Help! A Student Gave Me a Live Animal as a Gift. Can I Give It Back?

It’s not really a gift, is it?

Teacher with a beta fish in a bag saying thanks? on a purple background

Welcome to Ask WeAreTeachers, a weekly advice column in which we take your most pressing questions and run them by our group of experienced, no-nonsense teachers, as well as experts in the field. This week, Ask WeAreTeachers takes on whether to return a gift of a fish, when your own child struggles in school, and more.

There’s Something Fishy Going on Here

One of my kinders showed up at school with a ‘present’ for me. She handed me a fish in a bag—no bowl, no food, no instructions, no prior conversation about whether or not I wanted a class pet. The student also informed her classmates that the fish was hers but lived at school now. I really don’t have the bandwidth to take care of this animal, and I feel like I got snowed. Can I just give it back?” —Bye-Bye Beta

Dear B.B.B.,

You can absolutely give that fish back, and don’t let anyone make you feel bad about it. You were given a responsibility, not a gift. It was presumptuous of them to assume you would take care of it and, frankly, it sounds like they pawned it off on you. Still, you want to preserve your relationship with the family.

In your place, I probably would have told the child class pets aren’t allowed and sent the fish back home with the child that same day. If it’s too late for that, you’ll need to contact the parents. You can express your appreciation for the thought but explain that you cannot keep the fish and politely request that they come to pick it up.


If you want to go the extra mile and the family really can’t keep the fish, you can offer to find another home for it (perhaps with an older student or another teacher). You are under no obligation to do so, but this “gift” could indicate they need support. The fact that they turned to you for it speaks to the sometimes complicated role we play as teachers. We get drawn into students’ lives in ways we never expected or signed up for. There’s beauty in that, and frustration, too. And sometimes there’s an unexpected fish.


A Principal Foul

I’m a beginning teacher. We just had parent-teacher conferences, and my principal asked to attend. During the conference, she asked the parents if they had any suggestions on how I could improve. I feel like that was wildly unprofessional. Am I wrong? —Caught Off Guard in H.S. Biology

Dear C.O.G.I.H.S.B,

Yikes. There’s nothing about that situation that feels OK to me. It’s one thing for you to ask parents, “How can I better support your child?” but what your administrator did undermined your credibility. The best principal I ever worked for said his strategy for running a great school was to “hire good people and get out of the way.” That’s not to say that you shouldn’t ever get constructive criticism, but that should happen through private channels. 

I went to principal Kela Small, and here’s what she had to say: “That was unprofessional and unsupportive of you as a teacher. Admin should have a sense of unity with teachers and a sense of responsibility about what happens in school. If the admin wanted feedback on the student’s or parents’ experience, the question should have been framed as a ‘we’ statement. ‘Is there anything else we can do to improve your experience here at school?'”

I think it’s time for a talk with your principal. You can give her the benefit of the doubt while explaining how it made you feel. If there’s no resolution, you may consider escalating this to your union.

When Your Own Child Struggles in School

Because I’m a teacher, I always assumed my children would do well in school. But my sensitive, loving, kind little girl is really struggling in first grade. We recently had her tested, and she has a specific learning disability in reading. I’m devastated. How do I remain hopeful and helpful when I feel like I’ve failed her?” —Brokenhearted Teacher Mom

Dear B.T.M.,

First of all, I’m sending you a big hug. And I want to reassure you that you have in no way failed your child. Your compassionate, empathetic daughter sounds pretty amazing. Clearly, you’re doing something right. But I can understand how, as a teacher, this news would hit you extra hard, especially knowing what labels can do to kids.

Here’s the good news: your daughter is really young, and early intervention can make a huge difference. Best of all, she has a mom who understands what those test scores mean, what interventions work, and how to advocate for her to get the support she needs. 

But perhaps the most important thing you can do for her is to read together at home and play to her strengths and interests to nurture that love of reading. It seems to me you could both do with a dose of Patricia Polacco.

A Word for Rugs, Not People

Our school office manager continues to use the term ‘Oriental’ to refer to students of Asian descent. I’ve tried to correct her, but she insists it’s acceptable because one of our Chinese students told her it was OK. How should I handle it? —Anti-Racist in Alabama

Dear A.R.I.A.,

Yeah, no. As an Asian American, I find the term archaic and offensive. I’m sure you could find some AAPI folks who disagree with me, but the reality is, “Oriental” is a loaded term—one that’s associated with racist stereotypes. So in a school environment, it’s not acceptable.

Teacher Janice Moy shares, “As someone who self-identifies as Chinese American, the term feels really dated. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone I know use it in conversation in decades. It connotes an exotic otherworld, and continued use of the word perpetuates the othering of Asian people and culture. Why use it when there are preferred terms that don’t carry negative baggage?”

I know you’ve already corrected your colleague, but it’s probably time for a sit-down. Explain why the term is problematic.  If she continues to use the term after you’ve made an attempt to educate, you need to let your administration know. She’s a liability.

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