I’ve run two marathons this year.
In October 2013 I couldn’t run a single mile. It took me almost 20 minutes to cover the distance.
So how did I go from non-runner to double marathon runner, and why is learning (and teaching) just like training for a marathon?
Training for a marathon is hard. Really hard. It tests you physically and mentally. It pushes you to your limits and beyond. There’s a saying amongst marathon runners: ‘you run the first third with your legs, the second with your mind and the last with your heart.’ And it’s true. Learning ( and teaching) is very much like this.
- Marathon training can take over your life- following a schedule and hitting the right distances every week is exhausting and can be a real challenge to fit it into a working week alongside family life.
- Learning can be exhausting; how many times have you seen tired looking Yr11s stumbling in early (or staying late) before an exam to cram in some last-minute revision? Teaching is exhausting too- emotionally and physically. It demands our full attention, concentration and focus.
- Proper learning takes good planning and time management, and not just in Yr11 or 6th form. For students, it is essential that they plan study time, homework time and lessons into their weekly schedule, as well as making sure they have time for a social life.
- There can be no mistaking that good quality learning can be time-consuming– as a teacher it can mean hours of lesson planning, resource preparation, marking, reporting and assessment. That’s not to mention the actual lessons. Equally, for students to master content or a task could to weeks- how often do we give them this quality time? Or more aptly, does our education & assessment system allow them this time?
- BUT thorough preparation (not necessarily lengthy) pays its dividends later. Long and medium term planning are crucial for teachers to understand the learning journey students need to go on over the course of the academic year. What skills need to be developed? How can learning be broken down? How much time is needed to master the material?
Picking yourself up after a fall
- Failure is a part of life. I was adamant that I was going to run the London Marathon in 5hrs 30mins. At 5hrs 52mins I crossed the finish line – at that moment did I care I’d missed my target? No. 20 minutes earlier did I care? Yes, massively. Then I realised that I was achieving something that most people never do, let alone within a target time, and for me, whatever time I finished, I would still finish. An achievement in itself. I ran again in Dublin in October and took 18 minutes off my London time.
- Students find ‘failure’ incredibly difficult. For example, I had a 6th form student tell me 6 weeks ago that if she doesn’t get A’s in her final exams her life would be over. Part of the function of a teacher is to help students prepare to ‘fail’ in life, in work and in their studies, and show them that the world doesn’t end.
- Part of being a teacher is helping students understand that failure is an opportunity for growth and development, not a damning black mark against their name. This year I shared my marathon journey with my students, the good and the bad, and spoke openly with them about my experiences. They saw I was human and it was okay for them to be human too- they even wanted regular updates on my distanced and times!
Sense of achievement
- The sense of achievement and pride when you cross the finish line is indescribable. I burst into tears as I came down the Mall in London, in April this year. Tears of pain, happiness, disbelief? All of that, and much more.
- As a teacher, watching your students open their results and recognise what they have achieved is absolutely incredible. Same goes for seeing them achieve in sports or clubs, or overcome a personal challenge.
- We shouldn’t underestimate the power and impact having a sense of achievement has on our students– it has the potential to win over a difficult student, or give them the push to take on new challenges, like completing that piece of coursework that only a few weeks ago seemed insurmountable. That feeling can restore a child’s sense of self worth. Priceless.
- The same can be said for staff– witnessing a staff member pass a qualification, their QTS for example, is immensely satisfying. Being part of a persons professional, and personal development, is one of the most fulfilling aspects of the job – knowing that you have made a difference to another human being. For me this year, coaching and being coached has helped me re-connect with this feeling, and rediscover my core purpose.
Slow, incremental progress
- When I first started running, reaching 1 mile seemed like an impossible task. But after several weeks, I found I could do 3 miles, and then I did 6, albeit with some walk breaks and a friend driving alongside me shouting encouragement! 26.2miles still seemed an impossibly long way off.
- As a teacher it is easy to forget about the here and now, and only see the end goal – exams. Becoming fixated on summer exam results often blinds us to the growth of students on a weekly (even daily) basis, a lot of which is likely not academically related. Do we celebrate the fact that a student has, for the first time ever, travelled alone? Or passed their driving test? Or tried a new sport? Or shown kinds & generosity to others?
- The things we do on a daily basis, the routines, the interventions, the strategies, are what drive incremental progress and growth in our students. Every intervention, every extra tuition session, every piece of feedback, every assessment task, every conversation, indeed every lesson contributes to the bigger picture of students learning – it is these seemingly small or routine (sometimes mundane) activities that growth & learning occurs, often so incremental or hidden that we don’t notice it until it quantifies into something larger, like improving test results.
- I’m a very stubborn person, and no matter how long it took me, or how hard I found it, I was going to cross the finish line. Even if I had to walk the whole damn way. Some people doubted me, some even laughed when I said I had a place in the London marathon- their doubt fuelled my determination, and I was resolved to prove them wrong.
- Teachers are incredibly determined. The very nature of what we do requires determination as a build it characteristic, as much a part of the fabric of a teacher as a love of learning, a desire to make a difference and a belief in young people.
- To experience an academic year in a school is to witness determination as a living organism- the school and everyone who works in it embodies determination for their students. To recognise this as true, stop a moment and reflect on your school- what multitude of activity goes on, on a daily/weekly basis? How many people go above and beyond the call of duty? Consider for a moment the plethora of experiences we offer our students: enrichment activities, intervention & revision classes, after school clubs, trips, tutor time, parents evenings, school performances, assemblies, guest speakers & visitors, reading mornings, school council meetings, tuition groups, student societies, charity days and much more there is capacity to explore here. And that’s just for students.
- What about for staff too? There are: meetings, coaching, CPD, mentoring, training sessions, university courses, exam board training courses, pupil shadowing, observations, feedback, book scrutinies, peer-observations, directed time, ITT training & mentoring, book club, leadership courses, mock interview days, shadowing a leader for the day, lesson studies, INSET, cross-federation/alliance training or meetings, inspections, promotion opportunities……
- Lets not forget all those staff who, without a second’s thought, go above and beyond the call of duty: I am sure those of use who have taught for a few years will know of many examples- the staff member who works with one struggling student in all their free periods, stays late after school and comes in early to give extra support to students, comes in over the holidays or on weekends to give extra lessons, goes to all the sport fixtures and school plays just so students see that someone is on their side. If you think about it, this probably describes a lot of teachers you know.
- Teachers, and students, are the most determined people I know.
All in all, the fundamentals of training for a marathon apply every single day in a school, and are part of what makes a school an amazing place to be:
- the dedication of time to the cause
- the willingness to try again, however many times it takes
- a stubborn refusal to accept anything other than a good outcome
- the belief and perseverance to struggle on, long after others would have given up
“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
― Anne Frank