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Why Every Educator Needs to Run a Marathon

Marilyn Anderson Rhames is the founder and CEO of Teachers Who Pray, a faith-based nonprofit that has more than 165 chapters nationwide. She taught for 14 years in the Chicago public schools, after spending her early professional career as a journalist for outlets including People, Time, and Newsday. Marilyn is also the author of The Master Teacher: 12 Spiritual Lessons That Can Transform Schools and Revolutionize Public Education and serves on the design team for Harvard University's Leadership Institute for Faith and Education.

I am a marathoner. I just earned that title after running the Chicago Marathon last month. What was my time? I finished.

Anyone who seeks to understand American public education needs to run at least one marathon. Yes, pounding the payment for 26.2 miles is painful, time-consuming, frustrating, and a bit insane, but so it is for millions of students who take the journey from kindergarten through high school. Let me explain:

Marathon Training is Like Pre-K to 5th Grade

It takes a dedicated regime of stretching, running, hydrating, getting the proper nutrition, and resting to prepare the body to endure the beating it will get from running a marathon.

Well, pre-K to 5th grade is where our students should get the fundamentals of education that will carry them through their entire schooling career. They need to learn phonics and number sense (stretching), develop independent reading habits, writing, and the ability to do basic mathematical operations (running), solve problems and think critically (hydration and nutrition), and be allowed enough downtime to relax and play (resting).

When the training isn't sufficient in marathon running or school, the results can be disastrous.

The Start Line is Like the First Day Middle School

The first day of middle school is probably the most exciting and anxious day of a kid's school career. You're geeked that you're finally there. You're all grown up now, not a baby anymore. But at the same time you're worried, a bit panicked even, about how all this is going to turn out.

That was me on race day. Like a middle schooler, I had laid out my race day outfit (with shoes and socks), racing bib, water bottle, and nutritional snacks the night before. When I got to my starting corral, the crowds of spectators were also there and the energy of the event was super positive. Total strangers were rooting for me, holding signs that said, "You are just so great!" "You're so awesome!" "Goooo, you!!"

Running (and Learning) While Slow

I thought those signs were for me, but 10 miles in I knew that they really weren't. Those signs were for everybody who ran fast enough to see them. You see, the crowds came out in the low 40's weather, with a windy, five degree wind chill factor to cheer on the marathoners for two reasons: 1) To see the wonder of 90,000 legs of all shapes, colors and sizes barreling down a city street. 2) To catch a glimpse of their mom, dad, or best friend who was running an epic race to that free banana at the finish line. In fact, a few of my own friends shouted out my name around Mile 3.  

By my half-marathon point, the elite, competitive, professional runners had already gotten their medals two hours ago, and half of the people who had started running after me had already passed me up.

I'm a slow runner. Slow runners, like slow learners have it hard.

By the time I reached 15 miles the race was literally shutting down. Race organizers began to taking down the porta potties and making the water stations few and far in between, too. The crowds had dissipated. Trash was everywhere in my path. Streets and sanitation vehicles were driving alongside me, cleaning the streets with their noise and lights flashing.

The last mileage sign I saw was 18. After that I had to ask police officers for the number of miles because all the marathon signage had been removed. At one point, for a stretch that felt like two miles, every police officer told me I was at mile 21—so frustrating!

At one point they moved the runners to the sidewalk to re-open street traffic, then later they allowed runners back in the street, alongside the big blue street cleaning trucks. At one point I thought, "I'm trash. Just sweep me up too."

Just when I wanted to give up—my feet were burning and my legs were locking up—I'd see a woman standing in the street handing out Tootsie Rolls and then another on the curb with a big jar of Jolly Rangers, saying "You're almost there. Keep going!!"

At mile 24ish, I met a young man who was leaned up against a fence, grimacing and holding his knee. Asked him if he needed a medic. He said no. I looked him in the eye and said, "You have two options: Get on a stretcher or finish the race!"

I slowed walked the rest of the race with my new, limping friend David. The official finish line had long been disassembled, so we came through the narrow, undescriptive gate on the side.

Marathoning and American Education

If you want to know about American education, look no further than my marathon experience. I didn't have an elite track coach (teacher) or a professional team of pace-setters (tutors). The crowds that told me I was great in mile 1-5 (education advocates) were nowhere to be found at mile 20. I couldn't even get a sip of water or find a place to pee for miles (decent learning facilities). My help came from women from the neighborhood who understood the struggle (community organizations). The city of Chicago couldn't wait for slow runners like me; they were removing all signs of the race while thousands of people were still running it. I was too slow for the Chicago Tribune to publish my finish time.

So if you really want to know time (my standardized test score), it was 8 hours and 18 minutes. I guess that makes me 2 hours behind grade level, but it doesn't matter. I'm still a marathoner!

Marilyn Rhames

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