Saturday, July 16, 2011

Becoming a teacher: it's a marathon not a sprint!

Finally you've graduated teacher training - after so many lectures, so many lesson observations, practicums, and now you have your own classes - shiny new teacher, keen and eager to launch into the new career. BAM! You're off and racing!

Jeremy Wariner shows how to power off the starting block for a winning sprint.
This is not recommended for a new teacher.
Small problem though - you're sprinting ... but this is a marathon!

Feeling absolutely exhausted during most of my "holiday" break, I've belatedly realised I've been working at completely the wrong pace: that it will take three to five years to build the foundation - and I better start pacing myself accordingly. Sprinting isn't going to make it happen any faster.

I'm realising now that for each topic you teach, you actually need to teach it three times, over three years to have those basics covered.  The first year you engage deeply with the topic as you encounter it in the teaching program. You may think you fully understand a topic, but when you go to teach it, you'll realise you were only touching the sides. Thirty pairs of eyes and active minds will see, hear and do completely unexpected things, have completely unexpected questions and reactions to the topic and to the way you teach it. As you strip the topic down, and then build it back, weaving a sequence, a narrative and ornamentations around the topic, you will find your own understanding of the topic deepens and changes. I've been amazed how even the most supposedly basic concept (the area of the triangle) could require so much thinking.

Then a second year to repeat the topic, this time knowing what hurdles you will face and designing your teaching sequence and activities to match. But you're not done yet. You need a third go - because chances are you are now seeing a different type of class dealing with this topic - and the ideas you thought were good ideas for the second year needed reworking - or even ditching. So hopefully at the end of the third year, you have the topic well understood, you know some ways to successfully teach it, and you have a resource kit that matches your teaching approach, at your fingertips which can form the basis for future development.

Now - consider you are most likely concurrently teaching five different topics to five different classes, and moving to new topics every few weeks, usually without even a moment to collect your thoughts. Learning how to teach, making the topic connections and building your resources (even if people give you resources) really is going to take three years - just to lay the foundation of a long term teaching practice. And that's just thinking about content - we haven't even considered learning about classroom management, school procedures, working with parents and with other teachers. No wonder the new teacher sometimes feels like they are adrift at sea, trying to build a boat with a few planks of wood.  

What to do? Adjust the mindset for a marathon. This is going to be slow steady pacing - with some sprint training sessions for sure, but mostly about building endurance for the distance. It will take time. The so-called 'holiday breaks' aren't enough to catch up work, sleep, personal life and health if you have been sprinting for ten to thirteen weeks - so you need to be working efficiently and don't overdo it, allowing time for healing and recovery.  The pace you work at during school term has to be sustainable over the long term - there really will be no breaks, and it will be like this forever. Adapt - and pace for the marathon.

Nearing the finish line at the
2005 Gold Coast Marathon
Writing this post has reminded me of an an old dream I never finished: to run a marathon in under four hours. I finished my first marathon in 4 hours 32 minutes - was very painful, but very happy to have completed it (everyone is a winner in the marathon!). Second attempt was better, but a heartbreaking 4 hours and 2 minutes. Unfortunately I never went back for a third attempt - and now I'm old and fatter.  Maybe it's time to take up that challenge again (8 years later ...) and see if I can fit marathon training into a teaching schedule - now that's a challenge!


  1. Hi Nordin,
    This is a really interesting reflection/evaluation and a very powerful realisation to come to. Achieving clear space to take the time to evaluate and reflect has obviously had its benefits for you - amidst the constant fast flowing challenges of feeling prepared for the next onslaught i.e. term 3!
    Can I add a couple of my own insights? (will assume that was yes!) I am constantly amazed at how important it is to learn not just how to teach well but about the intricacies of common mistakes and common misconceptions that students bring with them to Mathematics. Getting to the point where you teach both the correct method and also cover the common hurdles of "bad" thinking is a significant milestone in a teaching career. I know you are already listening to your learners for that information.
    The other challenge is for the individual teacher as a learner themselves. I have found teachers in a number of categories (shameless to put teachers in boxes but there it is!)... a couple of those boxes are relevant here. Some teachers are happy to learn how to teach something well and keep teaching it forever, I'm sure you've met some of those. Then there are others who are the sort that say to themselves "Now that I know how to do that, I want to do something else!" Somewhere in the middle of those two extremes is the teacher who can continue to engage the learners they meet, and be there for the long haul!
    Regards, Deb

  2. After my first year teaching, this was a great read for me. Thanks for the insight and advice. this was greatly needed!

  3. Thanks for the comments! As I head back to school this morning, I'm going to challenge myself to resist that urge to run too fast again :-)