Any parent who has had the "pleasure" of taking care of the classroom hamster, gerbil or snake over a school break may wonder what the benefits of having a classroom pet are. Do kids really learn anything from having an animal in the classroom? How much is it costing the school system? And what kind of animal is appropriate?
Thousands of classrooms across the country have pets, usually small mammals -- such as hamsters, gerbils, rats and mice; occasionally, birds, such as parakeets, or reptiles, such as turtles, are chosen. Those in favor of classroom pets say pets can teach children responsibility and to have respect for animals. Those against classroom pets argue about the lack of student safety and about animal abuse and neglect.
Student safety is paramount in a classroom. If any student has an animal allergy, then that animal should not be present in the classroom. Many types of small reptiles can carry salmonella, which can be passed on to students if proper hand washing does not follow handling. Even considerations such as how distracting a pet would be need to be addressed. For example, birds can make a lot of noise, and some students require a quiet environment in order to concentrate. But students, especially younger ones, can benefit a great deal from having a pet in the classroom.
For many teachers, a classroom pet is a rallying point. The students are excited to be a part of taking care of the pet, and it's something that the entire class can participate in. Many younger students are used to their parents doing everything for them; preschoolers and kindergarteners rarely get a chance to take care of anything. By being allowed to help care for an animal, they will learn the importance of responsibility. And because the whole class is helping out, no one student will be burdened with all of the responsibility.
Another important lesson to learn is that just because the school day ends doesn't mean that Mr. Guinea Pig (or Ms. Hamster or Dr. Rat) doesn't still require care. And that is another thing for teachers to consider; what happens to the pet when school's over for the day or during weekends or school breaks?
To save money, many schools turn off heating and air conditioning during days off. Will the classroom pet be able to survive those conditions? What about long breaks and vacations? Just because certain students have shown an aptitude for taking care of the pet in class doesn't mean that those students' home lives are conducive to pet care.
The animal's well-being also must be considered. Many small rodents are nocturnal; being in a loud, well-lit classroom and being handled during daylight hours can be stressful for them. Rabbits, though very fluffy and cute, don't especially like to be picked up. Many children unintentionally hurt small animals with rough handling, which can cause the animal to lash out. An adult should oversee any interaction between students and a class pet.
In the current climate of cash-strapped school budgets, is there even room for classroom pets? With teachers being laid off and school programs being cut to the bone, who can justify any additional expense?
Many teachers who have pets pay for them out of pocket; the pets are not part of the school budget. There are also organizations and grants that give money to the care and feeding of classroom pets, but should that money not come through, the teacher in charge must be willing to take responsibility.
What happens if the pet dies? Though this can be an excellent teaching moment in a classroom, many parents want to address death before a teacher does. This can be a particularly sticky subject and one the teacher in charge should be prepared to address should it come up.
Ultimately, the decision to have or not have a classroom pet is up to the teacher. After careful consideration of students' needs and the potential pet's needs, a decision can be made. Students can learn a great deal, but a great deal of thought and planning are needed.