In any other biology class at West Henderson High School, the only living creatures you’ll see are in the textbooks. That isn’t the case in Tiffany Owens’ class. Her classroom is home to not only a snake, but also a bearded dragon. Her love for the subject goes far beyond the classroom, with her two scaly classmates just being the tip of the iceberg.
Owens is from Clay County, a small town in Western North Carolina, home to a little more than 10,000 people. In comparison, Henderson County has just over 100,000 and Buncombe County has just over 250,000. She went to Hayesville High School, where her mom taught exceptional children.
Although Owens comes from a family of teachers, she did not originally want to become a teacher herself.
“I had a phenomenal teacher in high school. Two of them, actually, one was my chemistry teacher and cheer coach, and the other was my math teacher. I hated math, and my math teacher said ‘You’re great at this, you’re wonderful,’ and I was actually her TA my senior year. That part of my life was where I was applying to colleges and applying for scholarships, and just seeing her passion for her students led me to my philosophy that I have today…” Owens said. “I originally wanted to be a marine biologist, but then I said no and then I got a scholarship very similar to Ms. Wright, where they would pay for your college if you become a teacher and teach for four years, so I said ‘Yes, please!’ and that was just like the icing on the cake.”
Then came the decision to choose a college. There were two schools on her mind, Western Carolina and Wilmington. The decision finally came down to the difference of the drive.
“I was going to go to Wilmington when I was going to be a marine biologist, and then I decided I didn’t want to drive nine hours to get to Wilmington,” Owens said. “Western was closer and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
After graduating from Western, Owens received her first job. Teaching at West Rowan High School, who, ironically, were also sporting white and blue as their colors, and a falcon as their mascot.
“They were the Falcons and they were blue and white, so all of my stuff I can still wear,” Owens said. “It’s wonderful, and I taught just biology there.”
After only one year, Owens chose to move on to a different school. Something slightly more familiar this time, Hayesville High School, the school she went to, and that her younger sister was now going to.
“I taught my little sister physics. It was wild, it was very interesting,” Owens said. “I taught physics and chemistry and physical science there. I was one of four science teachers, it is a very small school, like 400 kids total.”
Owens is starting her fourth year of teaching at her third school, West Henderson High School. Originally, Owens wanted to work up in Asheville, where she did her student teaching in college. Her mom, who is now the EC Director in Clay County, helped her make the decision to come to West.
“She is good friends with the EC director here, Lynn Metcalf, and she was speaking praises about West,” Owens said. “And she said, ‘If she can get into West, she needs to go to West.’ Then the position came open, and I applied, and here I am.”
Throughout the years, Owens has been accompanied by many animals, ranging from hedgehogs to dogs. One animal, however, has been with her all four years she’s been teaching: a corn snake named Ridley.
“His name is Ridley, like Tom Riddle from Harry Potter,” Owens said. “He’s got red eyes. I didn’t want to name him Voldemort because he’s already a snake, so people don’t like him. I had to make it kind of cute. He’s got a little heart on his head. I got him my very first year of student teaching, so he’s been in the classroom since day one. He’s super sweet, super cuddly, I use him as a therapy animal for kids that are freaking out that do like him.”
She also has a bearded dragon named Norbert, who is named after the dragon in the very first Harry Potter book.
“I’ve had him for year, and I actually got him as a grant for teachers in the classroom,” Owens said. “They paid for everything except for half of his cost. I got him, his tank, and his setup for like 15 dollars.”
Owens learned her love for reptiles in a herpetology class at Western, where they would go out and catch reptiles and amphibians in the wild. She ended up doing her senior research on herpetology.
“We went and caught alligators, snakes, salamanders, turtles, and everything else,” Owens said. “I was like ‘These guys aren’t that bad!’ so I wanted to bring that into the classroom.”
Overall her theory has worked. While some students are afraid of Ridley at the beginning of the semester, many students soon come to find that animals with no legs can be just as lovable or therapeutic as those on all fours.
“I also had a kid my first year who had some behavior issues and would get into a fight all the time. We worked it out so that any time she was in one of those situations she would just shut it down and come to my classroom,” Owens said. “I had a bean bag in the back and she would just sit on the bean bag and hang out with Ridley. So that was part of her behavior plan. It was really great because that was her thing. Whatever it was about him, she clicked and she would hang out with him and calm down. So I call him my therapy dog. I just love them.”