“I came across the Life Changer of the Year designation and the first person I thought of was Cate Woods.”
So says Dawn Mawhinney, Principal of Technology High School in Rohnert Park, who nominated Catherine Woods as a Life Changer of the Year.
Life Changer of the Year is an annual program recognizing educators and school employees nationwide. The program honors those who make a significant difference in students’ lives by demonstrating excellence, positive influence and leadership. The program is sponsored and run by National Life Group and the National Life Group Foundation.
“I have some amazing teachers here, but Cate Woods really dedicated herself last year to the approach with students that would really help them in a variety of ways,” says Mawhinney. “She did a lot with trying to develop culture on campus and has impacted countless student lives in positive ways. She has changed the way our school cares and gives a voice to students that may not otherwise have one.”
While the focus at Technology High School is high academics, particularly in the STEM subjects, the school also wanted to establish other important values on campus, focus on equity in acceptance, retain students of all genders, races and identities and build a sense of community.
Since STEM is still a male dominated field, the school is striving for equality in numbers and support for the female students, which currently stand at about 40 percent of the student population. Woods is co-advisor to the Fearless Females Club, which gives students a platform to share their experiences, dreams and challenges in a male dominated field of study. They explore studies and current issues surrounding women’s quest for equality, and how important it is to cultivate talented scientists, regardless of gender, race or identity.
Woods is also co-advisor to the Gay Straight Alliance Club, which is a club that allows students to express their voice on personal issues and discuss greater issues in society. It’s an environment of understanding where LGBTQ students feel supported to be themselves in front of their peers, often times before coming out to their families.
Woods also started a restorative justice program at Technology High School. The idea came to her when she was working on the subject as part of her Master’s Degree. Traditionally, restorative justice is a system of criminal justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large. However, the idea has grown in the area of education as an effective way of building community and resolving conflicts.
“The idea that supports it is that people in authority are trained and then everyone is trained,” says Woods. “You use a method of communicating where everyone sits in a circle. The philosophy is that you get past assigning blame and go to how you can move forward; how you can heal people who have been hurt and how the person whose behavior may have hurt somebody, how they can be held accountable.”
To that end, Woods started a program last year called the “Restorative Practice Peer Mentors.” Interested students, mainly seniors, would sign up and were then trained on how to facilitate these kinds of peer groups. They also learned effective communication skills, particularly in collaborative group type settings where they learned how to state differing opinions while listening to the other side and remaining respectful.
“After just a few trainings my peer mentors came back and said, ‘Oh my gosh, I did this with my family the other day – this is amazing!’”, says Woods.
The program has had a lot of support from the Sonoma County Office of Education and the Cotati Rohnert Park Unified School District and is planned to continue. The program was truly tested shortly after the fires. After the campus closed and students were scattered for a couple weeks, the school decided to initiate restorative circles in the classrooms upon return to the school. Many of the teachers had not been trained so some of the peer mentors stepped up and led the circles. In addition, three students who had been trained as peer mentors but had graduated last year came back to help with the circles. Amazingly, two of those graduates themselves had lost their homes but still came back to help the younger students heal from the trauma of the fires.
“It was really powerful,” says Woods. “These guys were more directly affected and had lost everything. But they wanted to come back and wanted to help other people heal. They said they found it healing. It’s just a wonderful program. We felt it improved the school community which is what it’s designed to do.”
Woods has been teaching for 15 years, most of that time being in the Cotati Rohnert Park School District. She has been at Technology High School for eight years, teaching English to 9th-graders, AP English Literature to 12th-graders-C and drama classes.
“I really like working with teenagers,” says Woods. “It’s my top choice of age groups because they’re just really great to work with and I really like being at the high school. I like the energy of the students. I like learning new things everyday myself, and the creativity of figuring out how to make content interesting. It’s very creative in every moment.”