Teaching, Running, and Indentity

I’m spending each day this week in an intensive workshop program for teacher’s who are new to the Expeditionary Learning (or “EL”) model of schools. I’ve actually been looking forward to it because I really do have a LOT to learn in order to be up to speed (EL schools have a lot of specialized language, routines, and practices), but also because of the commute: 5.25 miles each way, which means I can finally get some real running in. I was going to run in Monday, but was running late and so caught a cab; turned out the driver didn’t know Queens at all (or even how to get there!), got us lost (he had no GPS), and after calling M to google-map directions for us, it took me 50 minutes to get there, which was about 5 minutes longer than it would have taken had I run. (Reinforcing one of my key philosophies – running is the fastest way to get almost anywhere in New York). I ran both there and back Tuesday. Today, I am (sadly) typing this on the G train, as I need to give my legs a rest: I haven’t been running that seriously over the summer, and since Sunday I’ve run almost 23 miles, so I should probably play it safe.


In our workshop yesterday, part of our conversation revolved around the role of authentic assessment, and the role it plays in not just judging the end result of education, but can (and should) play a key role in learning itself: assessment FOR learning as opposed to merely assessment OF learning. (Side note in irony: both the EL model and our national “Race to the Top” high-stakes testing mania both stress the importance of assessment, but they are talking about literally opposite ideas). There was a reading about how assessments so often lay the foundations for future success or failure, with the ‘good’ students receiving each test as reinforcing that they are ‘good’ at school, and the ‘bad’ students seeing them as a testament that they are ‘bad’ at school. Patterns become belief become self-fulfilling prophesies that become difficult to change.
While I was running home, I was musing on this thread, and thought of myself and my history with running. How did I change? One article we read about adolescent brain development discussed how formative teenage years are, how neurological pathways are actually formalized or cut off; that if “you’re a couch potato at 15, you’re likely to be a couch potato for the rest of you life unless there is a compelling, dramatic, transformative experience that motivates and inspires you to change an ingrained habit.” How did I change? Why did I change?

I realized it isn’t just about patters becoming belief, but eventually identity. Our identities can be positive (inclusive, “what I am”) or negative (exclusive, “I am NOT.”), and usually a combination of both. When I was a teenager, my identity was strongly positive, stating what I was: a nerd, a geek, someone who liked to be weird and wacky, a book-worm, a kid who hung out in the library over lunch, a role-playing gamer. However, it was also highly negative: was not a “jock,” not an athlete, not a cool kid, not a partier, not popular, and definitely Not a Runner. In order to reinforce what I was, I juxtaposed it very strongly with what I was wasn’t. I not sure exactly when this started, but once it becomes identity, it isn’t a choice, or even conscious: it is just who you are.

For many of my students, their identity is as “the Good Student” or as “the Bad Student,” and just as strongly, as “NOT the Good Student.” When we try to change someone’s habits, it is difficult. When we try to alter a self-fulfilling proficiency, we face the resistance of belief. When we try to change someone’s identity, however, that can be very threatening, since we are challenging who they are, a tenet of their self-perception and being; with teenagers, this is particularly threatening and powerful, because they are all about the creation of identity, structuring their own personal mythology to explain who they are and where they are from. To ask a student who sees themselves a Not a Good Student is to threaten their sense of identity.


So as I ran, I asked myself what allowed me to change. “If you’re a couch potato at 15, you’re likely to be a couch potato for the rest of you life unless there is a compelling, dramatic, transformative experience that motivates and inspires you to change an ingrained habit.” What was my compelling, dramatic, transformative experience? What let (forced?) me to change my identity as Not a Runner?

I’ve told this story here before, but my compelling experience was when I was 27 and, in the same day, had my doctor tell me I “should think of losing some weight” and my fencing couch call me “old.” Why was this compelling/dramatic/transformative for me? Not because it challenged my health: I’d been smoking for a few years, not exercising and eating too much, and I knew (on a cognitive level, at least) that all those things were bad for me. It was because it also challenged my sense of self-identity. I wasn’t an athlete, and I was Not a Runner, but I also did not see myself as “overweight” or even lazy. I liked to take long walks, I liked hiking, canoeing. In my mind, I wasn’t a jock, I was a Renaissance Man, a Henry David Theoreux, but what I was suddenly confronted with was the fact that I was technically obese, I was having a hard time climbing up the stairs because I was out of breath, it shook me – the me I was was not the me I thought I was, and certainly wasn’t the me I wanted to be.

I started running. And I hated it. I did it, because I felt I had to – I had that compelling reason to run even though I didn’t want to, but that was it. I still saw myself as Not a Runner, but now I was Not a Runner who was, tragically, forced to run. I still clung to my identity as Not a Runner, and bemoaned this cruel world that required exercise of me in order not to be prematurely fat and old. My compelling reason was enough of a motivation to force me to go against my identity, but not enough to change it.
So what did? A successful experience. The 5K that Catherine talked me into signing up for; the 5K I swore I wouldn’t be able to finish, that I’d run the first mile or two and then walk the rest; the 5K that I finished in 30 minutes, running the whole way, even beating Catherine by a few strides. I did not take on Runner as my identity that day, but I did let go of clinging to being Not a Runner. Because it wasn’t true – I had run a 5K (and enjoyed it!) so I couldn’t be Not a Runner. I wasn’t Not a Runner. The elimination of that negative sense of self allowed room for a new sense of self (being a Runner), but it took that extra step, that positive experience, for me to embrace it, to own it, to make it part of my identity.


This week been great in terms of running: 7 miles Saturday, 5.25 Monday, then a 10.5 mile round trip Today. Wednesday should be a day off, since I’m a bit out of practice, but its hard to convince myself to spend 50 minutes on the subway when I can spend 50 minutes running.


About Chris Van Dyke

I am a 33 year-old high school English teacher and long-distance runner. I live in Brooklyn with my partner, our 3 year-old son and 1 year-old daughter and a growing collection of muppets and trains. Besides running and teaching I like to draw, read, write, cook, and play the harmonica. While I didn't get to run my first ultra-marathon on my birthday, I've got a few more I've set my sights on. You can follow my (seldom updated) twitter feed @aboutrunning. I also blog as part of the Run Smiley Collective.
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2 Responses to Teaching, Running, and Indentity

  1. Well thought and well said. I think I can’t kick my exercise into a higher gear because I’ve settled with my identity as an overweight guy. I don’t really ever remember not being overweight, even though childhood photos indicate otherwise. I don’t see it as entirely possible to break through to being not overweight, I think, without a change in that. Even when I was biking more than 50 miles a week and working out at the gym, I barely got below 220. The change in lifestyle required to change that seems insurmountable without changes to several facets of my identity (overweight, food lover, computer nerd).

    On another subject, I’m interested in seeing a fencing couch, especially one that makes disparaging remarks about you. It sounds uncomfortable to sit on. 😉

    • Chris Van Dyke says:

      Okay, okay, I’ll change the typo 🙂 I’ve just accepted I probably have half a dozen each post. Self-image is a funny thing. When i started working out and getting muscles (actual muscles!), I had to go through another self-image check. In a way, I think there is still a self-imposed limit, which isn’t necessarily bad. I try to imagine myself with a six-pack, and I don’t like that idea: that isn’t how I see myself, or want to see myself. I think the trouble is when your self-image limits your sense of possibility, and even limits your capacity for imagination.

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