Teacher Collaboration

A Different Path: What Running Taught Me About Teaching

In February I started running.  It has taken me nearly five months to work up to 3.12 miles.  I ran my first 5K on Mother’s Day with my son and daughter.  I don’t like running on concrete since it bothers my hips.  I like gravel.  Allows a little bounce and doesn’t seem to bother the joints.

I’ve started running the nature preserve near our house; around the pond, up the gradual gravel inclines and near the wild grasses.  When finished, I cooled down by walking most of what I had just run.  As I was walking, I realized something – I had never noticed the vivid, subtle shades of the flowers, the rhythmic sounds of the croaking toads, or the color pictures of the flowers and their genera on the markers.  I had been so fixated on the trail; one foot in front of the other, I’ve got to get to the next marker – that I missed the beauty that surrounded me.

Then I thought of our students.

Have we been so fixated on “one foot in front of the other” that we failed to notice their subtle shades, their rhythmic sounds, or their markers?  Have we failed to walk their trail and as a result, missed their beauty?

As educators, most of us have been in this situation: we are working with a student on a particularly difficult concept.  We’ve been at it for a while.  I have explained the concept in several different ways, probably louder and slower, too.  The student has shifted uncomfortably in their chair several times, gripping the pencil with white knuckles, trying to understand a concept that seems unsurmountable. 

“Can you tell me what you don’t understand?” I ask gently.  The student says nothing, but just stares at the paper on the desk.

“Is it this part here that seems to be confusing you?” I point to a part of the problem, trying to create a starting point for explanation.  The student looks up at me and replies, “I just don’t get it.”

“Why don’t you explain the process to me and when you get stuck, I’ll pick it up from there,” I offer.  Silence.

As a novice teacher, I wanted my students to “get it” so badly that I thought if we just struggled through it, the light would go on.  There is some truth in that.  Productive struggle does give our students the opportunity to brainstorm, try, fail and try again.  But productive struggle is usually within the confines of a small group of students, collaborating together to solve a problem.  Mistakes are part of the process and encouraged – after all, that’s how we learn.

I realize now that this exchange was simply too overwhelming.  Much like my running, I was focused on getting to that next marker.  I didn’t notice that the student needed to stop and appreciate the flowers or gaze into the pond or listen to the toads.  Nope, I was inadvertently playing the mental game of, “when I get to that next hill . . .”; only instead, it was “when the student understands this, we’ll move on to this.” And if they didn’t catch on, we’ll continue to focus on it until they do – however long that may take.

Twenty-four years later, I realize that for some students, that continuous pounding on the concrete can cause their joints to become sore as well.

I am no longer in the classroom.  I am an Instructional Coach/Reading Specialist at a large, urban high school and I am a different teacher today.

While I still would have given students a complex problem to solve, I wouldn’t create the situation that caused the student to refuse to engage.  Instead I would have created a classroom where collaborative, structured teams were the norm and where students were given ample time to brainstorm solutions and demonstrate how one misstep could led to an answer – or not.

In addition, I wouldn’t have continued to question and here’s why: we know the value of inquiry.  I model inquiry to teachers and use a variety of methods to teach inquiry.  However, this exchange between the student and I was not inquiry.  It was more of an evaluation where I was determined to figure out the student miscue and the student was determined to be still.  Today, I would handle the situation differently.

Once I realized the student was disengaging, I would have offered a new opportunity:  would it behoove the student to join a different group; thus a new field of flowers?  Would it help to get a drink and take a break; therefore noticing the pond?  Would it befit the student to get a new problem and consequently, a new marker?

Twenty-four years of experience and a determination to run a 5k with my son and daughter has given me a unique perspective; that with any mindset and at any age, we can offer possibilities that would have seemed unlikely before.  Most importantly, we can move forward realizing that a walk around the pond is not only valuable, but essential.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.