Pace Yourself: Teaching is a Marathon

After twenty years of teaching and more than fifty marathons, Mike Roberts is still chasing greatness. Now, he shares his experiences in his book Chasing Greatness. He shows you, teacher and/or marathoner, how to run the most enriching race of your life.

Teaching is a Marathon

From the outside, running a marathon seems like a pretty simple concept. All you have to do is put one foot in front of the other as quickly as you can for 26.2 miles. You start. You run. You stop. It’s not exactly what I’d call brain surgery.

The problem that many runners have is that we often overestimate our abilities. This is especially true during the first miles of a marathon. When the race begins, your adrenaline levels are high, and those first few miles seem to fly by.

Everyone around you is feeling good, too, so rather than starting at a smart, sustainable pace, we tend to kick it up a notch because, like the old peer-pressure line says, “Everyone else is doing it!”

The problem is, those fresh legs and that starting-line excitement begin to fade around mile eight or nine, and running those early miles faster than expected often leads to a painful slog to the finish.

The secret to figuring this out was understanding that my mind was often able to convince my body it was capable of more than it actually was. In looking at it now, of course I feel great at mile five of every race. Everyone does!

Most people who sign up for a marathon have done multiple runs of ten miles or more, so those first five miles, even at a quicker-than-usual pace, feel reasonable.

But while running five miles is an impressive accomplishment, you must remind yourself that you have twenty-one miles left! After all, anyone can start a race strong, but very few can finish it that way.

Maintaining That First-Day Energy

Much like the energy that pulsates from runners before a race starts, the first few weeks of school resonate with an excitement that is hard to explain—and I love it!

The energy is high, students are (somewhat) excited to be back, and all your stories and jokes are new and fresh! My students and I enjoy getting to know one another, and the days just seem to melt away because of the newness of it all. The best way to explain it is that there seems to be a glide in my stride every day that I walk into school from late August until mid-September!

Unfortunately, that’s about when the new car smell of the school year wears off for many of us.

The mornings start to get a little darker, the moxie runs a bit lower, and all those fun stories and jokes have been replaced with grading papers and handing out detention slips. As for that newness, well, it’s been replaced by familiarity and routine. And just like how many of my races played out, by the time winter break rolls around, many teachers are completely and utterly exhausted.

But it doesn’t have to be like that.

Slow Down- When I first started teaching, I thought the true measurement of being a successful teacher was how much information I could cram into my students. I would fill them up with stats and figures, and they would spit them back out on the unit exam. It was focused, uncreative, and stressful.

As strange as it sounds, slowing down and allowing the entire class to explore the information in a variety of ways allows students to gain a better understanding of the subject matter.

More isn’t always better, and taking the inch-wide-mile-deep approach (versus the inch-deep-mile-wide method) allows for greater exploration and understanding of the topic at hand. Taking the time to slow things down can reap mental benefits as well. Find a few minutes for yourself to revive a day that could use a boost.

Find Ways to Continually Get to Know Your Students Better - Many teachers dedicate the first day or two of class to getting to know their students, but soon after, the curriculum takes over as the primary focus of the school year. Getting to know your students isn’t something you do only during the first week of class. Instead, uncover ways to keep this personalized touch going throughout the year.

The more you can connect with your students as people, the more they will offer you in return as students. Little things like implementing a weekly starter activity where students share what they did during the weekend or letting them do a personalized presentation on their likes and talents are two effective ways to keep the student-first mentality flowing beyond the first week.

Implement One New Teaching Idea per Week - While I am a big fan of routine, I am not a big fan of redundancy. As teachers, we must find multiple ways of presenting information to students. Implementing new instructional methods will serve as a change of pace for you, and it will engage your students in ways that are new and (hopefully) exciting.

Something as simple as asking students to demonstrate their understanding by acting out the learning rather than taking a traditional test serves as a great alternative assessment that will keep the class feeling fresh. And to really mix it up, let students take an active role in the selection of these new assessments.

A quick survey will provide you with a variety of student-generated assessment ideas that will empower your students in the learning process. I promise that you will be both amazed and inspired by the complexity of what they come up with.

The Cool Down

It’s easy to start a race or the school year strong, but it’s even more impressive to keep that mojo going over the entirety of the race or school year. A disjointed effort isn’t productive or enjoyable. If you’re hoping to have a successful outcome, be it in running or the classroom, you need a well-balanced and consistent approach from start to finish.


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