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3 Ways Being a First-Year ACE Teacher is Like Running an Ultramarathon

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Even for an English teacher, metaphors can be difficult when trying to explain what it's like to be a first-year ACE teacher. But let's give it a shot:

Being a first-year ACE teacher is like running an ultramarathon in a superhero costume that doesn't quite fit yet.superheros

I've certainly never run what's called an "ultramarathon," but there's a legendary and dynamite teacher at Tampa Catholic named Mr. Matthews who runs them fairly regularly, and he's given me the run-down. An "ultramarathon" is a 100-mile race that usually takes around twenty-four hours to complete. It is with extreme humility that I even dare to compare my experience in ACE with his, but there are perhaps several interesting similarities:

1. There's not really any way to train for it.

Before Mr. Matthews ran his first ultramarathon, he said the farthest he'd run was around sixty miles. That's only a bit more than half the total distance. ACE was the same: two quick months of education classes, six weeks of mornings spent in a public summer school classroom, and off you go! There's a limit to how much you can prep for your first days as a teacher—at some point you just have to do it, armed only with a full heart, enthusiasm for your subject material, and a reliable support network.

2. It's a wild ride, with precious moments of runner's high and other (longer) moments of pure exhaustion.

It may be a cliché, but once you're in it, each day is truly an adventure. There are moments of pure ecstatic joy when you are channeling the very spirit of Steinbeck, and other moments of complete exhaustion when you might as well be trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.

Mile Three is an entirely different experience than Mile Fifty-Eight, and Mile Seventy-Nine brings with it a whole host of new joys and challenges. I can hardly remember my first day of teaching any more (though I do remember not being able to eat or sleep for a several days from nervous terror), but the view from February is an entirely different vista, with new fears, thrills, and burdens.

3. You may feel alone, but really, you're not.

As you can imagine, Mr. Matthews talked about the unique experience of being "alone with your thoughts" for 100 miles. But although physically alone, a runner apparently draws on all the people who wander into his or her mind's eye for strength and motivation.

This feeling comes in teaching, as well—sometimes I feel like it's just "little me," in a classroom in Florida, hundreds of miles away from anything or anyone familiar. But it's not. The greatest gift of ACE is community. Even though I met some of my community members mere months ago, I lean on them like family. They are, along with my students, reminders of God's presence, and I am never truly alone.

But what about that superhero costume I mentioned in the beginning? I said it didn't quite fit yet. It's too large—a first-year teacher has to grow into his or her role as "superhero." You're dressed, doing your best, and maybe you've fooled some people, but it's not really you yet.

Not that it's insincere in any way, it's just a little ramshackle, like when you look in the mirror some mornings, see yourself in "teacher clothes," and feel a bit ridiculous. But you're growing, and eventually the costume you wear will be an authentic representation of who and what you are in your classroom—an everyday hero.

In the end, neither an ultramarathon nor your first year as an ACE teacher is about winning. Massive challenges like these are instead about becoming your best self. While the finish line is always in sight at the end of a race, and the end of my first year of teaching is within grasp in June, it has never been about that. As Thomas Merton said, "There is no being Christian. There is only becoming Christian." What is true of living Christianity is equally true about first-year teaching.

To all my students: even though I am writing this on a dark bus on the way home from a lacrosse tournament, and you are singing "Livin' on a Prayer" at the top of your lungs and sounding mildly ridiculous, I run for you.

Interested in participating in this year's ACE Marathon in Denver on May 17th, 2015? Click here to register or pledge your support for the ACE runners!