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Marathon Runner- Rock Like a Teacher Series

Ed. Note- In honor of the CUE Rock Star Camps, which run all summer, we will be presenting a Rock Like a Teacher series of posts in which educators talk about the music and musicians who made them better teachers.

I am a marathon runner/ and my legs are sore/

and I’m anxious to see/ what I’m running for./

I am a hot air balloon/ on a sailboat./

and I’d make this my home/ If I’d learn to float.

Yellow Ostrich – Marathon Runner

Silhouette of athletic girl running down the road to a sunsetWe all know the moment: you are moving your way along a trail— real or proverbial— and all of a sudden, the thought pops into your head:

“I don’t want to do this anymore. I would like to stop now, please.”

And with that, your body hits what runners know as “The Wall”: your legs get heavy, your shoulders hunch down, your chest feels like it’s weighed down with a bag of lead. Your entire being is telling you to give up, to stop whatever you’re doing, and surrender to failure.

Teaching has Walls too. I hit one in my first year of teaching- in October of 2012. The Wall was called DEVOLSON, otherwise known as “The Disillusionment Stage.” To be fair, I didn’t set myself up for success: instead of starting the year off with a plan, I assumed I’d be able to coast by on charisma and good execution.

Boy, was I wrong. The first few months of my teaching career were, in short, a disaster. My students sensed both my lack of direction as well as my lack of authenticity. By the time October hit, my classroom was far from the safe haven I had hoped. Every morning I woke up, I’d have a few minutes of blissful ignorance before realization I had to return to this place that made me feel anxious, helpless, and ineffective.

Then, I started running with my students.

We didn’t have a field. We ran laps around our school in preparation for the LA Marathon. My body rejected every single step and, after the first mile, all I wanted to do was quit. Who do you think you are? my mind screamed. You’re not built for this.

Then, I heard screams from the balcony of our building. “Go Ms. T! You can do this!” I looked up and saw a handful of students smiling and waving at us as we ran along. I was a new teacher at the school, and we were only a few months in, so I was surprised they knew me.

I couldn’t help but laugh, wave back, and start running again. I wanted them to see me keep trying. I wanted them to know they made me want to keep trying, because of how hard they worked. I wanted to keep going– no matter how slowly– because I wanted to make them proud, the way they made me proud.

Running with my kids through the SRLA program
ultimately put me on a better path to build relationships with them. We began to see each other as people, instead of adversaries, as we would tick off mile after mile together.

Eventually, I made it through DEVOLSON. When I went home that winter, I sat down and realized I needed a game plan. Just like I had a training program for the marathon, my students and I needed something we could rally around until we reached an ultimate goal that we were all invested in.

When I came back in January I had plans and a desire to be myself with them– they had already seen me sweating it out as we hit pavement. By the time March of that year came, a number of my students and I ran our first L.A. marathon together.

Now, as a teacher, running is the place I go to when I lose sight of myself, or a hit a wall in my practice. Running provided not just a physical way to relieve my stresses, but an important mental lesson: sometimes, the best option is simply to keep moving forward, even when everything hurts it seems impossible. The trail may have become murky or the end seems ridiculously far, however we must keep putting one foot in front of the other. We must keep trying to float and succeed.

All of us occasionally have the moment where we look around our classroom, hear the din of students outside, and wonder, “Can I do this?”

The answer isn’t always the optimistic, “Of course!” or “You can do anything!” The answer is also not to say, “NOPE!” and run out of the room screaming.

Sometimes, the best answer is to take a deep breath, close our eyes for a moment, and decide there’s only one way to find out– open the door, and keep running the trail with our students.


Torres HeadshotChristina Torres currently teaches 7th and 9th grade English and Drama at University Laboratory School in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. She previously taught in Los Angeles, and worked on Teach For America – Hawai‘i staff. Christina holds a Masters in Education with a focus on Digital Education from Loyola Marymount University, and more info can be found at christinatorres.org. She’s also writes ‘The Intersection,’ a weekly column for EdWeek Teacher.

Using social mediaCompetency-based and personalized learning strategies are both best incorporated when they leverage technology tools which allow teachers to customize their standard curriculum. Classrooms are now equipped with smart boards, Internet access, mobile devices, digital cameras, along with other devices that relate specifically to a particular field of study. These devices, when used correctly, can enhance a student’s academic experience while allowing teachers to cater to the diverse needs of their classroom.

A competency-based learning system focuses on the demonstration of a student’s academic performance. Students are allowed to progress by way of individualized learning programs at a rate that challenges their growth and supports their development. Competency-based learning allows students to master at their own pace and spend extra time as needed in areas they lack certain strengths. In this system, students largely compete against themselves.

Competency-based systems can produce multiple pathways to graduation – depending on the strategy used. The progression of computer-based training allows schools to make better use of technology. One school has even taken their approach to competency-based learning offline with the introduction of individual mentors. The program has rigorous acceptance requirements, including a terminal degree in the field and previous industry experience, but students enrolled participate in hands on projects so they can learn by doing. Regardless of the competency-based learning implementation, the approach provides an opportunity to achieve greater efficiency and increase productivity.

Personalized learning plans differ in that students are exposed to material, projects, and assignments based on their specific learning style. Instructors who rely on this strategy are most effective when they design a personalized plan at the curriculum level.

Personalized learning plans lend themselves well to using choice boards. Choice boards are graphic organizers that allow students to select how they will learn. Boards should contain four-to-nine options. Each option reveals a separate project that students will complete. They can be designed around the ways a teacher has noticed his or her students choose to learn most often, providing videos, readings, and hands-on options.

Boy touching a smartphoneMobile devices and access to software and online tools also allow instructors to take advantage of the personalization that will make students most productive. Learning is active and interactive using these tools, and students are likely to be more engaged rather than distracted by the constant call of mobile technology.

Both approaches mark a transition from a school of thought that favors seat time to a structure that encourages flexibility, allowing students to progress either according to their demonstrated level of mastery or according to a learning choice that is most effective. Competency-based and personalized learning strategies require more planning upfront. Student goals and abilities must be adequately assessed to apply the most effective strategies. There will also be an additional investment in equipment required as the proper technology tools are also generally needed to implement either strategies. However, enhanced student engagement and progress is the trade-off to be realized by a transition to either a competency-based or personalized learning system.


hilary smithTexas native, Hilary Smith now braves Chicago winters since she attended Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. After graduating, Hillary began a career as a freelance writer focusing on the telecommunications industry. She embraces her inner nerd by staying abreast of the latest technology trends.

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