Teaching is like running an ultramarathon
My friend Sabrina Little is a crazy person, and I mean that in the best way possible.
I once watched her act in a skit about the importance of one's favorite toilet paper, well before it was popular to do so.
I've seen Sabrina pass by in full beast mode, running like she may not ever stop. I've also seen her dance like a marionette. I've seen her preach, and I've seen her snuggle her beautiful baby.
And while I haven't had the privilege of attending one of her ultra races, I've seen Sabrina
train to run ultramarathons. In fact, back in our college days, it wasn't uncommon to bump into Sabrina during breakfast in the cafeteria. "How's your morning?" someone would ask.
"Oh, it's good!" Sabrina invariably answered. Her voice is quiet but cheerful. "I just finished a 23 mile run." To the gasps, dropped jaws, and general amazement that followed, Sabrina would shrug. "It's no big deal. I'm just working on building up. I've got a hundred miler later this month." And off she'd go to eat a LOT of eggs.
We all know people do weird stuff in college. Reckless, even. So did Sabrina give up her insanity-inducing runs after undergrad?
Far from it.
Since our college days, Sabrina has made a name for herself as one of the top ultramarathoners in the world. She's raced representing the USA at the 100 Kilometer World Championship. She regularly places in the top three for races like the Rocky Raccoon 100-Mile, a race I only know exists because Sabrina runs and writes about it so often. (How can it be fun to run 100 miles through the woods on rocky terrain? I don't know, but Sabrina loves it.) According to her blog from March 2020 Sabrina "was running 105+ miles per week with consistent track work and a 20+-mile long runs, training to hit an Olympic Trials qualifier" at the beginning of her first pregnancy.
Yeah. And then she had a baby. Plus, she recently wrapped up her PhD in Philosophy. I told you - she's crazy!
🌟ULTRAMARATHONS AND YOU🌟
So why am I telling you all of this on a blog for teachers? Well, before pursuing her PhD, Sabrina taught history at a private middle school for three years. And though she did take a break from teaching while studying full time for five years, Sabrina never stopped coaching her school's middle and high school track teams. So when I think "Sabrina," my mind invariably turns to "school." And that's where we come in, teachers. As I considered what could possibly encourage educators living and working through a global pandemic, it dawned on me that teaching right now is, in no small way, very similar to running an ultramarathon.
How? Consider the following:
Ultramarathoners spend a lot of time working, training, and running alone.
Most of the race takes place out of sight of the public.
Only well-trained athletes can run an ultra.
Persistence is key.
Attitude and thinking are at least as important to completing a race as training is.
Ultra-runners have to train to shore up their weak spots.
Sometimes, even the best athletes have to take a break.
I don't know about you, but to me... that's teaching.
"Perseverance means remaining under a burden"
Rather than dig in to all seven similarities, I just want to take a minute to look at three. These are the ones that, for me, speak most to the experience of burnout. These are the facets of ultrarunning and teaching that I resonate with the most strongly right now:
- training weak spots
- healing from injury
Sabrina wrote an article for irunfar.com where she talked about teaching virtues through track and field. My favorite bit was this:
"It’s one thing to be told the definition of perseverance while sitting comfortably in a classroom. It’s another thing to be running along struggling and wanting to quit. If a person comes alongside you as you struggle and says, “Perseverance means remaining under a burden. I don’t need you to do anything different; I just need you to stay,” then you feel what it means to persevere. You feel it in your lungs and in your legs. You encounter it personally and can practice it."
Teachers, we feel what it means to persevere every day. We know the strain, struggle, and yeah, even the pain of perseverance. But hear this for a minute - perseverance doesn't mean doing anything new, big, or different. It just means to stay. To stay in the hard place. To trust that the hard work is going to bring you through, whether it be to the top of the hill or to the end of the race. All we have to do is stay.*
Shore up your weak spots
Ooof, this is hard for me. I don't like to admit I even HAVE weak spots, much less seek out help for them. In the spirit of this post, though, I will confess: after ten years in education, I still struggle with classroom management. That's hard to say, but it's true.
Just like me, Sabrina has weak spots, too. One of hers is arm strength. 'Why do you need arm strength?' I remember asking. 'Isn't your whole deal legs?' Well, yes, but as it turns out, moving your arms to increase momentum is a pretty big deal in running, too. Sabrina lifts weights and trains specifically to strengthen her weaker muscle groups.
If you, dear reader, are a "sporty" person, you certainly know all about this already. For me, though, it was a revelation - 'You mean to say,' I asked, 'that your arms don't just kind of get whatever workout they need while you're running twenty five miles?!' No. As it turns out, they do not. In fact, if Sabrina enters a race without working to strengthen her weak points, not only does she stand to lose, she might even get injured while doing it.
And phew, but is that convicting for me as a teacher. It's tempting to rest on my laurels. "I've been doing this for a decade! I'm great at teaching these lessons!" Well, ok, but that doesn't mean I don't have room to grow, either. And as Sabrina has shown me, weaknesses are there for a reason. Sometimes we're just not naturally good at something. Sometimes it's our least favorite thing to practice, so we find work arounds. Sometimes we even discover our weaknesses by accident. Leave it to a kid to puzzle out your weakest point when he or she is trying to get away with foolishness!
So just like the ultra-athletes we admire, teachers have to take intentional time to train and strengthen our weak spots, too. Take a moment to think about your life in the classroom. What happens in class that drives you NUTS? Here's a radical notion: you can change it. It's your classroom, after all. Yes, students are people with agency, but at the end of the day, you're the one in charge. Often times I've found that the things I'm most frustrated with exist in my classroom because I don't know what to do to change them.** That's a weak spot. Look for it, train for it, ask for help, and remember - even Sabrina lifts weights.
Take a break to heal
Once upon a time (at least), Sabrina broke her foot. I could tell she was upset when she wrote in her blog, "I can't believe it." And I thought, 'Sister, me, neither!' Not about her foot, of course. That made sense. No, the thing I couldn't believe was that I was feeling burnout towards teaching.
See, I never wanted to be a teacher. In fact, I fought pretty hard against the idea. Once I got in to a classroom, though, something clicked and I thought, "This is it. This is where I belong. I will never not love this."
I can't believe it.
Seven years in, I found myself questioning whether I'd made the right decision. I still loved my kids, and I loved trying new things with our curriculum, but... I was bored. Worse, my heart was hurting. People, young and old, can be real jerks. It felt like my soul just couldn't take any more bruising.
When you hit those moments, dear teacher, know this: Sabrina had to stop running altogether. To heal the bones broken in her foot, she suddenly had to "side hop" her exercise routine. This is a woman who loves nothing more than to move, and suddenly she was relegated to swimming and riding on a stationary bike. It was tough. But with typical Sabrina can-do-it-iveness, she pivoted and started training in a whole new way. It paid off when, some months later, she was finally cleared to run again.
I'm like that, too. Sometimes, I just have to step away from a while. A teacher girlfriend of mine finished teaching last year and has started working at a winery. She loves it. As for me, I kept teaching another two years into burnout territory, and eventually I did have to step away. I'm currently enrolled in a full-time doctoral program. Admitting "defeat," as it were, was both breath-stoppingly difficult and remarkably freeing. Just like Sabrina, I had to side-hop. Instead of being a teacher myself, I started learning about how to help my colleagues. It's weird and different, but it's working.
How do I know?
I miss teaching. My heart might not be fully healed yet, but I can tell you this much - another few months of rest, and I'm going to be cleared to return, too.
I can't wait to want to get back to doing what I love.
Until next time,
P.S. Many thanks again to Sabrina Little for allowing me to write about her. You rock, friend!
Like I said, Sabrina and I have been friends since our days as undergraduates at the College of William and Mary. Since she's the coolest ever, she provided some insights via text as I wrote this blog post. Most of the comparisons described above, though, I gleaned by reading her phenomenally entertaining blog and the articles she's written for irunfar.com. Therefore, if I've misrepresented anything Sabrina has ever done or said, on my head be it and mine alone.
*I never, ever want to come across as supporting the idea that teachers should "just stay" in an abusive or unhealthy situation. You shouldn't. Always, always protect your health and well-being. Without that, you can't be any use or good to your kids.
**On the rare occasion, something happens in my classroom that I can't change. Sometimes it's a student-to-student relationship that's existed long before I ever entered the picture, sometimes it's a mental health disorder run amuck, and sometimes it's just a bad idea admin had that now I have to follow. Facing things we can't change sucks, but there are hacks for what to do in those scenarios, too.