Animals in the classroom: Responsibilities & Rewards

Mrs. Ainslie-O’Connor is a seasoned grade three teacher who has incorporated classroom animals in her teaching for about 10 years. I met with Mrs. Ainslie-O’Connor in her brightly lit grade three classroom in Spruce Grove and was introduced to some of her furry – and not so furry – friends. 

She has a six-year old guinea pig named Pip (his brother Pop, very recently passed away), two gerbils, Cookie and Oreo, a 10-year-old fire bellied toad, aptly named Toad, and an eight-year old bearded dragon, less aptly named Fluffy.

Mrs. Ainslie-O'Connor

She also has a large fish tank with a variety of fish including albino plecos, danios, green cories, black skirt tetras, and rasboras.

In order to care for this large variety of animals, it’s necessary to know a great deal about their individual care requirements, from feeding, housing, grooming and social needs to recognizing when they may be showing stress or pain. Mrs. Ainslie-O’Connor is very knowledgeable about the animals in her classroom and is committed to providing and modeling excellent care.

Guinea pigs, Pip and Pop

On the first day of school, the fish are the only animals in the classroom as, she explained, “it would be too overwhelming to have everything in the classroom at once.” She then slowly introduces the other classroom animals through clues that describe their behaviour and care needs. Once students have figured out what the animals are, they spend time discussing their needs, and how to demonstrate respect. For example, some animals may feel stressed by sudden movements or knocking on the cage or tank so students learn to avoid those actions. Students in her class have “always been very respectful of the animals” and are jointly responsible for reminding others, including visitors, how to interact respectfully with them. “They take that responsibility very seriously,” and know if the rules are not followed they will lose the privilege of having animals in the classroom.

She involves her students to help them learn about responsibility and caring for living things. She has student helpers assigned weekly, assisting her with a variety of chores including ensuring water bottles are full of fresh water, helping with feeding, passing cleaning supplies, and carefully observing the animals to check their health status. This opportunity also allows her some time with the student to share more information and answer questions. Other than supervised petting and feeding of the mammals when students are designated helpers, they have no direct contact with the animals.  She is very careful adhere to all school district administrative procedures regarding animals in the classroom.

To involve parents, a letter is sent home at the beginning of the year that is read and signed. It details the animals in the classroom and how their child will interact with them, for instance, given the potential risk of salmonella, students have no contact with the bearded dragon. The meet the teacher evening is usually well attended as students want to introduce their parents to the classroom critters.

Ties to the curriculum:

Many curricular outcomes are met with the help of classroom animals, including Animal Life Cycles in Science and a variety of outcomes in Health. From encouraging more fruits and veggies as snacks (of course, to share with the animals) to developing personal skills such as managing

Bearded dragon, Fluffy

stress, classroom animals are integrated. For instance, some students regulate their behaviour for the benefit of the animals, remaining calm and quiet so the animals do not become stressed and brain breaks can include observing the calming motion of swimming fish.

Pip the guinea pig is featured in weekly spelling tests, which can be a source of stress for students. Linking spelling words to a guinea pig can lead to some rather ridiculous statements – which makes the students laugh and reduce test anxiety.

When having classroom animals, issues such as death may arise, like the recent passing of Pop. “It can become emotional for students if the loss is recent, but we work through that together.” Mrs. Ainslie-O’Connor uses literature, including the Alberta SPCA AnimalTales book program to discuss animal issues including loss and learning positive ways of dealing with grief.

The commitment:

Classroom animals are a significant commitment for teachers legally, financially and ethically. Teachers are responsible for the health and safety of both the students and animals in the classroom. Mrs. Ainslie-O’Connor drives to the school on weekends, holidays or when a substitute teacher has been in her classroom to feed and provide other care duties. She spends between $700-$1200 per year for the animals which doesn’t include the initial set up costs such as cages, tanks, filters, lights, etc. She takes the animals to the vet when required and brings them home over the longer holidays and summer vacation. Finally, Mrs. Ainslie-O’Connor acknowledges and accepts the obligation to “model unconditional regard” and “optimal care,” as students are learning about how to treat animals from what they see happening in the classroom.

Advice for teachers considering getting classroom animals:

  • Explore your school district administrative procedure around animals in the classroom and consult your school principal.
  • Be clear about the learning outcomes you hope to meet with help for classroom animals. There should be a pedagogic rational for having classroom animals.
  • When considering possible animal species, it’s critical to learn about their needs and care requirements to determine if they would be an appropriate fit to your classroom and life. Consider lifespan of the animal, its social requirements, your ability to provide optimal care, and if the animal would be suited to a classroom environment.
  • Ensure you have the appropriate facilities to manage their care. For instance, you need a sink with hot water for cleaning. Using a sink that staff use to watch dishes is not appropriate.
  • Think about rules and safety provisions that guide interaction with the animals. What will you do if the rules are not adhered to?
  • Consider weekends, breaks and holidays – most animal species require daily care. Never send pets home with students.
  • Safety plans should include animals. i.e. What happens in a fire drill or power outage?
  • For more info visit our page on classroom animals and alternatives

Animals in the classroom can be highly rewarding for both students and teachers, however they are a significant responsibility. The decision to add animals to the classroom should be carefully considered and adhere to school district policy. “When the students are older, we only want them to get a pet if they truly want it and can give it optimal care; you always need to model that optimal care.”

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