I was training a tiger to find his seat and stay there . . . one of the first behaviors any circus cat learns. I asked him to get on his seat (which he was doing well) and then walking him around the outer edge of the practice arena before asking him to again go to his seat. Each time he did as he was asked, he got a bit of fresh meat.
The meat was held in a bucket outside the arena by my assistant. When I needed more treats, she would pass a handful of meat tidbits through the mesh of the arena. Then she'd wipe the juice from the meat on a towel and stand ready to assist me in other ways. However, that afternoon she carelessly put the towel on the side of the arena, hanging through the mesh, rather than safely outside the arena.
As the I walked the tiger around the arena's edge once more, he sniffed the meat on the towel and lunged for it. Before we knew it, the towel was now in the tiger's mouth. It seems that the animal knew he shouldn't swallow the towel. But he wasn't about to give it back to me, either. I know; I asked him several times to give it back to me.
I couldn't just leave him there until he got tired of it. First, he'd probably outlast me on that score. Second, the arena was not secure enough to leave him unattended. He needed to be leashed and walked back to his den--impossible without him giving up the towel.
So I tried to throw him a treat, then grab the towel as he jumped at the treat. Not surprisingly, he was a lot faster than me and batted my arm away as I grabbed for the towel. Ooops. His claws were out (a reflex when defending his "kill") and one of claws sank into my wrist and hooked around a tendon. Oops. If it were a case of him batting me away for any other reason, his claws would not have been out. But this time, he accidentally got me.
I knew that if I pulled away, I'd have some serious damage. So I went with his paw as he pulled it back toward him and tried to retract his claws. Thankfully, the claw retracted and I was left with just a puncture . . . and a perfectly intact tendon. Whew. I got up and away safely. Sure, there was a bit of bleeding and some days of serious infection prevention as the wound healed. All I have to show for it now is a small scar . . . and a story.
One of the lessons of that story is that sometimes, it's just a small, seemingly inconsequential, thing that gets in the way of the day's lesson.
For me and my assistant, that towel was a small thing that was not distracting in the least . . . to us. For my tiger, that towel was the most distracting thing in the universe. He could not help but go for that unprotected prize. For all he knew, we were trying to get him to jump for it!
From that day forward, I always inspected every inch of the practice arena before, during, and after every session. Looking for the little things that could distract a cat and cause a potentially life-threatening problem.
There are so many distractions that can exist in a classroom. They may not be distracting to us. At all. But for a variety of reasons that we cannot possibly fathom, there may be something small in the classroom that one or more students simply cannot ignore. Telling them to may not work.
For example, I have a college class with three students who sit near the back of the room and chat quietly during class. I usually cannot hear them. When I do, I automatically tune them out and focus on the day's lesson. However, some (not all) of my students simply cannot focus while the quiet chatter is going on. And if they cannot focus, they cannot learn.
So, like a lion tamer, we teachers need to carefully manage the distractions in our learning environments. For example, I need to pay more attention to the back-of-the-room chatter and do what I can to stop it. We need to consider that even though many students should be able to redirect their focus, sometimes they struggle . . . or they simply follow their instincts before they realize they've drifted away.
What if there are little (or big) distractions you cannot manage? I'll tackle that one in an upcoming post!