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Graduate profile: Meeting teachers where they are

A lot of students go into teaching because another great teacher inspired them.

Sarah Marie Catalana

But that's giving them just one person's perspective on teaching, said Sarah Marie Catalana. Her goal, as she begins her career as a teacher educator at Winthrop University in South Carolina this fall, is to help her students understand multiple perspectives on teaching—and use them to learn and grow from their own students.

"Teaching abroad has taught me that students learn differently," said Catalana, who graduates this spring with a doctorate in educational psychology, specializing in gifted and creative education. "I'm really interested in helping students see different perspectives. That's why I love teaching in other countries—education there is a different world."

Catalana landed at the University of Georgia after studying biology and getting her teaching certificate at Wofford College in South Carolina. A class on neuroscience helped her discover the field of educational psychology. "I knew I wanted to do something with creativity," she added.

From there, a summer internship took her to Vanderbilt University, where she was told that if she was interested in delving more into creativity and learning, she should apply to the University of Georgia's College of Education, home to the Torrance Center for Creativity and Talent Development. Her dissertation combines her passion for travel with new techniques she learned while at UGA.

With a focus on "reflection" and "creativity," Catalana found herself inspired by methods used to work with teachers at Athens' Stroud Elementary School. Through the work of Project U-SPARC and faculty members Tarek Grantham and Meg Hines, Catalana realized the importance of arriving at a school asking teachers what they needed—not arriving with an agenda of how you can "help."

"They have been working with Stroud around issues of equity and gifted education, and I was able to see how they went about working with the teachers," she said. "They were able to meet the teachers and students where they are. I really learned from that. The work I've done abroad is a version of the work we did there."

Along with yoga, running and cooking, another of Catalana's passions is traveling. But instead of sightseeing, her trips to Vietnam, Cambodia, Ecuador, Peru, Haiti and Nicaragua have brought her to classrooms to work with teachers. What began as mission trips grew into a sustainable model of asking teachers what they needed, and then working with them to fill the gaps.

The experience has been as much an opportunity for Catalana to learn as it's been a chance to help teachers abroad. This summer, she is returning to Nicaragua to lead a small conference for teachers from different parts of the country. She will be joined by her mother, a teacher, who has been one of Catalana's biggest supporters.

Catalana hopes her trips can expand in the coming years to include her students at Winthrop, giving them a chance to experience education in another culture and open their eyes to different ways to encourage creativity. It will also give her the chance to build off the work she's done for her dissertation, which examined how preservice teachers can truly reflect on their classroom experiences.

"They're told to reflect on that experience, but there are a lot of clichés in their answers," she said. "I looked at the relationship between reflection and creativity, and there are tools to help people think more creatively. I used that to help with reflection."