Being A Catalyst, II

For teachers, a day with students can be long and tiring, but it’s nowhere near as long and tiring as a day without students, a day of endless meetings.  For me and the rest of the World Languages Curriculum Team, Monday was a long-meeting day.  There’s a staff development session coming up soon, so we had to talk about – and plan for – our sessions that morning.  And we had to make some small-scale, but important decisions: what “technology tools” would we feature in the tech-oriented session, what performance tasks would we ask our colleagues to analyze, then attempt to complete.  And how would they analyze them?  To what extent would we need to address digital citizenship and copyright issues?  How much prior knowledge, if any, should we assume from our audience?

Planning to teach teachers isn’t that much different from planning to teach students … but in a continuing class, you know things about students’ prior knowledge.  You know what to assume … and what not to assume.  I’ve known my Latin colleagues long enough, worked with them on similar tasks enough, to know that their background knowledge is strong.  But for my counterparts, faced with a different group of Sra. X’s and Sr. Y’s each time, this kind of planning can be an exercise in frustration.  Watching them, helping them, stepping back from the conversation when they needed to talk about things that just aren’t an issue for my little group – it all made for a long, tiring day.

There were times when I was deeply engaged in the conversation, but at other times I felt oddly detached.  I was tired from my long, eventful Sunday, and I was tired of the endlessly circling conversations that start in a group like ours when That Issue – Sra. X, who’s so negative, or Sra. Y, who pretends to be helpless – comes up again and again.  And I was thinking about my students, about what it’s like to have a substitute teacher on an exciting Monday when there’s a big field trip, so one whole grade level would be preparing to go or going or recovering from going all day.

I did receive some good-looking Edmodo posts from students on Monday, both during the day and into the evening … but others, who (at least from my perspective) really needed to submit something, submitted nothing.

And Tuesday (today, if you’re reading this post “live”) is Spring Picture Day, another exciting time because you get to dress up – or down, or differently.  And when there are lots of interruptions: Ms. X’s advisory group or Mr. Y’s first-period class gets called down for pictures.  And it’s raining steadily this morning, too.  Perhaps Ms. X and Mr. Y are fretting about that already; perhaps they’ve forgotten and will fuss when those announcements start.  But I still feel oddly detached from it all.

Maybe  I like the image of teacher as catalyst because a catalyst, too, is oddly detached.  It helps the reaction along, but in the end emerges, unchanged and seemingly unaffected unlike the reagents it served.  It’s a participant-observer, I suppose, if a molecule can fill that role.

And I like being a participant-observer.  I like being in the moment, but not caught up in the moment.  If catalysts could think abstractly, I wonder if they’d enjoy their role … or if they would long for a different form of involvement in the complex dance of electrons around them.

Sometimes, in the heat of classroom moments, detachment is really important.  As a young teacher, I was stung when a student yelled at me, “You care too much!”  I thought she was wrong … and in some ways, I still do.  It’s a terrible thing to have a teacher – or other significant adult in your life – who doesn’t care.  But X was right about one thing: it is possible to care too much, get too closely entangled, provide too little space for learners’ own voices and choices.

On a good day, a Ms. X might call that “really caring” or “supporting” or “being a good teacher;” on a bad day, she’d yell and label about her “helpless and dependent” students.  But over-protection can be as pernicious as neglect.  In embracing the catalyst role, I hope I’ve found a Via Media between the extremes of caring too much and caring too little.  But then I look at my oddly-detached self and I wonder if I’ve succeeded.

My Monday evening book group has been reading Philip Yancey’s book Soul Survivor;  yesterday we discussed his chapter on Dr. Robert Coles.  As Yancey portrays him, Coles the researcher into children’s lives successfully straddled those roles of participant and observer – but he was keenly aware of the potential pitfalls and contradictions.  Am I sufficiently aware?

Debbie raised a profound point in her response to yesterday’s post:

my version is : “mentor” vs “teacher”.

In a non-related discussion, someone posted this:
“Advice” and “Instruction” are very closely related, though there is a difference.
Advice still leaves the one who is receiving it the option to accept or dismiss that advice.
Instruction, on the other hand, is the complete step by step process from beginning to end. This requires the one receiving instruction to abdicate their own judgement and trust the sole instructions of the giver.
IMO, some folks confuse these two terms and get their feelings hurt from the resulting misunderstanding.

Mentor / catalyst is about guiding, expanding on opportunities etc.

I’ve never been fond of instruction as Debbie’s friend defined it – which probably sounds odd from a veteran teacher.  But I don’t think anyone is truly qualified to deliver that kind of instruction, and I’m not sure anyone should accept it unquestioningly, either.  As part of a Joyful Learning Community, we all have things to contribute, perspectives to share.  We all have times to talk and times to listen.  Do we all have times to be catalysts and times to be reagents, too?

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Published in: on February 26, 2013 at 11:20 am  Leave a Comment  

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