Run, Teachers, Run!

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

1. Rest days matter as much as training days.

2. Preparation and performance are directly connected.

3. Your fiercest competition is yourself.

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

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

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.

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