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10 Truths About Teaching and Running

By Wendi Pillars — March 05, 2013 5 min read

‘Tis the season of stress in the teaching world. Sure, we can find lots of great advice on how to manage our stress levels, but how many of us actually take it?

For me, one of the greatest forms of stress-release is physical activity—but specifically running. This past weekend, I ran a half-marathon. During the race, I overheard many conversations among my fellow teacher-runners that kick-started my thinking about the parallels between teaching and running. (I’m sure similar parallels can be drawn between teaching and other activities educators engage in outside the classroom.)

Lest you turn away because you think you’re not a runner, here are 10 characteristics that running and teaching share—and why you’re probably ready to cross that finish line sooner than you think:

10) Relating to students: Besides the obvious benefits of running, or any physical activity, teachers who run can strengthen relationships with students and model healthy behavior. In my experience, once my students found out that I ran, a special kinship developed. We started connecting in different ways—athletes and the “just curious” alike.

9) Setting goals: Many of us discuss goal-setting with our students, helping them navigate incremental steps and inherent obstacles. We celebrate their successes and rethink failures. But to embody this process physically—to demonstrate the forethought and perseverance needed to succeed—strikes a chord with many of my students. None of them know adults who run, let alone women, so it’s quite the tangible novelty. And, yes, they will always want to know if you won your race. Make it a teachable moment by explaining how competing with and bettering yourself can be far more rewarding than constant comparison. Winning can take many forms—and so can failure.

8) Connecting with content: Make running a real-world lesson in almost any subject area by focusing on:

Math: Running pace, caloric intake vs. output, timing calculations for race finishes down to the second (an amazing feat—feet?—that never fails to amaze me), shoe mileage, race results, distances to the nearest tenth of a mile.

Geography: New race places, map-reading, sightseeing, history of locations, and milestones.

English: Puns and wordplay, seen on shirts, signs, and stickers galore:

“Aaargghh we there yet?” (Seen at a pirate-themed race.)

“Warning: the Surgeon General didn’t say anything about not smoking the competition.”

“Our sport is your sport’s punishment.”

Biology: Firsthand aches and pains make runners experts in this.

7) Focusing on the core: Despite the hype (and anguish!) that has accompanied the Common Core State Standards, neglecting your body’s core is a no-no. The source of your body’s strength and well-being needs TLC; runners know that all too well. And teachers know how taking care of the basics establishes the foundation for stronger holistic performance. The common core’s emphasis on explicitly teaching literacy in all subject areas is intended to increase comprehension and deepen levels of thinking and questioning. This, in turn, becomes a powerful stimulus for lifelong learning.

6) Finding the tech sweet spot: The beauty of running lies in its simplicity, although there are all kinds of devices to satiate your craving for technology. Timing systems, GPS tracking systems, pace technology, music systems, heart rate monitors, virtual networks for support and training—you name it. Find your comfort zone with technology, much like you do in your classroom.

5) Practicing stamina: Teachers have legendary bladder control. Waiting for that elusive break when you’re able to steal three minutes has solidly prepared you for the rigors of longer runs. Voila—you’re a prime candidate!

4) Exuding patience and determination: Training for months, day in and day out, for a few hours of running in a one-shot race? It’s a matter of course. Needless to say, standardized testing has prepared you well for this. The fresh air is just a bonus.

3) Planning, training, taking risks, reflecting, tweaking: This is your day—or year—in a nutshell. Most teachers are motivated by their commitment to students and their learning. Like runners, you rely on an intrinsic reward system driven by planning and goal-setting, attained best through unending reflections on both your performances and behind-the-scenes preparations. Like runners, you also know that each step forward, no matter how small, counts. Tweaking can sometimes be risky, yet worthwhile, because you realize the value of achieving goals in spite of obstacles, doubt, and risk.

2) Using the data: Numbers tend to define our goals and provide something tangible to reach for. Problem is, they can never account for the many variables the human factor attracts. Having like-minded folks beside us, who know precisely what those numbers measure and what they don’t, is priceless. Which leads me to the No. 1 parallel between teachers and runners:

1) Celebrating kinship: Unsurpassed comfort comes from knowing that others share your goals, mindset, and concerns—not to mention sweat and tears. Move forward in the same direction, toward a similar goal, surrounded by people ahead of you, behind you, and beside you. They’re colleagues, miraculous volunteer forces, and unconditionally loving families and friends who “get” your craziness and obsession. These relationships will remind you of, and renew, the deep passions that drive you in the classroom or on the road. Needless to say, the course views will change on any given day, but the smallest gestures of support will buoy you through your next surge forward.

Never underestimate the power of relationships, be they virtual or face-to-face, as you plot your next route. One of my favorite quotes comes from an inspirational runner, Steve Prefontaine: “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” In my eyes, that means we owe it to our students and ourselves to share our own gifts and encourage the gifts of those around us.

Maybe running isn’t your ideal means of stress-relief. But integrating outside interests into your classroom life can be beneficial, opening up doors and strengthening relationships as you run your course. After all, runners and teachers both know that success ultimately develops from a state of mind that says “anything is possible.”

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