Education, Lessons Learned In Combat

What Walking 39.3 Miles (Re)Taught Me About Teaching

A week and a half ago I finished my sixth Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, a two-day event that encompasses 39.3 miles during which its participants walk along the streets, overpasses, and public gardens of beautiful Boston, Massachusetts. (There are also walks that take place in Houston, TX; Washington, D.C.; and Santa Barbara, CA, among other cities across the U.S.) Although I have always walked as part of a team–for the past four years, as part of team Miles for Melons–there are always moments during the walk where the conversation lulls as my teammates and I meander and/or limp through quiet neighborhoods, admiring the pink balloons and coolers full of ice water that strangers have kindly left out for us in support of our cause. These are the moments where we are able to replay conversations we had with a spouse or loved one, dream of places we’d rather be, and–perhaps–contemplate our next tattoo.

This year, as I passed Mile 20 on Day 1 (that annual marker of the descent into Avon Walk hell)–my hot spots turning to fiery blisters, the swelling in my fingers and ankles reaching an all-time crest–my mind raced trying to think of something (anything!) that would get me through the next 6.2 miles until my teammates and I reached the Wellness Village. And as is often the case when my mind races, I began to think about my professional life–specifically, my teaching life. Even more specifically, I began to contemplate what this incredible yet formidable challenge could teach me and my colleagues about that other incredible yet formidable challenge we handle with aplomb and grace nearly every day. I began to think about what walking 39.3 miles can teach us about teaching.

1. If you think you can do it without the proper training, you’re right–but it’ll suck more.

There have been some years where I have trained like a champion for the Avon Walk, following the best schedules and gearing both my body and my mind up for the annual trek across Boston. I have gotten up early to train each morning, have faithfully read the emails sent by my Avon Walker Buddy full of tips and tricks, and have paid close attention to my diet in the months leading up to the walk. But there have also been years when I pretty much phoned it in, reassuring my concerned family and friends that my body “remembers what it’s like [from year to year]” and barely hitting 6 miles at a time during the training season. These latter years are the ones where I have still managed to complete the entire 39.3 miles over two days, but boy, could I feel a difference. Don’t get me wrong; that 20 mile mark is still the beginning of hell no matter how well I’ve trained or prepared myself. That last stretch before the Wellness Village on Day 1 and the finish line on Day 2 are still tough. Overall, though, better training and preparation before the walk means a better overall experience, a much happier mindset, and not nearly as much recovery time once I pass that last mile marker.

I find that the same thing happens in my teaching life. No matter what, teaching is hard. There are times when it sucks (admit it). But those years when we have spent a good amount of time preparing for our students, beefing up on the latest information about what constitutes “good practice,” and focusing on our own wellness are, by far, the best years (amiright?). And in mid-June, when we are harried and spent and the last student has walked out the door, we are satisfied in knowing that we truly did our best–and are less likely, over the next several weeks, to dwell on everything we didn’t do.

2. If you think THIS is difficult, consider what could be.

There’s a sign that always appears at least once during the walk–and some years we can find vendors selling buttons–with the words Because Blisters Are Better Than Chemo emblazoned on them. It’s always a humbling moment when my teammates and I come across this phrase, and we can’t help but think about our mothers, aunts, sisters, mentors, friends, and countless strangers who know the truth of that mantra all too well. This year, when Mother Nature decided to accompany the first several hours of our walk with a downpour (greatly increasing the likelihood of developing said blisters), over and over I silently chanted that what we were experiencing was better than chemo, better than chemo, better than chemo. That shooting pain in my hip that always wakes up halfway through Day 1? Better than chemo. The loss of that same toenail from my right foot every year? Better than chemo. Waking up with a stiff back after tenting in the rain overnight? A helluva lot better than chemo.

At any school at which I’ve worked, it’s been easy to get caught up in the negative. These kids are unmotivated! Their home lives are a mess! The copier’s broken AGAIN! I usually find it swirling around the teacher’s room like a black, odiferous cloud. Sometimes, I’m not just “caught up” in it–I contribute to it. And then I think about colleagues of mine who work in other schools who are forced to use scripted programs every day or who are given little to no money for professional development or who are evaluated based upon student test scores. And I think, I am incredibly blessed. I chuckle at my good fortune. And I get back to work.

3. If you think you can do this without the support of others, you’re crazy (or stupid).

At every Avon Walk, there are those who we call “solo strutters”–brave souls who are not part of a team but who have made the commitment to walk anyway, because they can. However, these people are far from alone. Not only do the organizers of the walk do everything in their power to hook solo strutters up with each other, but often teams find themselves “adopting” a lone walker for the weekend. (Concetta, if you’re out there, we look for you every year!) Even without those supports, solo strutters are never truly alone. There’s the youth crew, a group of 12-18 year-olds who sing, cheer, and smile their way along the route every year; the safety crew, a motorcycle-riding clan of men and women who escort the walkers across every crosswalk and never miss an opportunity to thank us for walking or tell us how much we kick ass; the Sweep Team, who circulate throughout the route in their bra-bedazzled vans and their pounding pop music; and the medical crew, who massage our sore muscles, gently tend to our wounds, and dispense our Vitamin I with utter graciousness. This outpouring of support, 24 hours a day all weekend long, is what gets every single walker through the physical and mental challenge of the event and, no matter how many miles s/he walks, ensures that s/he crosses that bright pink finish line with pride in her heart and a smile on her face.

Of course, teachers don’t have that kind of support every day. Most of our support comes in the form of mugs at Christmastime or Hershey’s Kisses during Teacher Appreciation Week (we appreciate it, we swear! It’s just that–well, we need more than that). But that shouldn’t stop us from seeking our own professional support systems, whether it be through colleagues, conferences, Twitter, blogging, or mentorship. A supported teacher is a better teacher, a healthier teacher–a teacher who is more inclined to stick it out, work through the hard parts, and cross that June finish line with pride in her heart and a smile on her face.

As sweet as that finish line can be, though, it’s the journey–the long, harrowing, sometimes amazing, sometimes sucky journey–that makes the Avon Walk–and our teaching lives–as fulfilling as they are. And even if we pick up a dozen blisters along the way, there’s always next year, when we once again get to take that first, fresh step.

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Team Miles for Melons 2014

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