We were sitting in lesson one day, doing some revision for their upcoming exam, when in walked the technician and farm manager, carrying something in a small cage. The technician had a look on his face of ‘I know I’m interrupting your lesson, but you are absolutely going to love this’. They walked over and showed me the inside of the cage – three tiny day-old ducklings!!!!
I immediately freak out. DUCKLINGS! TINY ONES! RIGHT HERE! Some of the students became interested, some immediately take my distraction as an opportunity to launch into conversations.
I ask and was allowed to pick one of the tiny adorable bundles up. They were so damn cute that I tear up, and the students notice and laugh, but not at all in a nasty way. Instead they are laughing at this human side of their science teacher, and all are suddenly very interested in the ducklings. I tell them all they need to stop doing their work (which most had done anyway), and that they needed to pay attention to the ducklings.
We took out all three ducklings, and showed the students the correct way to hold them. Those who were interested had a cuddle, those who weren’t simply petted them. This lead to conversations about their feathers, which lead on to further duck anatomy and then to duck behaviours.
The ducklings were not in distress throughout this time, many of them choosing to sit down in our hands and one even falling asleep in mine.
Eventually the students became bored, so it was time for the babies to leave, and we continued with out lesson. There is almost no misbehaviour from the students, most of whom get straight back on to task. A few lingering conversations continue, but quickly turn to other matters (some of it off task as usual).
Rather, it is me who was continually distracted thinking about the adorable ducklings, and me who keept referring back to them at random times. I found ways to link our work to the ducklings, and kept reminiscing about how adorable they were.
I could tell the students enjoyed their time with the animals, and not just because it was a distraction from the work. They genuinely enjoyed interacting with them, and they enjoyed seeing a different side of me.
It got me thinking about having animals in the classroom. Of course there will always be the concerns of health and safety, animal welfare, who will look after them in the evenings, etc. Of course there will always be the concern that the animal(s) will only serve as a distraction. But could they be used in a positive way as well?
PETA of course would advise you to never do this, as keeping animals captive in any way is cruel. They list some further specific reasons in this article on their website, but one could refute each claim if one wished. I would like to assume that if you were considering a pet for your classroom you would have already taken in to account every one of their points and found suitable solutions. For example, saying that keeping pets in the classroom supports the ‘breeders and cruel pets trade’ is not necessarily true, especially if you can find a suitable pet from a pound or rescue organisation.
In contrast, there is an organisation who’s sole purpose is to encourage and assist having animals in the classroom. They provide a wealth of information and resources to help you if you are interested in starting down this path, but their claims do not appear to be backed by solid research.
These two recent studies, here and here, suggest that a classroom based Animal-Assisted Activities program could be beneficial for improving social skills and decreasing problem behaviours in primary school students, particularly for those with autism spectrum disorders. They do note, however, that further studies are needed to confirm that it is the animals involved, and not the other aspects of the program, that are providing the biggest outcomes.
If you are considering having a pet in your classroom, besides gaining the school’s approval, it would be a good idea to reach out to your local SPCA organisation – many have specific guidelines to follow for the safety and benefit of yourself, your students, and the animal. This report by the American Humane Society might also be of interest to you (it is 40 pages long, but a very interesting read!).