(re)Born to Run: Teaching and Running, pt. II

I’ve spent the last day continuing to muse on the same issue – of identity, of changing your sense of self and what you are capable of — because I think in many ways it gets to the crux of the problem of education, and goes to the heart of what we’re discussing in my workshops this week at Outward Bound.

I keep returning to is the issue of initiative: where does the change begin?  Who is the prime mover, the student or the teacher?  I like to think of my personal transformation into a runner as largely self-motivated, that I had the willpower and focus to run when I didn’t want to, to persevere when it was still hard, to force my way through the pains of metamorphosis in taking on (and ultimately, embracing) a new identity as Runner.  But of course, I only had that self-motivation in response to what my doctor and coach told me – had it not been for their influence, I would have happily continued over-eating, smoking, and not exercising for who knows how long (possibly forever, or until a heart-attack, which ever came first).


As educators, we all have those classic twin spirits perched on our shoulders.  The fellow with pointy horns and a barbed tail whispers: “You can’t do any thing with some of these kids.  They come from broken homes, their parents don’t care, they don’t value education, they come from horrible middle schools, they can’t/don’t/won’t learn.  Don’t blame yourself.”  Meanwhile, that swan-winged and be-haloed angel responds: “Every student can be saved, and it is your job to save them!  You just need to find the right hook, the right entry point – shower them with enough love and support and positive self-affirmations, have them tear out that page in their textbook that teaches them how to objectively evaluate poetry and when the school fires you for just caring too damn much, they will all stand on their desks and cry out, Oh, Captain, my Captain!”

(Don’t listen to spirits who sit on your shoulders.  They tend to lie.  If they had any legitimacy as spirits, they would have found somewhere better to hang out than on your back.  The truth lies somewhere betwixt their opposing diatribes.)


I was an overweight smoker who hated running.  Then I changed.

Question: what causes change?

Concept: inertia.  Newton’s First Law of Physics: an object at rest remains at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.  What causes a change in movement?  Not the object at rest. Variables come into play (the relative size and mass of the objects, the friction of the surface upon which they rest, velocity, etc.) but Answer: an outside force.

Force = my doctor, my coach.  It begins outside.  But why?  How?

As a teacher, I am trying my hardest to reach each of my students.  (I try not to lend too much credence to either of my shoulder-squatting spirits, but I do tend to try to save, do still have that naive spark that I can get to them all).  But my doctor, my coach wasn’t trying to “save” me.  Sure, they each cared about my health, but there wasn’t anything intensely personal there, neither were attempting to be Saints or Martyrs.

What they did: they communicated the facts of where I was – they evaluated where I was, objectively speaking, and told me in a way that made sense to me.  “You could afford to lose some weight; you know, you aren’t as young as you used to be.” “You okay after that warm up?  No, I’m not talkin’ to you young guys, I was askin’ Van Dyke.” (word for word quotes.  Translation: you are fat and old.)

I wasn’t punished, wasn’t rewarded, wasn’t sorted into success/failure.  But it was conveyed to me significantly.  I’d always been told my height, weight, cholesterol, blood-pressure, resting heart-rate.  I’d been assessed before, but none of it was significant to me; it didn’t mean anything.  This time I was simply told where I was.

And it wasn’t where I wanted to be.  Wasn’t even where I thought I was.

I went home, googled, “healthy weight,” and discovered that I was not only overweight, but right on the line of being obese.  I had a learning target: an measurable, objective goal.

Then I my self-motivation took over.  Then I could change myself.


The First Design Principle of Expeditionary Learning Schools: The Primacy of Self Discovery:

Learning happens best with emotion, challenge and the requisite support.  People discover their abilities, values, passions, and responsibilities in situations that offer adventure and the unexpected.  In Expeditionary Learning schools, students undertake tasks that require perseverance, fitness, craftsmanship, imagination, self-discipline, and significant, achievement.  A teacher’s primary task is to help students overcome their fears and discover they can do more than they think they can.


I think that this last year is a parallel to my rebirth as a runner, but for me as an educator.

Last year I realized that, as a teacher, I was old and fat.  I was burned out.  I hated going to work, I hated my students, I hated many of my coworkers and many aspects of my school.  When I began as a teacher, I knew it was as a career, not merely as a service project, but I also made myself a promise: if I became an old, burned out vet, that I’d quit.

And that’s how my thinking was going last year.  That I couldn’t deal with the crap any longer; that I needed out.  I started looking up education-related jobs, consulting work, positions with after-school programs.  M reminded me that I used to love my job, that I had recently loved my job, that before I threw it all in and quit, perhaps I could fix what was broken.  Maybe find a new school.

Assessment: I didn’t like where I was.  Solution: Change it.

Becoming a runner entailed a change of identity.  This last week has made me realize that the same is happening with me as a teacher.  I think this last week was my 5K – I’m exhausted and broken and excited and I can’t imagine running a marathon but it doesn’t sound impossible any more.  This training has left me shattered and eviscerated . . . and excited, because that lack of form, that hollow-place, is left empty to be filled with possibilities.

Possibilities are exciting.  Possibilities are terrifying.  Staring at an empty sheet of paper, waiting to draw.

I don’t know how I’m organizing my class room.  I don’t know what books I’m teaching.  I don’t know how I’m going to grade.  Terrifying.  Exciting.

This last week made me realize how far my practice as a teacher had drifted from my ideals, from my beliefs.  I’ve spent years talking about diagnostic assessment versus formative assessment versus summative assessment, but it was all jargon until this week: assessment of learning versus assessment for learning.  “Even the most valid and reliable assessment cannot be regarded as high quality if it causes a student to give up.”  I don’t think that I’ve ever read a pedagogical statement that made me tear up before.

Because all I’ve ever seen assessment for was as a way to sort students: into success and failure,  effort and lack of effort, pass fail.  To generate a number to put on a report card, to use as a stick or carrot for future effort.  Not to guide learning.  Not to aid self-discovery. (I’m not where I want to be.  I’m not even where I thought I was.)

I think I’ve spent the last nine years being a great role model, a great mentor, a great guide, a great leader.

I don’t think I’ve spent the last nine years being a great teacher.  Sometimes, but not often.

Shattered and terrified.  And excited.

I’ve been teaching for nine years, and I can’t remember the last time I’ve been this excited to be starting the school year.  I know that I’ll be crashing down (hard) from this little utopian bubble into the realities of the teaching day: late students, a lack of skills, under-funded and overcrowded classes, (I’m sure) less than ideal co-workers.  But I’m excited: by the potential, by the ideals, by the beliefs.

The design principles of Expeditionary learning:

  1. The primacy of self-discovery
  2. The having of wonderful ideas
  3. The responsibility of learning
  4. Empathy and Caring
  5. Success and Failure
  6. Collaboration and Competition
  7. Diversity and Inclusion
  8. The Natural World
  9. Solitude and Reflection
  10. Service and Compassion

Expeditionary Schools, as an organization, really do believe in these principles.  The two amazing women who ran this week, Michelle and Meg, really believe in these principles. My principal, the thirty or so teachers I spent this week with, really believe them.  They believe they can make a difference.  We believe (as cheesy and bumper-stickery as it is) that we can be the change we want to see in the world. (Ghandi, so maybe not so cheesy).

I ran a marathon.  I believe I can do anything.

I’m not used to being surrounded by people who believe.  Who believe in my students, in their coworkers.  Really believe, not just say it, put it into a logo or a mission statement, but actually believe it.  It’s invigorating and infectious and addictive.  I think the last time I felt like this was November 11th, 2008, when I sat watching the election results come in, tears streaming down my face.  Si se puede.  Before that: November 7th, same year, when I crosses the finish line of the New York City Marathon. (Yes, I can do anything).  But not in teaching.  Maybe it’s naïve, but right now I’m so filled with hope and possibility about my job that its hard to breathe.

This year I am going to run an ultramarathon.  This year I’m going to be the teacher I want to see in the world.

This year I am going to (start) to change the world.  


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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5 Responses to (re)Born to Run: Teaching and Running, pt. II

  1. Stephen Harding says:

    Beautiful post, Chris. Thank you for it and for being the teacher you are and will be.

    I’m a former English teacher (college-level) and miss it desperately. I left for financial reasons, but will go back one day. Your post inspires me and gives me hope for our education system, something that I think is so very critical.

    • Chris Van Dyke says:

      Thanks! Glad you liked it, and I hope I can live up to the ideals I seek to embody. Its not an easy job, but it can also be so much fun — teenagers can be frustrating as hell, but also the most amazing, inspirational people to be around. Keep them learning when they get to your level! Thanks for reading, and the kind words.

  2. Angela Hotz says:

    so glad to have found you as a friend. I could use the inspiration. I get trapped inside my bubble and sometimes need to see that the world does have people of likemind and heart. People that believe they can make a difference by finding their own happiness and having others witness it or visa versa depending on how you look at it.

    • Chris Van Dyke says:

      Thanks Angela! I hope this year will be a half as inspiring as this week. I really do see my running as what has allowed me to see my teaching and myself in a new light. Its sort of ridiculous how I now see EVERYTHING though the lens of running, but then it helps everything make sense . . .

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