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Run, Teachers, Run!

At a recent CTQ retreat, the marvelous Kate Albrecht had everyone introduce themselves by saying who their “people” are—i.e. “UNC fans,” “Compulsive readers,” “People who like the zombie Jane Austen books better than the actual Jane Austen books,” and so on. I was amazed by how many of the rock-star teachers in the room—at least half the group—listed “runners” as one of their tribes.

What’s the connection between running and teaching? Here’s a partial list:

1. Rest days matter as much as training days.

Hopefully, everyone who will read this is currently stretched out on the couch with a good book, sitting in a rocking chair by the fire, or laughing at their favorite holiday movie. We need this winter break to continue being effective teachers.

The same is true of running—I’ve come to see my rest days as being just as critical as the days I do long runs or speedwork. Runners who fail to build in days of rest end up getting injured or under-performing. Teachers who fail to build in periods of rest end up burning out or losing their love for the craft of teaching.

Our students need our best selves: our happiest, most patient, most exuberant selves. To be that self, every one of us needs to carve out time off--whether it’s a run on a Saturday morning or a summer without a single workshop--to get a true break and return renewed.

 

2. Preparation and performance are directly connected.

I ran my first half-marathon this weekend, and I loved it. While I was running, I thought back over the past five months of training. The gasping sprints during speedwork, the 3-mile runs on weekdays, the increasing distances on my long runs each weekend. Every mile mattered.

Much of the work of teaching happens outside the classroom, when we’re thinking about an individual student during an evening walk, picking up a book for the classroom library on a Saturday afternoon, or making “teaching resolutions” over winter break.

High-performing countries like Finland see teaching as a “thought profession,” where the thinking we do about our students, the knowledge we teach, and the craft of conveying that knowledge are all critical to what we do when we’re actually with the kids. In the words of my junior high basketball coach, “As you practice, so you play.”

 

3. Your fiercest competition is yourself.

Sure, there are a handful of runners who race for gold, silver, or bronze, just like there are competitions for school, district, and state Teachers of the Year. But what matters is our own goal-setting: our own progress in relation to who we were last year, or even last week.

Think back to your first year of teaching. (Go ahead and shudder.) When most of us started, we couldn’t keep comparing ourselves to those around us because it was too overwhelming. We knew how far we had to go to become effective at this incredibly complex craft, and comparisons with the masterful career teacher across the hall could be depressing.

We had to focus instead on growth. We set realistic goals for that first year: “Stop talking so much,” “Learn how to make guided reading work,” “Figure out what to do when David knocks his desk over, screams obscenities at everyone, and heads for the door.”

Now that we’re more experienced, it’s critical to focus on growth for a different reason: so we don’t become complacent. The best teacher in America is not so good that she or he can’t become even better next year. I asked my remarkable high school English teacher if she still gets better every year, after three decades at it. She said, “Of course. Otherwise I’d get bored and quit.”

 

4. Running and teaching are at once intensely personal and extremely collegial.

I run alone. I set individual goals, relish the time running past a lake at sunrise or a field full of deer at dusk, and spend an embarrassing number of hours perfecting my play list for the next race. With teaching, I do a lot of reflection on my own, thinking through the day’s mistakes and triumphs, envisioning how the 25 human beings in my class will respond to the next day’s lesson, and reading through books and articles that I think will make me a better teacher.

At the same time, running and teaching are collaborative, social worlds. There’s a camaraderie and generosity of spirit at races, with complete strangers cheering you on as you pass. School is one of the only public institutions where you see everyone from infants to grandparents, custodians to principals, living and working together in a tightly knit village.

We do much of our thinking, preparation, and performance alone, but at the end of the day, we need one another. Ask any teacher why she or he teaches, and the first answer will be, “The kids.” But "the colleagues" run a close 2nd, and they can become family over time, supporting and pushing us to become better.

 

5. You have to love it for its own sake.

I like to run so much, I would probably keep doing it even if running made you fat and gave you heart problems. It’s never been a means to an end, a necessary grind to help me lose weight, live longer, or win a little golden pig at the local Hogeye race. 5K’s and marathons are thrilling, but the training runs that lead up to them are fulfilling in themselves. The path is the goal.

The same is true of teaching. People outside the classroom tend to talk about school as a means to one of various ends: a high-paying job later in life, the key to beating China and India, an investment in America’s GDP.

But as teachers who love the kids and love the work, we don’t just teach for the future. Of course we want our students to do well on the end-of-year tests, and to succeed in middle school, college, and a career. But those reasons don’t encompass why we teach.

I teach because of the present moment. I teach because it’s a delight to laugh at 7-year old “Ruby-Dooby” when she pumps her fists in the air like an Olympic champion after explaining her mathematical thinking at the board. It’s a joy to sit down with Melinda and hear her read a book that was much too hard for her just a month before. Every day in Writer’s Workshop, I relish that moment when a hush falls over the classroom and all you hear is the sound of pencils scratching or keyboards tapping as the students create new worlds through the miraculous alchemy of words.

I hope my students go on to excel at whatever they do after leaving my class. But I’m also grateful for every day and every moment I spend in the company of the remarkable human beings in my class. Those moments matter in themselves, independent of what futures they may shape.

 

I’d love to hear what parallels you have found between teaching and running, parenting, or any other pursuit that shapes the teacher you have become. Teachers, runners, and teacher-runners, I wish you the merriest of holidays, the most thrilling of winter runs, and a joyous return to the classroom in 2014.

6 Comments

Joe Fatheree commented on December 23, 2013 at 5:35pm:

The Power of One

 

I have been a runner almost my entire life.  My grade school had an outstanding cross country program.  I started running for the "Fighting Irish" in fifth grade and developed a love that has never left.  I have been connected to the sport as either an athlete, coach, or spectator ever since.  

Illinois is a hotbed for the sport.  Each summer thousands of high school distance runners begin their quest for a trip to the hallowed trails of Detweiller Park where the state meet is held in November.  

Three time Olympian and two time World Cross Country  Champion Craig Virgin is an Illinois legend.  He set the mark at 13:50 for 3 miles that every high school distance runner in Illinois dreams of holding.  Ladies and gentlemen, that is flat our fast. Four athletes out of thousands have broke the coveted 14 minute mark since 1972. Countless others have run in the mid to low 14's.  However, no one has touched the mark.  Still records are made to be broken.  Many thought the record would be shattered in the fall of 2010 by the state's newest running sensation.  Thousands upon thousands of people turned out in 2010  to watch  Lukas Verzbicas take his shot at the coveted mark.  Understand, Verzbicas was the real deal.  By the time he graduated [he did so a year early], he was the two time Footlocker National XC Champion, the Nike National XC Champion, set the two mile national record at 8:29, and was the fifth high school kid in world history to break 4 minutes in the mile.  He was also the World Junior Triathlete champion.  Like I said, the kid could run.  He toed the line in early November of 2010 with one thought in mind...Virgin's record.  The race was over as soon as the gun sounded.  Everyone else was running for second place.  Verzibcas smoked the course and finished in 13:54...four seconds short of the record.  He graduated from Carl Sandburg high school in Orland Park without breaking the record.  It was one of the few standards in the sport that he doesn't own. I am sure it bothered him. However, you wouldn't know it by his actions.  He went on later in the year to break the national record in the 2 mile before running his first sub 4 mile.  One of the things that separates great runners like Virgin, Verzibcas, and others is their ability to compete against themselves.  They set high standards and then go about puttining in both the physical and mental work it takes to become an elite champion.  That includes putting in countless miles on abandonded roads, running in the extreme cold and heat, weightlifting, cross training, visualization, and a host of other training exercises one needs to become the best.  

It may sound odd but running has made me a better teacher.  The long hours, difficult work, planning that it takes to become a successful educator all seemed very natural to me as a first year teacher.  I was already used to putting in a full day's work on the track, setting goals, and establishing a workout schedule.  The transition was natural to me.  However, that's not to say that it was without incident.  Like many others, I struggled during my first few years.  Fortunately, I years as a runner had helped me understand how to handle situations like that.  

Distance running can be very lonely.  I have logged countless miles on old dirt paths over the course of the years.  However, some of us have also been blessed to be part of    a very competitive team.  I was blessed to be surrounded by a group of very talented runners from fifth grade all the way through high school.  Our team was one of the best in the state.  However, we paled in comparison to what is arguably the greatest team in the history of the sport in the country.  The York Dukes are coached by Joe Newton.  The Dukes have one 26 state titles and numerous national titles.  While many cross country teams rake and scrape each fall to field a team, York has over 200 athletes try out for a spot on theirs.  Joe Newton is the only high school coach in America to have coached the U.S Olympic Team.  Running legend Sebastian Coe used to fly to America just to have Coach Newton train him.  Coach Newton is now in his 80's.  He is still at the helm of the York  program.

One of the things that I have learned from watching him over the years is just how much he cares about each and every one of his kids.  His won lost record is stunning.  However, at the end of the day, it is the kid who matters the most to Coach Newton.  He has built a culture that kids thrive in.  A culture that reminds me very much of the classrooms I have seen around the country that belongs to some of America's best teachers.  Classrooms that are kid centered and are focused on high standards.  They are filled with teachers who know how to set up training programs for their students that will challenge the students to do their best.  

For the past several decades America's distance running program was at an all time dismal state.  However, that has started to change.  Over the course of the past few years, America's distance runners are starting to find success once again on the international stage.  My hope is that our teachers and classrooms set out on a course of action that will enable us to do that in the academic arena as well.  

-joe

Jessica Cuthbertson commented on December 26, 2013 at 1:01pm:

Teachers Who Run...

Justin,

Thanks for exploring the teaching/running connection. I agree with your list and have experienced each of these as both a teacher and a runner. In fact, I see running as a metaphor for teaching in many ways, and there's nothing like Winter Break and a new year on the horizon to remind me of the ways we "train" -- both on the track and in the classroom.

My addition (a sort of sub-bullet to your #1) - pacing matters. I've paid the price for "starting too fast" (which, admittedly, isn't very fast :) and running out of steam mid-way through a race, and I'm constantly learning how, when and where to adjust my pacing in the classroom. This is where the individual and community balance (your #4) is key. I try to start races now with my own pace group and rely on fellow runners and my husband, my best running partner, to keep me in the "just right" zone. Similarly, I rely on my colleagues and first and foremost, my students, to help me pace lessons and instruction.

Knowing when, where and how to power through (or linger and practice wait time--something I still struggle with :) is one of my lifelong running and teaching lessons.

With that said...time to lace up and enjoy a Winter Break run after several days of "rest," relaxation and really good food :). Thanks for the motivation--and the reminders!

 

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on December 26, 2013 at 2:11pm:

...and the differences between running and teaching

Joe,

Thanks for making the time to write such a substantive response. Your comment made me think about one of the key differences between running and teaching: the complexity of measuring excellence.

Running has various distances, courses, and conditions, but the metrics are pretty straightforward: who can run a given distance in the shortest time?

With teaching, it's incredibly complex--part of the reason why so many of us have spoken out against simplifying student learning or teaching effectiveness to basic-skills questions that only have four answer options.

An eloquent article I read about this complexity asked a couple of years back, "Who's better, Babe Ruth or Mozart?"

So much goes into great teaching that it always reminds me of the blind men and the elephant--we can grasp one piece (how many of our students go on to graduate college, or how much money they make in their chosen profession, or simply how much reading growth they made on a given assessment in one year), but the whole picture is elusive.

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on December 26, 2013 at 2:15pm:

Pace

Love it, Jess--I knew you'd have great insights. I think pace is one of the hardest things to learn by any method except experience and reflection. Whether it's the rhythm of a single block of Writer's Workshop or an entire school year, we can tell when it feels exactly right and when it either drags or is becomes frenetic.

With running, I've learned to listen to my body--on my last two holidays runs in the L.A. hills, for example, I can feel that I'm still depleted from the half marathon five days back, so I've been running slowly and shorter distances than usual.

What's really complex, I think, is figuring out how to help our students find their pace of learning--pushing/supporting them so that they're learning to their potential, but also backing off enough to give them reflection time to let new skills and knowledge soak in.

Wendi Pillars commented on December 28, 2013 at 10:26am:

The spirit is willing

Justin, I appreciate your post, too! Joe and JC have some very resonant points about how running relates to teaching quite seamlessly--and I, too, would not be where I am today without the clarity of a good morning run to sift through the upcoming day. 

George Sheehan says it best when he says "to succeed at anything, you need passion. You have to be a bit of a fanatic. If you would move anyone to action, you must first be moved yourself." 

There's an inherent mind-body symbiosis that fuels a person, drives them, and motivates them to succeed; and as mentioned above--success for a runner is relative. So, too, it is with us and our students--the "fastest time" is nice, but better to watch the growth, the enduring will evolve, the camaradery borne from understanding, and the power of the spirit to pull us up and out when the going gets tough. 

And, no matter how many miles or laps you've jogged or run, you have the right to call yourself a runner. See above paragraph. You've got this. 

Because one of the greatest lessons I've learned as a runner, is that it's ok to cheer on your competition, that "what you do" is cheer on others as they pass you or as you pass them. Success truly is relative, so channel your inner adrenaline, embrace the numbers or toss them aside--just run, as Justin says, for the sake of running! (PS--that makes it a form of play!! Bonus!)

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on December 28, 2013 at 1:29pm:

Competition vs. Collaboration and Mind-Body connection

Wendi, I love the connections you make.

It takes a certain amount of wisdom and maturity to do what you do when running, de-centering to become aware (and not envious) of the battles being fought, goals being executed, and triumphs being reached all around you, that are not your own. Our culture is rife with conventional competition--in sports and the business world, for example--but we don't have enough of that self-competition you describe, which can be just as driven but takes nothing away from anyone else. 

You made me think more about the physical aspect of teaching, too. All day we're moving around, in a non-elliptical orbit with 25 other bodies in the classroom, and hundreds of bodies in the school. It's a physically exhausting and renewing job, aerobic in its way. It's a marathon AND a sprint. 

I think it's critical to keep that physical part of the work in shape and balance, whether it's sipping green tea all morning, downing a boosted Naked Juice at lunch, or going for a run on your way home from school a few days a week.

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