Powell teacher offers her students lessons and a role model based on demanding workouts

Amanda Cataneo explains a lesson to her students during a first period class at Powell Elementary (photo: Jim Arvantes).

by Jim Arvantes
Guest contributor

Amanda Cataneo works as a second grade teacher at Powell Elementary School in Petworth, teaching her students reading, writing and problem-solving skills with a strict but compassionate precision. She leads a dual life, one part devoted to education and teaching, the other dedicated to cross training, lifting weights and staying in superb shape.

Outside of the classroom, Cataneo pursues her other life, working out five times a week at Petworth Fitness, a CrossFit gym, where she does cardio, conditioning exercises and lifts weights – lots of heavy weights.

Cataneo can dead lift 205 pounds and clean and jerk 125 pounds. She can also clean and snatch 90 pounds and back squat 165 pounds. Not bad for a person who stands five foot six and weighs 130 pounds.

Each year, Cataneo participates in a CrossFit competition held at a different venue in the United States. In one competition held in DC, Cataneo and a workout partner took home first place honors. In November, she competed in a competition in Boston, finishing with a personal best of 110 pounds in an overhead squat. For Cataneo, the biggest competition has always been with herself.

“Every time my numbers go up it is a feeling of that hard work paying off,” she said.

Cataneo lifting at the gym (photo: J.D. Knight)

“This is something I do for my peace of mind – for my health,” says Cataneo. “There are definitely personal goals that I have, weights that I would like to achieve. I hit one of those weights at my last competition.”

Cataneo grew up in Joppa, Maryland, about 17 miles north of Baltimore, where she played youth soccer, encouraged by the example set by her mother, a triathlete. She has vivid memories of practicing soccer with her team while her mother ran laps around the field to get a workout in.

In high school, Cataneo played on the varsity volleyball team, and in college, she worked out on a regular basis, maintaining a vigorous workout regimen well into adulthood.

Cataneo became a CrossFit athlete by way of her ex-boyfriend’s sister who introduced her to the sport while she was visiting Wisconsin. Cataneo, who was then living and teaching at a school in Boston, started working out at a gym in Boston, and she quickly became hooked on the sport.

“When I started doing CrossFit, it took my fitness up to the next level,” says Cataneo. “I am so much stronger and faster than I was before. CrossFit has given me an appreciation of everything my body can do.”

With a Master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Colorado and a fluent Spanish speaker, she accepted a teaching position at Powell, a bilingual school, in 2013. She was thrilled to discover that Petworth Fitness is only two blocks from the school, an unexpected benefit.

Like other athletes, Cataneo enjoys the camaraderie and social interactions that are inherent part of the CrossFit community. During the workouts, people are able to converse while lifting weights or transitioning from one exercise to another.

“Even though the workout is really hard, you are suffering through it together,” says Cataneo. “It is different than an aerobics class at a traditional gym where you are doing Zumba, and you can’t talk to anyone.”

Cataneo working out at CrossFit Petworth (courtesy CrossFit Petworth)

Cataneo works out regularly with Darla Kass, a Powell parent who has a daughter in Cataneo’s class. Last year, Cataneo taught Kass’ other daughter. Cataneo and Kass engage in behaviors during that workouts that would normally land her students in trouble, such as talking and joking around during class.

“The CrossFit instructors say, ‘You must hate it when your kids do this — so why are you doing it to us,”’ laughs Cataneo. “But it is all in fun. We have a really good rapport.”

“Yeah, we get in trouble,” Kass says. “But we do what we need to do, and we still get the job done.”

When caught talking, Cataneo tells the instructors, “We are having a parent/teacher conference.”

It is in the classroom where Cataneo’s athletic life merges with her vocation as a teacher, seamlessly blending into her approach to instruction. Cataneo takes regular movement breaks with her students, mimicking a movement exercise she does during her CrossFit class.

She plays a song by Moby, “Bring Sally Up and Bring Sally Down,” and the students follow the words and rhythm of the song, standing up and then pretending to sit in a chair based on the lyrics. The exercise helps with blood flow to the brain while also enhancing listening skills.

When lifting weights, Cataneo pushes herself to the brink of failure, a space she calls the “zone of proximal development.”

“I push myself to constantly be in that zone when I am trying to get stronger,” she says. “It hurts a little more, it is not as easy as the last set, but I can do it, and I am going to push myself to get it done.”

Cataneo applies the same philosophy with her students, helping and nudging them to complete an assignment, but not pushing the students past the point of failure where they will get frustrated and just give up.

“By being in that zone of proximal development, they are able to get better,” she says.

While teaching, Cataneo sometimes shows her students videos of herself lifting weights, demonstrating the challenges and benefits of exercise, says Kass.

Cataneo dressed up as Supergirl at Powell (photo: Rachel Carson)

“I think it is important, especially from a very young age, that kids understand the importance of doing some form of exercise, not only to stay in shape but also for mental well-being,” Kass says.

At the same time, Cataneo is telling her students that she has hobbies and interests that are beneficial, and that she is, in fact, a “well-rounded person,” Kass explains.

In her own way, Cataneo is sending a subtle but powerful message to her kids, one that is likely to resonate for years to come.

“She is saying, ‘I look the way I do because I work at it and take care of my body,’ ” Kass says. “And that is something the kids look up to.”

Jim Arvantes is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Washington, DC. A graduate of Boston’s University College of Communication, Jim primarily writes about health care, education and local community issues. He also works as a substitute teacher in the District of Columbia Public School System and teaches English as a Second Language on a part-time basis. He can be reached via email.