Chattanooga area educators gain insight into the plight of red and gray wolf

Photo contributed by Jim Watson / Home school teacher Rachel Danner meets gray wolf Maverick in Chipley, Fla.

After receiving an education professional development grant from Volkswagen, semi-retired educator and wolf enthusiast Jim Watson, of Chattanooga, has made it his mission to share his passion with others.

Watson is working to get wolf education into classrooms across Hamilton County via the group Educators for Environmental Awareness.

"Wolves have often gotten a bad rap with how they're represented in popular children's stories and films," Watson said by phone. "My main focus is to get into classrooms and help kids see that they are [an] actual benefit to the environment, and they play a key role in the world around them."

With the grant funding, an additional $1,000 anonymous donation and money Watson raised himself via a part-time recycling business, he was able to reach out to fellow educators in Hamilton County and encourage them to apply for the professional development run by himself and Educators for Environmental Awareness.

That program included trips to Chehaw Park in Albany, Georgia, and the Tallahassee Museum in Tallahassee, Florida (both for red wolf programs); St. Vincent Island National Wildlife Refuge in Indian Pass, Florida, for a meeting about a growing pack of red wolves; and the Seacrest Wolf Preserve in Chipley, Florida, for an up-close-and-personal interaction with gray wolves.

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"We had a group of seven educators that came with us over Presidents Day weekend representing varying grades from forest kindergarten and middle school to high school and home school," Watson said.

To apply, educators had to submit a proposal, including a lesson plan on how they would incorporate wolves into their curriculum during the school year.

"We were very impressed with the submissions and how thorough they were," Watson said, noting that now that the program has concluded for the 2021-22 school year, he's already started seeing some of those lessons come to life. "Our kindergarten teachers who went have started sending in samples of their students' 'wolf writing,' where they shared some facts they learned and drew illustrations; it's very encouraging."

Hands down, the favorite part of the itinerary was the up-close-and-personal meeting with the gray wolves, according to Watson.

"Seeing the excitement and enthusiasm in the teachers, it just makes it worth it," he said. "You can read, study and talk about these creatures and share that with students, but nothing beats getting in the enclosure with the wolves and having them right in your face. It's just an incredible experience."

Forest kindergarten teacher Rebekah Tarvin shared in an email that for her, the experience was truly eye-opening.

"I am ashamed to say as a forest kindergarten teacher who has lived entirely in the American south that I was unaware of the plight of the American red wolf," Tarvin said. "The knowledge and firsthand experience I received has grown a new passion in me, and I find a charge and a call that I am now responsible for the fate of the red wolf. It is up to me to impart to my students and to my community what I learned in order to save what America has long forgotten."

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Tarvin added that as a result of her time with Watson and the group, her students "unlearned the falsity of the 'big bad wolf' and are passionate to spread the true story.

"The eagerness they exhibited when studying this content was one of awe and energetic empathy," she said. "We are all responsible for bringing this species back from extinction. They have learned in kindergarten what I should have already known."

For Watson, the recent trips were especially meaningful because he got reacquainted with a gray wolf named Chaco that he met during his first wolf educator professional development program back in 2015.

"When we arrived, I just happened to ask if Chaco was still there as a part of the pack, and she was," he said. "I asked if I could go over and greet her, and they allowed me to, and it was just a very special moment."

Watson is working on getting additional grant funding to run the program again for the 2022-23 school year, and once details are finalized, announcements for educators looking to apply will go out via the Hamilton County Department of Education newsletter and on Watson's Facebook group/page for Educators for Environmental Awareness. From there, applications will officially open, and educators can attend an interest meeting to learn more.

"I've been a part of countless other professional developments in education, and the key is getting the information back to the students in an effective way," Watson said. "I can honestly say that after this particular one, I know 100% that the teachers attending and experiencing the wolves in this way are going to follow through and do a fantastic job getting this knowledge into the classroom."

Watson also provides a complete box of education materials with contents for students from grades K-12 that teachers or parents can request at any time by contacting him via

"All they have to do is ask for it, and I'll deliver," he said.

Contact Brandi Dixon at or 423-757-6556.