Teaching Opinion

We Are All Shamu

By Brenda Power — October 17, 2006 6 min read
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In the education crowd I run with, training is a dirty word. We’re literacy educators, and “training” brings to mind all the crazy operant-conditioning programs from the 1970s and ’80s. B.F. Skinner, pellets, and pigeons somehow led in a zigzag line to reading teachers frantically popping gumdrops into their students’ mouths every time they grunted out the correct phoneme on a flashcard.


I am ambivalent about the word training, no matter its negative history in education. Ballerinas aren’t “facilitated”—they train. Those exquisite leaps come from intense hours of sweat on the barre. Likewise, the regimens of endurance athletes: They don’t just prepare, they train, with all the focus and commitment the word implies.

Maybe that’s why I found myself fascinated with the book Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched, Amy Sutherland’s account of a year observing students in a California school for exotic-animal trainers. The novice trainers Sutherland shadows are on campus seven days a week, balancing coursework in anatomy with grueling hours cleaning and tending animals ranging in size from small rodents to rhinos. The trainers—most in their early 20s, female, and idealistic—reminded me of the prospective teachers I met each fall in the college literacy-methods classes I taught. The lessons Sutherland shares brought me back repeatedly to life in schools, and what we might learn from a teaching zoo:

1. No seal ever learned to balance a ball on its head through nagging.

Trainers reward behaviors they like, and ignore behaviors they don’t. Any positive or negative response provokes more of the behavior, but it fades away quickly if no response is given.

Our colleagues and students train us every day, whether we acknowledge it or not.

In classrooms that hum, I’m amazed at the powers of concentration teachers have—they willfully ignore almost any stimulus in the environment (the autistic child rocking rhythmically, the buses lining up in view outside the window) to focus with precision on the book they are reading aloud, or the word they are savoring in a student’s writing. They discipline themselves to stay in the learning of the moment, and so teach students to stay in that moment.

I also thought of how well colleagues and students trained me over the years by tactfully and thoroughly ignoring behaviors they didn’t want repeated. Invitations to study groups, calls for volunteers for special events—if no one responded, I quit asking. Likewise with enthusiastic responses to throwaway suggestions or activities, which then became part of classroom routines. Our colleagues and students train us every day, whether we acknowledge it or not.

2. Many of the worst injuries at the teaching zoo are inflicted by tools.

A walking stick left too close to a monkey’s cage is used to whack a trainer over the head the next time she passes by; a lock becomes a missile in a baboon’s hand. Think of all the injuries caused over the years in reading and writing instruction by poorly designed programs. We blame our lack of skill or become angry and frustrated with colleagues or students when something isn’t working, when all along it may be the curricular tool that’s harmful.

3. “Animal person” is a compliment and an insult.

Most trainers are “animal people”—they have a special bond with animals. But this sensitivity often doesn’t translate into people skills. Perfectly at home with emus, animal people may struggle in normal social settings. Every school I’ve worked in has at least a couple staff members who are “kid people”—truly gifted at connecting with children, and truly not gifted at communicating and collaborating with colleagues.

4. We change behaviors in others by breaking routines in delightful ways.

Animals crave routines, for the comfort, security, and predictability they provide. Yet new behaviors require changing those routines. The novice trainers are constantly finding small ways to pique the interest of the animals they tend—a new plush toy for the cage, newspapers rolled with food pellets stashed within, a tray of headless birds for a carnivore’s lunch, artfully arranged with a rose garnish. They gain the animal’s interest, and gradually its trust, so that the training can really begin.

The teachers, literacy coaches, and principals I admire most find ways to break the routines of colleagues and students every day with happy, modest surprises. A tiny, wrapped package of cerulean blue Post-its shaped like word bubbles may be all it takes to inspire a teacher to create a new way of marking text during comprehension activities. A homemade cake, lopsided with icing, may wake up a teacher book-study group that is in a rut. School leaders create a sense that their community is handcrafted. They are geniuses at details, sparking inspiration with subtle, thoughtful stimuli provided daily.

I was most touched by the story in the book of an impatient and short-tempered young trainer, Mary, who is determined to touch Starsky the cavy (a type of guinea pig). Starsky is skittish and uncommunicative—not a terribly attractive or distinguished beast.

The irony is that animal trainers, like teachers, are driven by intrinsic motivation.

Mary sits quietly for hours, days, weeks … moving closer, inch by inch, carefully tempting Starsky with pellets from a spoon. As the months pass, and still she sits, and still he cowers or hides, I wondered how much of our attempt to change behaviors in others is about discovering more about ourselves. What must someone as energetic and hurried as Mary learn through weeks of enforced calm? Think of all the remarkable achievements in classrooms that can’t be seen, let alone celebrated, by anyone but a teacher. Aren’t those the achievements we prize most of all?

Author Susan Ohanian recounts the story of her first year of high school English teaching long ago, when a kindly professor came to observe. He noticed a girl reading a newspaper sitting near him in the back of the room while Ohanian was presenting her lesson. The professor gently admonished the girl, “Shouldn’t you be paying attention to your teacher?” The girl looked at him and replied, “Who the hell are you?” before turning back to her newspaper.

Ohanian explained that this was a student who would not read, perhaps could not read, for months. Sitting in the back of the room and reading a newspaper was a triumph for her, but this wasn’t behavior a visitor could appreciate.

Who the hell are we to judge how big an achievement it is to touch the fur of a beady-eyed rodent? In any given classroom at this moment there is a teacher setting an impossible goal for a student, calculating how she might change that student. Yet the change will be virtually impossible to notice. Tyrone, who declares in September he hates poetry, will smile and enjoy a poem by the end of the year. Even if it takes 46 attempts by his determined teacher to find the poem he will love.

The irony is that animal trainers, like teachers, are driven by intrinsic motivation. The long hours and lousy pay provide little in the way of external rewards—and novice trainers have to shovel mountains of poop each week to boot. They endure because the teaching zoo, like any thriving school, is a mesmerizing place. Sutherland notes that her time there leaves her changed, and her words are echoed by anyone who spends sustained time in classrooms: “For who can spend any time within a magical kingdom, even a flawed one, and not return to the black-and-white world changed, if only by knowing that the seemingly impossible does exist?”

In the first crisp weeks of fall, we grow accustomed again to the jarring sound of alarm clocks and intercoms buzzing as we get back into the rhythms of the school day. Between the bells and endless deli trays of doughnuts, fruits, and sandwiches showing up at every orientation or parent open house, it can feel like we haven’t evolved much beyond clickers and buckets of chum when it comes to motivation and behavior. Yet as I rethink what it means to train, I’m reminded that how we learn, and influence the learning of others, is always more complex than we realize. And also more simple. We are forever trainer and trainee; training and being trained. To reject the concept of training because it’s been so thoroughly abused in literacy education closes a window into learning with a uniquely fascinating view.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 2006 edition of Education Week as We Are All Shamu


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