The teacher as catalyst

Written by: Simona Anca Mazilu

Ralph Waldo Emerson once stated:

“What lies behind and what

lies before us are tiny matters

compared to what lies within us” (1)

and the wisdom of his words has never faded. It has also continued to reveal another outstanding yet simple truth: we are the only ones who can use our ability. It is at this level of self-realization that the teacher’s role can work wonders in terms of teacher-learner development, and furthermore, in terms of long-term human growth for both.

In this light, teachers have an awesome responsibility: they will be the ones “to plant” a series of hope, success, happiness, faith, and enthusiasm “seeds”; to “water” and “fertilize” these seeds and even add a few more. By the end of school, the “crop” will be ready for “harvesting” to the degree and in the amount expected as a result of the teaching acting as catalyst throughout. Mention should be made that this is a P.M.A. (Positive Mental Attitude) approach, or rather a P.L.A. (Positive Life Attitude) one. It is the power of positive believing which is the necessary ingredient for converting positive thinking into positive action.This the only way to have complete success – which I will define and address as we go along.

I am not implying that the tips in this article will change the history of the teaching world or that their effect will be a soon-to-see dramatic one. And yet, they will do the trick for us; they will work…magic. On one condition, though: we ourselves, as teachers, need to be an integral part of this programme. That is, if we apply it, first and foremost, ourselves. If we understand that we need to move away from being mere “preachers” or theoreticians. Unless our students perceive us as persistent and consistent DOERS of the “numbers” of our own programme first,the miracle will never happen. And that, for a good reason, obviously.

Until we face the reality of how we affect others, we may continue to find out that our teaching – or even life itself -are not what we want them to be, and then it is easy to be seduced into blaming everything and everybody else (the course-book, the syllabus, the class size,  the students, or the education system itself). It is human nature to do so. We are constantly under pressure and our life is hectic most of the time, but the biggest problem of all occurs when we externalize inner issues, and when we continue to search on the outside for solutions that are on the inside.(2) Therefore, it is imperative that we start with ourselves. The following words were written on the tomb of an Anglican Bishop in the Crypts of Westminster Abbey:

“When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits, I dreamed of changing the world. As I grew older and wiser, I discovered the world would not change, so I shortened my sights somewhat and decided to change only my country. But it, too, seemed immovable. As I grew into my twilight years, in one last attempt, I settled for changing only my family, those closest to me, but alas, they would have none of it. And now as I lie on my death bed, I suddenly realize: ‘If I had only changed my self first, then, by example, I would have changed my family. From their inspiration and encouragement, I would then have been able to better my country and, who knows, I may have even changed the world.”
(Anonymous)

In other words, a teacher’s “responsibility” si first of all their “response-ability,” their own behavioral patterns and  types of reaction to the various stimuli and life’s distractions on the way.

To enable a better grasp of the teacher-as-catalyst issue, I will start from a vision that I have shared with my students in one of my teaching activities. It is from Zig Ziglar’s See You at the Top (3), an inspirational best seller whose strong motivational quality is bound to do a lot for any one person who reads – and applies! – its principles. It not only pumps our learners up, it builds them, truly affecting their lives in a positive manner.

Draw the following picture in your mind: facing the student is an elevator to the top, which reads OUT-OF-ORDER, and a stairway to the top (which can be symbolic of self-accomplishment in life itself).

The stairway is made up of several steps, each bearing a specific name. They read:

  • Self-image
  • Relationship with others
  • Attitude
  • Work
  • Desire.

Facing the highest step, there is a door, above which there is an inscription in bold letters: TOMORROW. On the door, one can read:

  • Health
  • Wealth
  • Happiness
  • Friends
  • Growth
  • Peace
  • Security
  • Leisure
  • Freedom
  • Opportunity.

Of course, any other dreams can be freely added to the list, according to one’s personal value system. They are likely to turn into dreams come true sooner or later, provided one dares to make their own decision. They can choose to wait until the elevator gets repaired ( which may take for ever) or they can resolve to use the stairway to the top, climbing one step at a time, till they reach their destination.

Are they going to stare up the steps, or step up the stairs? It’s all in their hands, and it only takes an option – the right one… for them under our guidance as catalysts. This vision or mind picture will make the framework of the matter we are looking into, so that everything falls into place and makes sense. Our role as catalysts ( i.e.”persons who are acting as stimuli in bringing about or hastening a result “- Webster; or persons precipitating a change – Oxford Reference Dictionary) will start with the self-image step, which is not by chance placed at the foundation of our stairway to the top.

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    Self-image

  • academic achievements or school records;
  • mathematical, linguistic, musical, artistic, physical, interpersonal, intrapersonal skills – corresponding to the seven intelligences, according to Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences;
  • appearance;
  • attitudes;
  • personality;
  • initiative, etc.

Even though it is the first in the flight, it will continue to make itself noticed and influence the “climb” either way (upwards or downwards) throughout their entire life. The importance of our students’ self-image comes into play from their very first school day, leaving a particular mark on their “response-ability.”

It will thus be all the more reassuring to make it a point of helping them realize, as they take the first step up the Stairway to the top, that they are stepping out of the crowd at the bottom. The next step will be easier and the view will be better, as the perspective, even though not yet dramatically changed, will never be the same.
Here is what I did and worked wonders in terms of a healthy self-image for both teachers and students..
Apart from providing them with the necessary information about school, classes in my teaching assignment, timetable, textbooks and state expectations
(i.e. “the multi-layered goals in education <4 >), I imparted to them the great feeling of relief that set in when I began to understand that a youngster needs more than just subject matter. I know English well, and I teach it well, and I used to think that was all I needed to do. Now, I’ve grown to teach children or teenagers or young adults, not English, and I accept the fact that I can only succeed partially with some of them.
When I don’t have to know all the answers, I seem to have more answers than when I tried to be the expert.

We teach students a host of different issues in the curriculum, but do we also teach them WHAT THEY ARE? We should say to each of them:
Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. You have the capacity for anything.”


Henry Ford once stated:

“Whether you think you CAN or you think you CAN’T, YOU’RE RIGHT.”(5)

The teacher as manipulator will have to concentrate on instilling in their learners the “I think I can” philosophy.

“Where success is concerned, people are not measured in inches, pounds, or college degrees, or family  backgrounds; they are measured by the size of their
thinking. How big we think determines the size of our accomplishments.Philosophers for thousands of years have issued good advice :’Know Thyself.’ But most people, it seems, interpret this suggestion :’Know Only  Thy Negative Self.’ Most self-evaluations consist of making long mental lists of one’s faults, shortcomings, inadequacies.”(6)

Though it is well to know our inabilities, for this reveals to us areas in which we can improve, knowing only our negative characteristics will turn our lives into a mess and point out our smallness.
To eliminate this negative thinking and make room for the P.M.A. and P.L.A., which occur at a superior level of the Stairway to the Top – after working with our students in order for them to build their relationships with others as   well as their goals and thus climb the next three steps  towards the door that opens up to a bright Tomorrow – the teacher as catalyst may conduct the following two exercises at the onset of  the teaching adventure with their students, or any other time when thought necessary :
1)   The “I Can’t Funeral:” teachers fill pieces of paper with “I cant’s,” fold them in half and bring them to the front, where they place their “I can’t” statements into an empty shoe-box, for example. The teacher will put a lid on the box and remove it from sight;
2)   The activity entitled: “You’re Bigger Than You Think”
Teacher to class: Determine your 5 chief assets. Invite some objective friend to help – possibly a teacher – some intelligent person who will give you an honest opinion. Examples of assets frequently listed are: Next, under each asset, write the names of three persons you know who have achieved large success, but do not have the particular asset to as great a degree as you. When you have completed this exercise, you will find out that you outrank many successful people on at least one asset.
There is only one conclusion you can honestly reach: YOU’RE BIGGER THAN YOU THINK. So, fit your thinking to your true size. Think as big as you really are, and never, never, never, sell yourself short!
Therefore, the first exercise is meant to clear students’ mind of its negative thinking through an attempt to physically get it out of their system, whereas the second is done to help them measure their real size through depositing only positive thoughts in their memory bank or by counting their blessings.
Once we see a student’s self-image start to improve, we will notice significant gains in achievement areas, but even more importantly, we will discover a person who is beginning to enjoy school more as we move further on.

Note: A “Self-Esteem Inventory” (see the accompanying sample, a product of the SEA/Self-Esteem Seekers Anonymous Program) administered at the beginning of the teaching journey with one class or another – especially as advisory teachers – may prove to be a valuable tool for discovering our own students’ positive or negative self-evaluations. After taking measures in order to significantly improve their perception of themselves, via activities similar to the two exercises mentioned above, the same “Self-Esteem Inventory” will be administered for comparison-contrast reasons. It will be interesting to find if they have changed their answers as a result of the transformation they are expected to have experienced under the guidance of their teacher. In case there is evidence testifying to such a change, then, indeed, their teacher has acted as catalyst. That will be one of the true, palpable measures of successful teaching. Needless to say that, using their own ingenuity and creativity, teachers will be able to devise and/or conduct activities that will make a whole world of difference in their students’ lives.

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Relationship with Others

Inseparable from their self-image, stemming from it and constantly feeding on it, is students’ relationship with others, especially with their peers and with their teacher as partners who share a common goal in the educational process.
The significance of this “second step” on the stairway in our vision of success becomes particularly conspicuous
when teacher and students gradually build a relationship conducive to learning, via counselling.
In Donald J. Schon’s view, this “begins with the explicit or implicit establishment of a contract that sets expectations for the dialogue: What will’teacher’ and ‘student’ give to and get from each other?How will they hold each other accountable? These questions are not answered once and for all at the beginning (although early interactions may set the tone for later ones) but are continually being raised and resolved in new ways…”(7)
Person-oriented, both prospective (guiding towards future patterns of behaviour) and retrospective (sensitive to existing attributes and concerns), counselling is a means of assisting an individual in the correction or development of their learning skills and habits.Yet, “in whatever field it is applied, it also has the important
connotation of therapy, making well or offering mental ease”(8), thus involving the notions of diagnosis ( based on HORACE: Hear- Observe – Record – Analyse – Consider- Evaluate) and remedy.
If the teacher succeeds as therapist, their students will discover that learning is more fun when they are planning, working, and even performing with a peer who truly cares about what happens on the way, out of a sense of belonging to a team pursuing a common goal.

Goals

The next step on the Stairway to the Top is represented by goals.                         MAY…
The teacher as catalyst:  CAN…             be an
SHOULD…     inspiration, a
role model
MUST…
If students know where they are going, they are half-way there. In the game of life, they will discover, as they set their goals and unlock their mind, that the world will unlock its treasures and rewards to them. Realistically, most locked doors are in the mind. If they want to reach their goal, they must see the reaching in their mind before they actually arrive at their goal. We should emphasize that what they get by reaching their goals is not nearly as Important as what they become by reaching them. With the completion of  this segment, we are on step number four.

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Attitude

Things are not only possible but entirely probable with the right mental attitude. We should foster the opinion that their attitude, as they undertake a project, is the dominant factor in its success. In short, their attitude is more important than their aptitude. There are many facets to the subject of attitude. One of them concerns optimism: An optimist is a person who, when he wears out his shoes, just figures he’s back on his feet.”
A positive attitude on the part of the teacher will have positive results on students, because attitudes are contagious. One such attitude is enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is not just a feeling; it is a moral duty and a way of life. Both teachers and learners need to stay excited on their way to the top. Each one faces frustration, heartache, disappointment, despondency and defeat. The difference in accomplishment is the result of a different reaction to the negatives of life: it’s the when-you-get-down-get-up type of attitude or “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

Work

Now, students are well on their way up, and they are enjoying every step of it. And this progress is only possible as a result of the long-term work, persistence and consistence of both teacher and students, through  steady counselling and dedication to a common goal.

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Desire

It is the ingredient that makes the difference between an average performer and a champion. The big day has arrived, at last! There they are standing in front of the glass doors of TOMORROW. All they need is a little push to open them. Indeed, success is a journey, not a destination. I would like to conclude with a poem that I find particularly revealing for the teacher-as-catalyst issue:

On Learning

Learning is finding out

what you already know.

Doing is demonstrating

that you know it.

Teaching is reminding

others that they know it

just as well as you.

You are all learners.

doers, teachers.

(Richard Bach)

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Bibliography

  1. Zig Ziglar, See You at the Top ( Gretna: Pelican Publishing Company, 1996 ), 9.
  2. Adrian Underhill, Teacher Development, ( Plenary Talk, Best of British ELT, T.D. Newsletter ), 17.
  3. Zig Ziglar, See You at the Top
  4. Angi Malderez, “What Is Pre-service Teacher Education?” Together, 1997: 3;1996:4
  5. Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, Chicken Soup for the soul (Florida: Health Communications,1993), 153.
  6. David J. Schwartz, The Magic of Thinking Big (New York:Simon & Schuster, 1983), 66.
  7. Donald J. Schon, The Reflective Practitioner ( London, Temple Smith, 1983), 27
  8. Roger Bowers, Developing Perceptions of the Classroom, Verbal Behaviour in the Language Teaching Classroom ( University of Reading:Ph.D Thesis, 1980) 56.
  9. Richard Bach, On Learning, Chicken Soup for the Soul ( Florida:Health Communications, 1993) 121.

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