Being a Catalyst, I

Many years ago, when I was a young teacher, there was a long staff-development workshop where, among other things, everyone was asked to describe his or her image or metaphor of “what teaching means to me.”  I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember lots of filling of pails, a few lighting of fires, and quite a few planting and tending gardens.  And I remember I wasn’t satisfied with my image … whatever it was.  “Must work on this,” I said to myself … but then I got busy with other things.

Years later, but years ago, an Episcopal priest told me that her image of her ministry is a prism.  By her words and actions, she hopes to refract the Indescribable in such a way that others can catch a glimpse.  That conversation reminded me of my unfinished business with my image of teaching … but then I got busy with other things.

But unexpectedly, over the past few days, an image has come into focus.  By Sunday evening, it was crystal-clear.  As a teacher, I serve as a catalyst, helping various reactions happen (both within and among my students).  Reactions that might not happen at all under those conditions – or might take a lot longer – if the catalyst wasn’t there.  Reactions of joy and learning and community.

It’s a humbling image, but also an exciting one.

As my students worked on their Major Assessment Collaborative Responses and did their Individual Response tasks Friday, I had time and space to observe the positive changes that the Latin Family had catalyzed in them since last August.  Most were not purely academic changes, either.  For some students, there hasn’t been much academic progress recently.  It’s hard to do new things in January and February when your elementary and middle-school experience meant that “remediation and review” for high-stakes testing started then.  For bright, capable students who had learned the material the first time – for most of my students, in other words, even though Ms. X may have yelled at them for “being bad and lazy” and “not paying attention to the review” – it would have been easy to tune out … and they followed the well-worn path.

But faced with an unfamiliar reading passage, and faced with the prompt to “tell me what you understood in this passage,” they were able to see for themselves the effects of their choices.  “What will you need to do differently?” I asked several times … and everyone had a good sense of what he or she did need to change, what needed to stay the same.  That’s when I started thinking about catalysts.

“Thank you,” said B, K, D, and K on Friday afternoon, after I thanked them for their hard work.  I was impressed with their progress – but they’re not satisfied, and they see what they need to change to get the results they now want.  That’s when the catalyst image started to get clearer.

There wasn’t much catalysis on Saturday; it was mostly a day of laundry, reading, and napping, with a few conversations with friends.  But Sunday was a busy, eventful day, and the image got clearer.  I spent much of the day on the road. My daughter was involved in North Carolina’s Eastern Regional High School Orchestra, and Durham, the location for this year’s concert, is a solid 90-mile drive.  I had lunch with one of my recent “Latin Family” alums before the concert.  After the concert, I had dinner with a “Latin Family” alum who graduated before I had any children, then received a long-expected and highly positive email, then headed home to answer it and write this post.

And all day long the image of catalyst kept getting clearer.  It was there in the email; it was implicit in the morning’s sermon; it showed up in the lunch and dinner conversations.  Catalysts everywhere!  Debbie shared a catalyst story in her response to Friday’s post, too:

I was asked last night by a friend to help her with a presentation she is going to be doing. She wanted my input on a chart re: change.

Vision + Knowledge + Incentive + Resource + Action Plan = Change
No vision = Confusion
No Knowledge  = Anxiety
No Incentive = Resistance
No Resources = Frustration
No Plan = Treadmill.

My input was primarily on “Incentive” –> if we don’t believe in the vision we are lost. For the factory environment “incentive” typically means the dangling carrot, some financial gain,… “what’s in it for me”. I believe that the incentive, or motivation, has to be intrinsic. It needs to be the commitment to the greater good of today and the future.

If the teachers don’t believe in working together, in the need to be motivated, refocused, and part of a team then they won’t be involved.
If they are looking for that dangling carrot, the “what’s in it for me” then their goal won’t be the students but their own benefit.

This same issue lies within the classroom, within family homes, within the community and society at large. But I believe that we are in the shift, we are struggling to see the vision, to share the knowledge, to lose the grip on the brass ring and focus on the greater good, to share resources, and to create a plan that we all believe in, we all contribute to, and we all benefit from.

Vision, Knowledge, Incentives, Resources, a Plan.  At each step of the process, you might need a catalyst to help things along.   But a world with nothing but catalysts would be a strange, difficult world; there are many diverse roles to play in a joyful community.

As a teacher, as a learner, are you a catalyst … or something else?  What’s your central image of teaching and learning, and how does it affect the work you do?

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Published in: on February 25, 2013 at 10:59 am  Comments (2)  

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  1. Hi Justin, You’ve been a catalyst for me too–helping me to see the intricacies in place in schools today, the small matters that represent factory model schools and the wonderful changes that can move us to new models and better effect. I thank you for that. Now you’ve got me thinking about the metaphor that defines my work–probably like you, a strong metaphor will arrive at the right time. When that happens, I’ll share. Have a great day!

    • Maureen, I’m so glad to know that! You’ve been a catalyst for me as well.


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