“It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint.”

Holly Spinelli, September 2022

Early in my career, an unofficial mentor teacher named Lucy saw how many hours I spent before and after school to prepare for classes. At first, she teased me with questions like, “Who are you racing, kid?” or “When are Olympic trials, rookie?” We’d laugh. I’d make a self-deprecating joke and reference something I learned from my studies in a teacher education program. She’d smile and shake her head. Sometimes she helped me. Other times, she quietly observed as I worked.

I recall one difficult morning, the kind of morning all educators face at some point in their teaching experience– I was running late and everything thereafter fell apart in rapid succession. I forgot my breakfast and lunch at home, and after waiting in line for the only functioning copier in the building, the machine let out a primal scream and completely malfunctioned.

Thankfully, Lucy recognized my quiet S.O.S., and she said, “C’mon, we’re getting out of here.” She walked away. I didn’t take her seriously. A few moments later, she re-entered the office, pulled me from the pile of ripped paper I surgically removed from the copier, tossed me my coat, and walked me to a cafe on Seventh Avenue. Panic pulsed through my veins. She saw it, and before I could utter a single word about leaving a pile of confetti in the office and running late for first period, she said, “Relax. I have someone covering your first period class. Admin knows. They’re cool with it.” I sat at a table near the window. Lucy joined me after purchasing two hot beverages. She took a sip of coffee, slid a cup of tea towards me and said, “Remember, this [teaching] is a marathon, not a sprint.” I don’t know if she knew I was a runner, but her analogy made perfect sense. Sprinting is not easier than marathon running. Both are difficult and require proper preparation, but they are vastly different. Sprinting necessitates fast, powerful energy bursts. Marathon running obliges a slow, steady release of energy and prolonged endurance. Lucy explained the importance of pacing for teachers. She mentioned that as well-intentioned and wonderful as some teacher education programs are, they can’t possibly prepare every future-educator for the various X factors that surprise us in our everyday lives, and for anyone to expect them to do so is unrealistic. She followed up with a few tangible ways to help me prepare for the long-haul. Her advice still serves as great reminders to help me prepare for another school year:

Plan as best you can, but be flexible.

She helped me generate ideas for weekly outlines with tentative plans. This helped me keep flexibility with my planning as I worked to meet my students’ needs. She reminded me to plan as best as I could while still teaching the students in front of me.

Seek help from those you trust.

My colleague diplomatically reminded me that not all co-workers will be willing or able to help me in the ways I may need. She advised me to keep strong relationships with the folks I knew best. She said to know who I could depend on if something should arise, and to ask for help. She told me to return the favor and to help them, too. “It’s all about community and strong relationships,” she said. It’s been almost twenty years since that conversation, and I couldn’t agree more!

Use the resources that are available to you.

I’m grateful that someone told me early in my career that I didn’t need to invent or reinvent every single unit or lesson I wanted to teach. There are excellent resources out there– and many are free. We rattled off the names of various national organizations, websites, and community groups that had quality materials and resources that would bring fresh perspectives and ideas to our lessons. I still use many of the sources we named that day, and they are powerful. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but here are a few:

We also discussed on-going professional learning opportunities that extend beyond our school building. Cultivating relationships with folks who have a variety of experiences and interests in the field is a great way to stay supported and sustained as a professional. A perfect current example includes the NYSEC Annual Conference which takes place this October 19-21, 2022 in Albany. Read more about the Conference, click here.

It’s okay to take breaks, to slow down and walk.

I won’t lie, she lost me a bit on this one. Runners train to run, and walking is a plausible, but dreadfully slow option– until the point arises in a race when injury or some other unforeseen circumstance forces the runner to slow their pace. Lucy explained that teaching is similar, but walking or taking breaks is not viewed as a hindrance to peak performance. It’s okay to slow down, to take more time on a specific unit, topic, or lesson. If we forge ahead too quickly, students can grow frustrated and lose interest. My job is to facilitate learning in an environment where students are supported. Sometimes, this means that slowing down is the best course of action to keep us all moving forward with our learning, and that’s okay.

Lucy’s guidance keeps me focused, centered, and driven. I will do my best to keep a steady pace, to think beyond the sprint, and to enjoy the journey as each mile unfolds this year.

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