Only those of my pets that enjoy attention visit school. My dog has come for an afternoon, enjoyed a long walk (with pooper-scooper) and lain at my feet at story time. But it's my guinea pigs, rabbits and cockatiel who usually join me at work. The guinea pigs and rabbits live in pairs and do not object to long, peaceful nights in the classroom during the week they are in school. The cockatiel visits for a day. She loves company and it would be unkind to leave her overnight. She is used to the classroom and is perfectly relaxed sitting on her cage, on my shoulder or on a chair back. She will walk around the children when they gather on the carpet, inspecting the soles of their shoes and trying to pull their laces out. The children are taught to use just one finger to stroke her and are even able to see her "ears" when scratching her head.
Apart from curriculum areas, pets are also good icebreakers with new parents. First I gain the child's interest, then they drag mum and dad in to see the pets. Before they know it, they are chatting over non-threatening topics about how cute the guinea pigs are and what pets they keep. When the day comes that I may need to speak to them about more important matters, we are already on comfortable chatting terms.
I also run an after-school pet club for older children. Each week in the first term we look at a particular species and discuss its characteristics and needs. A local pet shop loans me suitable animals and equipment so that the children can meet a variety of species and the specialist housing they may need. And a local cat charity brings in friendly kittens and explains the charity's work.
We then focus on the ones I own and the children can clean, feed, groom and handle them. The idea is to give them a taste of the responsibility of pet ownership; the dirty, messy jobs as well as the cuddles and fun. We have discussions and quizzes about animals and the children increase their general knowledge and practical skills. They become more aware of their responsibilities as pet owners.
I want to use my interest in animals to help the next generation of pet keepers to be a little wiser than many are now. The pet club and my contact with parents enables me to pass on information: did you know, for instance, that 90 per cent of a rabbit's diet should be hay or grass? The mixed food or pellets should only be the icing, not the cake, yet how many owners stuff their bunnies with all sorts of goodies and give some hay as an afterthought?
Although I am a teacher and do have pets at school, I am on the side of the animals; we can use them to enhance learning, but they deserve an educated ownership, too.
Kay McKinney is the reception class teacher at St Luke's C of E primary in Chadderton, Oldham