I didn’t want to become a runner.

Sure, I participated in track for two years in high school, but saying that I ran track would be more than a little generous. More like I showed up for practices, did the best I could, and failed miserably at long jump every Saturday for three months. I also spent nearly every night of each season icing the shin splints that inevitably appeared within the first week of practice.

By the time I was in college I had officially decided that running was not my preferred method of exercise.

Then, nearly 20 years after my last track season, we moved to Texas and my husband convinced me to take advantage of the warm winter and start running. I scoffed, but he set out to find me the right pair of running shoes and I haven’t looked back. Now, if I don’t run three times a week, I don’t feel right. And while my body may be experiencing the normal aches that come with age, I haven’t had to spend nights on end icing my legs.

The shoes, the shoes made all the difference in the world.

In many ways, running shoes are an imperfect metaphor for teaching in America in 2021. Two years into pandemic teaching in a system that was already fraught with too many problems to count, educators are fighting battles that a global pandemic and polarized political landscape only intensified. Some days being a teacher does feel like a new runner walking into a shoe store and looking for the right pair of shoes. There are so many choices, so many reviews, and so many unknowns once you walk out of the store.

Because despite all of the research, all of the practice, and all of the experience, we don’t know anything until we are running, or teaching, ourselves.

So how is education right now like finding the perfect pair of running shoes?

Experts need to be in the designing room.

I don’t want someone who isn’t a runner designing and marketing the shoes that I choose to buy, because if they aren’t willing to wear the shoes themselves, why should I? If they aren’t willing to do the work with the tools they have created, why should I? Just like I wouldn’t trust a shoe designer who doesn’t run to design my shoes, so to I do not trust those who haven’t been in a K-12 classroom since they graduated from high school telling educators how to best teach. If a lawmaker hasn’t spent a significant amount of time in elementary and high schools of all types and sizes, they don’t have the credibility to tell me how my classroom should be run and how my students should be assessed. Teachers and administrators at all levels should be a part of every conversation from local school boards to state legislatures. 

Even when you stick with the same shoe, you still need an upgrade.

Most running experts say that your shoes should last you 300-500 miles, and while I didn’t believe that to be true, I have found that after about six months, I need to start looking for a new pair. My body starts to feel the effects of the pavement a little more and the longer I go without a new pair, the more likely I am to injure myself. But that doesn’t mean that I go out and get an entirely different shoe. For years before I started running I found myself repeatedly buying the same pair of New Balance shoes every time I looked for new workout shoes. I didn’t do it intentionally. I would try on the shoes and they still fit just right. Teachers don’t always need to completely reform how they teach every time they find their classroom routine stalling; sometimes they just need a fresh perspective that comes from a workshop or a book or even a conversation with a colleague that keeps their classroom running at its very best. Even the most minor of changes can transform both teaching and learning.

Some shoes fit feet differently than others.

My husband has suggested highly reviewed pairs of running shoes and when I try them on, something just doesn’t feel right. In fact, the only time I ever really struggled with a pair of shoes was an expensive pair that I bought at REI. The shoes were well rated and people appeared to like them, but after two runs my legs hurt and I was taking too long to recover. They just weren’t the right shoe for me. The same is true for teachers. Not every situation is great for every teacher and they need to be encouraged and assisted in finding the right teaching situation for them. While this is causing significant problems with teaching shortages across the country, no school should want a teacher in the classroom who does not fit comfortably in a particular situation. If it is affecting the way they teach and the learning taking place in the classroom, those teachers should be transitioned into situations that benefit everyone. That’s not a failure of the teacher or the school, it’s just an indication that adjustments need to be made.

The amount of money you spend on a pair of shoes matters.

If you can afford better shoes, you are less likely to be injured. If you are spending less money on shoes, the injuries are greater and you are more likely to quit. As a teenager attempting to run track, my parents couldn’t afford quality running shoes. I spent the two years that I participated in track icing my legs nearly every night because of shin splints. Running never became a part of my regular workouts until years later when I was in my 30s and my husband convinced me to try it again. By that point, I was years behind and I was never going to reach the peak physical condition that I would have maintained if I had never stopped. Educators who don’t have the resources to effectively teach their students will eventually quit teaching, even if they are potentially excellent teachers. Students who are not given the appropriate resources will also quit learning, which has a ripple effect on their classmates and the community because they are ill-prepared for the workforce and citizenship.

Comparing my profession to finding the right pair of running shoes is fraught with all kinds of potential inaccuracies and legitimate criticisms, but the fact remains that education is in trouble because we aren’t listening to the experts, we aren’t helping teachers find the right fit, and we aren’t spending the money where we need to spend it and providing the resources necessary to do the most effective work. And the refusal to do so is pushing teachers out of the classroom at an unsustainable rate and leaving children without education experts with the knowledge and skills to teach them at every level.

My personal experience is just one more example of this painful reality.

A year ago I was wearing one of those nice pairs of shoes that are supposed to be the very best, but I eventually discovered that those shoes were hurting me in ways I wouldn’t understand until someone else ripped them off of my feet and threw them into the trash. I was so hurt that I swore I would never teach again, because how does one heal if they return to the activity that brought them pain in the first place?

But I decided to try again. I put on a new pair of shoes that were the right size, but never quite fit just right. I tried to break them in. I tried to ignore the discomfort. While I was happy to be teaching again, it was never comfortable.

So now I’m trying on a new pair of shoes, a pair of shoes that already feel so much better. I’m at a comfortable running pace and while I’m experiencing the normal body aches that come with exercise, they don’t feel out of place and I’m looking forward to getting stronger both inside and outside of the classroom.

Because some of us were born to teach, just as some were born to run. And having the freedom to find the right pair of shoes makes all the difference.

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Thoughtful and nuanced responses welcome!