Meet the teachers’ pets: Whitman teachers bring four-legged friends to the classroom


Photo courtesy Rebecca Zatz

Spanish teacher Rebecca Zatz’ mini goldendoodle, Leo, sticks his tongue out for the picture.

By Manuela Montoya

As students fill Whitman’s hallways for their journey between classes, they don’t only find footprints tracked along Whitman’s floor tiles; the occasional paw print may appear as well, and a stray bark often penetrates the constant sound of human voices traveling throughout the halls. Teachers have invited their furry friends into their classrooms to vanquish stress, ease tension and bring joy to Whitman students, who look forward to greeting a new loyal companion.

Leo the mini goldendoodle

Since the beginning of the second quarter, Leo — Spanish teacher Rebecca Zatz’s mini goldendoodle — has greeted students with his tongue sticking out and a lively wagging tail.

In July 2020, Zatz welcomed a new born Leo into her family. After students begged for photos of the puppy, the Spanish teacher decided to bring Leo on what her classes call “Therapy Dog Thursdays,” to brighten up her classroom.

At school, students enjoy petting and cuddling Leo, and often take him out for walks — attention that Leo clearly enjoys, Zatz said. 

“I’m always appreciative of how much the students really gravitate towards him,” Zatz said. “Especially in a time where students are really focused on technology, I feel like it’s a good way to bring people together.”

Back at home, Leo enjoys dashing in his wide backyard, playing fetch and spending time with his two sisters. The puppy maintains a high-profile social media presence on his Instagram account @la_vida_leo, where Zatz regularly posts pictures and student artwork of Leo. Zatz plans to continue “Therapy Dog Thursdays” into the next school year, especially to support students during stressful testing periods, she said.

“He always keeps me happy,” Zatz said. “He’s here even when you’ve had a bad day. For me, animals have always been a common source that just brings happiness and joy.”

Frankie the French bulldog

Chorus teacher Michelle Kim’s French bulldog, Frankie, relaxes under the sun. (Photo courtesy Michelle Kim)

Every day, chorus teacher Michelle Kim’s French bulldog Frankie trots into the chorus room where he settles in his den. Kim and her husband fell in love with Frankie last June after they visited a bulldog breeder in Rockville.

“He’s just the cutest little boy,” Kim said. “He’s got a quirky little personality and his cute little face. I just love him.”

Frankie spends his time at school resting in a toy-scattered corner and listening to the choir, and when he’s not in the classroom the French bulldog frequently attempts to play with Kim’s cat, Fifi.

“He’s very loving of human attention,” Kim said. “[Frankie] wants attention all the time and does not like to be by himself.”

Shortly after Frankie joined Kim’s family, the French bulldog began training to be a support dog for Whitman students. 

“When the students come in, they’re anxious,” Kim said. “They see him and they smile and he brings a bright spot to their day. If they’re stressed out, they can hold him or pet him and he’s really good at calming people down.”

Franklin the Russian tortoise

Algebra teacher Steven Koppel’s Russian tortoise, Franklin, munches on cucumber during lunch. (Photo courtesy Manuela Montoya)

In Algebra teacher Steven Koppel’s classroom, a small tortoise munches on fresh cucumber and patiently observes classes. Franklin is the Math Department’s Russian tortoise, and is named after the children’s animated show “Franklin.”

Koppel adopted Franklin eight years ago after his daughter’s teacher asked the Koppels to take care of their tortoise over spring break. After the break ended, Koppel and his family asked to keep Franklin and soon after, the Algebra teacher brought Franklin into his classroom for the “companionship, the novelty and the fun,” he said.

“[The students] love him,” Koppel said. “Sometimes they bring in food for Franklin — fresh vegetables only.”

Unlike Whitman’s dogs, Franklin spends the night at his “tortoise house,” a specially-designed open wooden box in the classroom that contains lights and a timed heat lamp. Franklin also spends his winter and spring breaks in the classroom, equipped with plenty of food and water in his house. The 12-year-old tortoise and the Algebra teacher will continue to keep each other company for many years to come.

“It’s a bit of work to bring him back and forth for the summer but it’s good to have him now,” Koppel said.

Steven the betta fish

Algebra teacher Michael Stebbins’ class betta fish, Steven, swims in his tank on the fourth floor. (Photo courtesy Manuela Montoya)

On the fourth floor, a lustrous blue fish swims in his tank, watching from a carefully positioned habitat on Algebra teacher Michael Stebbins’ shelf as he teaches his classes. Each day, Steven, the betta fish, greets Stebbins’ students who have accepted him as a trusted class companion.

Stebbins named Steven after his former student Steven Duncan Peters (‘11), whose “factoring binomial” method is still popular among students today.

On April Fool’s Day, Steven’s apparent disappearance left many students distraught in Stebbins’ morning classes. Luckily, the perpetrators returned the missing fish to his tank by eighth period unharmed, Stebbins said.

Although he’s only spent a few months in the classroom, many students will miss their aquatic friend when they switch math teachers in the fall.

“I think it’s always nice to go over and check him out every morning,” Stebbins said. “He never leaves the tank, but he’s the smartest kid in the class.”


A previous version of this article contained incorrect details about Leo. The Black & White regrets the error.