Four things running has taught me about teaching

November 29, 2011, 7:45 am

This year, I did something new on Thanksgiving: I ran one of those 5K “turkey trot” races on Thanksgiving morning. It was actually the second such race I had done in the space of a week. There’s something invigorating about getting up early and joining a crowd of a few hundred people to buck the temptation to lie in bed or on the couch all day.

Running has been a hobby of mine since my 40th birthday (July 2010). Turning 40, I was overweight and constantly tired, and I decided to do something about it. So I declared I would start training for a 5K, to commence as soon as the birthday party was over. As for how that beginning actually went, I’ll get to that later. For the moment, it’s enough to say that running has always accompanied a reflective mood for me. As I was doing the race on Thursday, I got to thinking about the connections between running and teaching. I think I’ve learned a lot about teaching through running. Here’s a short list:

1. Doing something is better than doing nothing. Teachers have to battle inertia and practice creativity and inventiveness, and that means taking risks. There’s a risk that we’ll be the targets of criticism or even the butt of jokes, or worst of all that our efforts will be for naught. It’s tempting to do nothing. But in running, there’s a saying that your worst day running is better than your best day on the couch. What’s really important is simply whether you are out there doing something at all. Both teachers and runners need to learn that honest, heartfelt effort never comes back void. Find one thing you want to do as a runner, or as a teacher, and then try it! And don’t care so much how it looks, but rather care a lot about doing it for the right reasons. You don’t have to be elite to be effective.

2. Concrete goals are good. When I made my 40th-birthday declaration, I knew that the biggest test of my resolve would come the first time I seriously did not want to go do a training run. Rather than simply try to live off my resolve, I signed up for a 5K race in September, about ten weeks from my birthday. That put a hard boundary around my plans — it was no longer about my willpower but about me getting ready to survive past a date on the calendar. Such is also true in teaching. We teachers are good at having big ideas, but to make those ideas actually happen, it’s often useful to place concrete goals around those ideas that in some sense take them out of our hands. Do you like the inverted classroom idea? Great — commit to inverting one of your next semester’s classes, and go write the syllabus. Want to try clickers in your class? Great — go order a set right now.

3. Failure can be good. If you take educated risks in teaching, as good teachers do, then failure is inevitable. We can manage risk but not avoid it, and part of being a good teacher is learning to deal with the reality of failure in a positive way. I learned this lesson from running on the day I turned 40. I had a nine-week training program that I was sure would get me ready for that 5K in September. For the party, we had rented an inflatable bounce-house for the kids. While playing in it with my son, I came down wrong on my right foot, heard a POP and then felt a searing pain in my ankle. It was a severe sprain, and I got doctor’s orders to keep weight off my foot for two weeks minimum. Nobody knew how long it might be before running on that foot would be possible. It appeared that my plans were over before they even got underway.

This was a sort of failure, one part indiscretion and one part plain misfortune. Here I had finally summoned the willpower to get up and do something about my physical well-being, only to blow it on day 1 of training. It was tempting to give up, cancel my 5K entry, and wait until later in the year. But if anything, this incident strengthened my resolve to heal up and get started as soon as possible. I wore the orthopedic boot and used crutches for a week. By the middle of week 2, the ankle was only mildly uncomfortable. By the end of week 2 I was walking around almost normally, and during week 3 I started walking for 30 minutes at a time every night on our treadmill. After three weeks, I was finally able to start running. Although I only had seven weeks to complete the nine-week program, I did what I could, and I managed to complete the 5K in September.

If you do not fail at some point in teaching, it becomes questionable whether you are actually teaching at all. Sometimes that failure will be the result of something you do, sometimes it’s something somebody else does, and many times it’s nobody’s fault. But it happens. What’s your response when it does? Do you simply retreat into safety and not try anything? Or do you use failure as an opportunity to strengthen your resolve, to get back out there and do what you can for the best reasons?

4. You have to do things your own way in the long run. Last Thursday’s run wasn’t the best. I was cold, out of practice, and sluggish, and it became clear by the 1-mile mark that this run was just for fun and exercise. Still, when you have 1000 people around you, you can’t help but get a competitive streak, and I started thinking about how I was doing in comparison to everyone else. Are my strides the right length? My breathing the right cadence? My clothes adequate? Then I realized this was silly and that I just needed to do what works for me. I definitely think teaching is like this as well. Learn from other people; read their blogs and visit their classrooms and think deeply about the practices that seem to work best. But ultimately, you have to find your own voice as a teacher. Learn everything you can from those who do it the best, then make it all your own.

My wife and I have really stuck our necks out for 2012 by signing up to run the Indy 500 Festival half-marathon in May. It terrifies me in some ways. When I finished the turkey trot, out of breath after 3.1 miles, I stopped to reflect that in May I’d have to turn around and do that very same race three more times before I finished. It seems impossible, but I have faith that if I went from nothing to 5K in nine weeks, I can go from 5K to 21K in six months. Again there are parallels to teaching and learning here. That human beings can learn and teach at all just seems like magic to me sometimes. But really it’s all part of being human.


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