What Administrators Need? I Need Teachers Who Think like Distance Runners [guest post]

One of my administrative colleagues at my school here in Shanghai is a marathon runner.

I am not.

The mere thought of running for more than my personal requirement of 30 minutes three times a week makes me want to loose more than just a few pounds (if you know what I mean!).

He on the other hand finds great joy in the planning for a marathon. The event itself is a test of a solid training plan and commitment to a goal.

His words to me still ring in my ears; “Andy, marathons are one of the very few things in this world that you cannot fake. If you don’t plan, commit and train, you throw up in front of the world”.

Ouch.

That is not something I want to do for sure!

I need teachers to take on the same mindset and apply it to their teaching and their careers. It comes down to planning, stretching for strength, minding the pace, working as a team member, and listening to a trusted coach.

Planning
I am not talking about lesson planning here. I am talking about life planning.

TrappedLike a long distance runner preparing for a race I expect a teacher to plan their career in the same way. I need teachers who can see past the next vacation or school year and consider what they need to do continue to improve, to learn and to reach their ultimate potential throughout the entirety of their career. As new employees come to our school we have a long conversation within the interview process about career goals. Professional stagnation is not an alternative at our school. We ask that people take their goals seriously. We ask that they stay professionally current and focused on goals that can be supported not only by the teacher but also by the organization.

Like a race, a career can only go two ways, forward or backward. There is no standing still. Without some plan, a career and thus teaching skill goes backward.

Stretch for Strength
Like a runner, a good stretch outside of one’s own comfort zone keeps a teacher professionally limber. We all know the person who strives to stay in their comfort zone, They never take risks. Their constant focus is to remain in the middle part of the pack (or the back) but not stand out in last pace. Mediocrity is their norm.

Instead, a quality professional, and great long distance runner knows that they must stretch themselves. Before the race (or the work) they prepare with warm-ups, stretches and deliberate steps. Teachers take care of their professional health by continuation of their learning. They take on new things, learn new skills, and assume new responsibilities. Teachers I want stretch themselves in new areas and new ways. A few years back I was asked to serve on a committee studying instrumental music in our elementary schools. I don’t play an instrument and have no background in music, yet I eagerly accepted the appointment, learned as much as I could about the subject and I believe I learned and contributed to the committee simultaneously. It made me a better principal too!

Mind the Pace
I need teachers to take care of themselves and find balance in their lives. Like a marathon runner, we have to realize that we cannot win the race in the first months of school or even the first years of our career. We must take on things carefully, with intention and with understanding that a stressed and overwhelmed teacher cannot be a good instructor or leader. In those times when the hill is in front of the runner or the inevitable “wall” is hit, a runner will become even more deliberate with their steps, carefully plodding through till the hill is gone or the wall is diminished. The runner will recognize that there may be some discomfort,- even pain- but it will not last forever and such events should not stand in front of our goals. Teachers I want to work with will also power through challenges or hills taking care of themselves and recognizing that the end will be justified by challenges they face as long as their pace is managed.

Working as a team member
Running, like teaching, is a team sport embedded in an individual activity. Administrators for years have been asking teachers to collaborate and then assigning them to separate classrooms, buildings and schedules. As much as we all hate it, there are realities we have to deal with in the daily operations of a school, but with all that being said, I still want to make sure that the teachers I work with see themselves as part of a larger team and they know that their roles will vary and depend on the topic, timing and situation. Teachers, like long distance runners must see themselves as members of a team. Some runners will be the rabbits; running ahead with a quick pace hoping to lead the way. Others will be the pacer; keeping the team at a decent speed, and minding the time. Yet another may be a leader, guiding and facilitating a good race result. These roles are fluid and changed frequently through a race, just like I would expect my teachers to take on different roles in a school setting.

Listening to a Trusted Coach
I grew up in Oregon. The name Prefontaine was burned into our brains as children there, as our bad boy running star from Coos Bay and the University of Oregon gained great status as he won race after race and whose life came tragically to an early end. Pre was a great talent, with amazing heart and a competitive edge. Most students of the sport would tell you that Pre would not have been a great runner without the guidance of Bill Bowerman. Bowerman recruited and guided this amazing talent, helping him become a world class runner. Prefontaine learned to listen to this coach, and was open to listening to and learning from him. I want teachers who seek mentors and is willing to learn from them. A mentor, by the way, is not necessarily an administrator. By no means is a mentor necessarily an older, wiser colleague or college professor. A mentor is someone who can guide learning and provide advice and support. These mentors come to us in many ways, but at the end of the day, they are there to make sure you make it to the end of the race with success and satisfaction. The teachers I want to work with seek out this deeper level of collaboration and gain great knowledge from that relationship.

Teaching, like long distance running cannot be faked. Oh sure, one can look like a long distance runner for a few minutes on a treadmill. 30 minutes three times a week can build running muscles and a guy can even peel off a few pounds, but put that same runner on a track or in a race and by the midpoint that runner (and thus that teacher) will lose their edge and it is SO OBVIOUS that they cannot continue. Sadly, I believe many schools allow the teacher who is not conditioned to continue in their work- allowing mediocre education to continue instead of allowing them to step off the track and get back into professional shape.

I need teachers who plan their professional track, stretch themselves for professional strength, mind their pace of their work and career and listen to a trusted mentor.

This entry has been cross posted at www.sentimentsoncommonsense.com

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Andrew Torris currently serves at the Deputy Superintendent for the Pudong Campus of Shanghai American School. He has served as a technology leader for most of his 24 years as an educator in the United States, Saudi Arabia and the People’s Republic of China. He has presented at regional conferences on technology topics, taught at the elementary and university level and been a building level and central office level administrator for 15 years. Most recently Mr. Torris used his deep passion for learning and technology to bring to reality the 1:1 laptop program at Shanghai American School. He lead the program development from the drawing board to community acceptance of the program and ultimate implementation involving over 400 teachers and over 2000 students. In addition to his many other duties at Shanghai American School, he also serves at the leader of educational technology. His blog can be found at www.sentimentsoncommonsense.com

3 Responses to “What Administrators Need? I Need Teachers Who Think like Distance Runners [guest post]”

  1. Several problems:
    1. “Not a Team Player” is often a code phrase for an administrator to use when dismissing the contributions of an employee who disagrees with the administrator’s views.

    2. Trusted coach I – yes, it would make sense to listen to a “trusted” coach. But the hitch comes when the person in charge is not trusted and often for good reason.

    3. Trusted coach II – again, it makes sense to trust a coach, but when the coach keeps changing, it may be wiser to simply retreat into the foxhole and wait it out.

    4. Marathon analogy – many teachers (employees) do have long-term plans, but if those don’t jibe with those of the administrator du jour, it may be wiser to leave.

    It’s unfortunate that this sounds so cynical, but I’ve been a union rep for 14 years and have seen too many situations in which a good teacher is all-of-a-sudden awful after a change in administrators.

    • Nancy,

      1. I’ve been teaching for 12 years and “Not a Team Player” is sometimes because…they really aren’t. Teachers shut their doors and do not share. In fact I have a teacher at my school now that believes all the content she has created belongs to her and will not share any of it with her “team mates”

      2. A “Trusted Coach” doesn’t need to be an administrator. I’ve worked at 5 different schools in 4 different countries and seek my own coach out each time, as well as being a coach for others. Coaches emerge naturally.

      3. Not sure I get this point…..when is it ever OK in education to “retreat to the foxhole and wait it out” change is part of the game. I’m an international teacher where most schools turn over 20% of their staff every year. Coachs/mentors come and go but we must continue to seek out new ones. Retreating in an age of rapid change I’m afraid is what is happening to often in too many schools in education.

      4. Agree….hence the reason I continue to change schools. Why don’t teachers leave? I have known many a teacher who is bitter, unhappy and their plans don’t jibe with the administration yet they don’t take any action. Instead they blames others instead of finding a place where their vision matches that of administration/school. I like the saying “Lead, follow, or get out of the way” what ever you do don’t get bitter and blame others. We all have choices and choosing to leave is a choice.

      I’ve never been a union rep but I too have seen situations where awful teachers were all-of-a-sudden good after a change in administrators. People jive with different people, education and work is about relationships and we all have choices on how those relationships play our or if we decide to change them.

      I’m not an administrator, but think to often we place blame on leaders without looking inward first and reflecting on our own behaviors and goals.

      • There are occasionally teachers who are “not team players” simply because they are bitter curmudgeons. I get that. However, in my experience, those who don’t work together are often afraid.

        Sometimes they are afraid of the bad decisions that a group is making. “Collaboration” can sometimes become a code word for groupthink. Other times, they are afraid of admitting that they need help. Still, other times they are afraid that if they share what works and others follow suit, they will lose their status as “the best.” (Competitive environments often create this type of fear)

        Collaboration takes vulnerability and far too often administrators create cultures of compliance rather than cultures of trust.

        I’ve never seen a trust-based, vulnerable, open environment where people didn’t naturally want to collaborate.

        My point is this: If you want marathon runners, you need them to see why it’s worth running, how the team can support them and why the coach is trustworthy.

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