physical literacy and getting outside,” Schiiler said.
She also encourages visits from other students throughout the school, supports decompression, promotes physical activity with walks and creates non-threatening opportunities for social interaction.
“The only thing is potentially you can have allergies,” Schiiler said. “But we’ve been lucky.”
Honey also has a knack for understanding what the students need from her.
“We’ve seen her support kids who are having seizures,” Schiiler said. “She reads people.”
But all work and no play is no good for anyone, including a dog. says it’s crucial to allow Honey time to just be a dog.
“Being a dog owner and being an educator with a dog — there’s quite a lot involved. There has to be consent. The dog has to want to be petted and people want to have her in their space,” she said, noting when Honey needs a break she just has a lie down in the office.
This education hero’s advice to those looking to get involved: “Do it for the right reasons.”
“Have passion, get out there and have those relationships,” she said, noting it may not align “If you don’t truly believe these kids have a right to the same space.”