My secondary English classroom looks very much like you’d expect it to. Table lamps glow warmly because I hate the overhead fluorescent lights…a poster of Edgar Allen Poe wearing sunglasses hangs behind my desk…inspirational author quotes on the wall. Pretty typical I’d say.
However, there is one surprising feature—the 20-gallon fish tank gurgling happily on the counter. Some might think of it as an unusual addition to a classroom where students spend most of their time reading and writing, but it’s been one of the best additions to my class. And I’d enthusiastically encourage any high school teacher to consider adding one (or another kind of pet) to their classroom.
1. It Definitely Adds to Your “Cool” Factor
Let’s be honest, science classrooms often have “dibs” on the cool stuff. They can have snakes, turtles, science experiments that involve blowing stuff up…it can be hard for Shakespeare, differential equations, or the causes of WWI to keep up. A small fish tank, a parakeet, or even a bearded lizard can seriously up your reputation for being the teacher with the awesome classroom. When one of your students brings a friend who you don’t have in class in just to “meet the class pet,” you’ll know you’ve arrived.
2. A Little Distraction Can Go a Long Way
I hesitated for a while before bringing the fish tank that had been sitting in my garage into my classroom. My main reason? Distraction. My students often struggle to stay focused on the task at hand already. So why on earth would I bring bright, colorful, moving creatures into the room to distract them further? But what I discovered, after reading a bit about the way fish tanks can relieve stress, was that once the initial Oh my gosh, you have fish! Look at the fish! Look what that fish is doing! That fish is weird! period wore off (about 2 days, in case you were wondering), it became a pleasant and brief distraction. I now notice students glancing at the fish tank briefly, taking a breath, and returning to their work.
3. A Pet Makes a Class Feel Like a Home
Classroom culture is something that is very important to me. I spend the first week of every school year talking with my students about wanting our classroom to be a space they feel comfortable spending time in each day. You know what helps with this process? Our class pets! Even for high schoolers, the knowledge that I’m going to ask each of them to be responsible for caring for our fish turns them into elementary school kids again. Sometimes, we have to add a new fish to the tank. The debate and discussion over what type of fish and what that fish’s name will be are often some of my favorite moments of the year.
4. The “Coffee-Shop” Effect
Lots of studies have been done lately about the “Coffee Shop Effect,” the notion that moderate levels of ambient background noise actually can increase your productivity. I have found that the soft gurgle of the fish tank, the quiet whir of a fan, and some instrumental music played while students are working does increase student productivity to a much higher degree than letting them listen to their own music on their phones or other devices.
5. I Already Feel Like I Live Here…
I don’t know about you, but there are definitely weeks when I feel like I spend more time in my classroom than anywhere else. I’ve discovered that my plants and my fish make the long hours before or after school a bit more pleasant. It’s nice to turn on the light in the tank in the morning and say “Hi, guys. Are we all ready to do this again?” And watering my plants at the end of the day is just the thing for taking a moment to breathe and reflect over the events of the day.
It seems a bit daunting to bring living creatures into your classroom if it isn’t for your curriculum. The mess! The extra work! The distraction! But I’ve found that while there are certainly times when I have an extra step or two before I can head out the door each afternoon, the benefits that having a class pet have brought to my classroom far outweighed the detractors. If you’ve been mulling it over I urge you give it a try! You and your students will be happy you did!