A few years ago my wife gave me three months of coaching for my birthday. I’d been running 5K road races and was trying some half-marathons. She thought I could use some professional help! We connected online, and I sent along pictures of my last four weeks in my running journal and eagerly awaited his advice. When it came, I was surprised, and I think it may help you think about how to pace yourself (and your students) this school year.
My coach’s first two pieces of advice felt counterintuitive. He said I should run five days instead of six and that my slow runs should be slower. He explained that a classic mistake runners make is to train too hard, but rest is a critical component of physical fitness. If you don’t give your body adequate time to recover, your quality sets can’t be as strong, and you run the risk of injury and/or burnout. Importantly, he also told me to reframe the way I recorded days I didn’t run in my journal. Instead of calling them “days off” (which makes them sound like something to feel guilty about) he encouraged me to call them “rest days” to emphasize their importance.
After these few simple resets, my real training began. He upped my intensity and my mileage but gradually. I ran harder and faster in workouts than I ever had before—not just because he built workouts that way for me, but because I was rested enough to do so. After a few months of work with my coach, I felt stronger and faster than I ever had before.
So, what does this have to do with pacing ourselves and our students during the school year? Here are a few ideas to consider…
Increase Stamina Gradually
When my coach started increasing the intensity and distance I ran each week, he did so gradually. I remember my first speed workout felt too easy—only five sets of one 1 minute fast and 2 minutes slow on the track. The next week it was five sets of 2 minutes fast and 2 minutes slow. When increasing my mileage, it was also gradual—not more than 10% from the previous week. If I ran 25 miles one week, the next would be 27.
What happens if you try to start the year with 20 minutes of independent reading in 2nd grade or 15-minute small-group discussions with sophomores? They don’t have the stamina for it, so they crash and burn. Before long, kids are grabbing their metaphorical hamstrings and panting on the sidelines—feeling defeated and demotivated.
Imagine if we built up slowly instead. We might have 2nd graders read independently for 5 minutes straight during the first week of school and shoot for 6 minutes the next. By November, they’ll be ready for 20 minutes of silent independent reading. High school sophomores might be able to handle a 2-minute partner chat early in the year. Later on, they’ll be ready for 15-minute small group discussions that are focused and engaged.
Keep Most Work at a “CP” Pace
Remember how my coach told me to slow down during my easy runs? He said that most of my running during the week—in fact, 80% of it—should be at a conversational pace (CP). This means that as you’re running, you should be able to have a conversation comfortably. If you’re breathing so hard that sentences would be choppy—slow down. Again, the point of this is to keep the majority of running comfortable enough so you can sustain your pace without becoming exhausted. Then, when it’s time to really work hard, you can. Besides, the overall running experience is more enjoyable, so you look forward to hitting the road more often.
Too often, we seem to expect kids to train at max effort all day long. In elementary school this means transitioning from hard math work to challenging writing to complex reading tasks with few rest breaks. In middle and high school, kids go from class to class all day, and every period it’s like they’re running hill sprints. Every teacher expects max effort, unaware of the workout kids just completed in previous classrooms. Should we be surprised that so many kids get dispirited and exhausted as the afternoon hits?
Imagine if 80% of kids’ days were spent engaged in comfortable learning activities! We know this how independent reading should feel—comfortable enough for students to read fluently and with comprehension. What if math felt comfortable most of the time? And science? And French?
Check in With Your “Athletes”
Every week, my coach would send along the workouts he’d planned, but these were always informed by feedback from me. He checked in often. “How did the tempo run go this week? Were you able to sustain that 7:30 pace for 20 minutes during your long run?” “How are your legs feeling? Are they getting heavy and slow—do you need some more rest?” “Do you have a race coming up for that you want to focus on?” This constant communication helped him make sure to be responsive to my needs and adjust as needed.
It’s too common in schools for pacing guides—almost always created by someone not actually do the teaching—to dictate the speed of instruction. Lesson 1 happens on Day 1, and Lesson 2 follows the next day, regardless of how things went. It’s ridiculous. How can we possibly know exactly how a learning experience is going to go before we’ve met our students? If we’re rigid about sticking to pacing guides, we’re probably teaching the program, not our students.
Imagine if we checked in with students more frequently, asking them how the pace of learning feels. “Do you think we’re ready to set a new goal for independent reading next week? Do you think we could get to 15 minutes of sustained reading?” “How is this math unit feeling for you all right now? Show with your hands—one a scale of 1-5. Are we moving too slowly (1) or too fast (5)?”
It’s so tempting to hit the ground running at the beginning of the year. Our energy is fresh, students are often excited, and we’re all enjoying the “honeymoon period” of the first weeks of school. Of course, we all know we have too much to teach and not enough time to teach it, so we want to get going right away. But let’s remember these lessons from my running coach. We’re all (us our students) getting back into shape after a long hiatus. If we lace up our sneakers, run out the door, and try to run ten miles at a quick pace, we’re going to get injured or become so exhausted that we can’t run tomorrow. Instead, we know it’s better to start off lightly and build slowly. Keep most learning comfortable and enjoyable, and students will better be able to handle the hard stuff when it’s time. Build stamina over the first month or two, and they’ll have the endurance later in the year for more challenging work. And finally, make sure to check in with your students regularly about how they’re doing. This will help you respond and adjust accordingly.
Remember that a sense of competence is a fundamental building block of self-motivation. When students feel successful as learners, they can be more self-motivated to tackle challenging learning!
By the way, in case you’re wondering, with the help of my coach, Yasmin Lepir, I crushed a half-marathon that fall—setting a personal best by four and a half minutes! Thanks, Yaz!
If you’d like to explore more strategies for helping your students to be more self-motivated this school year, check out my latest book: Tackling the Motivation Crisis: How to Activate Student Learning Without Behavior Charts, Pizza Parties, or Other Hard-to-Quit Incentive Systems.