BLOG POST BY 2020-21 PA TEACHER OF THE YEAR AND PTAC MEMBER JOE WELCH
Each week, PA Teacher of the Year Joe Welch will be sharing his experiences and thoughts as we all work through the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. His pieces are cross-posted from his personal blog, Inclined to Teach.
For millions of students and teachers around the nation, the news has become official. We will not be returning to our home away from home. Our school. Our classroom. Our students. With that news, we are now immersed in this system of crisis teaching and learning for the long run. For six weeks, we have been able to show the world what makes teachers great. We don’t make excuses. We adapt for our students and families. We solve problems for our students. We connect with our students. We support each other. We counsel. We advocate. And we are not afraid to learn new skills.
I have recently heard politicians, doctors, and media members repeatedly refer to the response to COVID-19 with a similar term: a marathon. Terms like steady, pacing, and one step at a time have been tossed out into the public discourse, too, when discussing how the world will overcome this latest obstacle. Marathon terms.
Now, it’s been 8 years since I ran my first full marathon. It was May 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to be exact. And when you are training for your first marathon, there are tedious times, times of joy, times of pain, times of frustration, times when you are alone for long periods, and undoubtedly, times of mental and physical exhaustion. You think you can do it. You know you can do it. Then, you think you just can’t run another mile, another half mile, or another step. You run the full gauntlet of emotions before you even get to the starting line for such a race. But you get to that starting line.
Ironically it was on the treadmill when a piece of advice came back into my mind. And it is advice that is there for the teachers out there who are trying their best day in day out to be there for their students, the parents and guardians who are trying to maintain a safe and supportive environment while being pulled in a plethora of directions, and the students who are coping with a loss of all sense of normalcy in this world. The survivor shuffle.
It was on my first "20 miler" when I heard this advice. The survivor shuffle? An experienced runner shared that there will be times when you need to use the survivor shuffle, times when you drop your pacing goals, trust what your body and mind is telling you, and just do your best to keep your feet moving forward. The survivor shuffle, huh? You set out to finish what you started for all the reasons you signed up to start it. It may not look like what you planned, what you envisioned, what you dreamed about, but you survive. You take a quick rest, you get a drink, and you get back in the race when you are ready. One foot in front of the other, and you get there.
But no, I did not want to hear about the survivor shuffle. I would not need it; I went into my first marathon overconfident. Then, everything changed. For me, it was hot, humid morning that came out of nowhere. This was not the race I was prepared to run. However, I started to run it as if it was under the exact same conditions that I trained for. And I broke down physically.
Now let’s fast forward to 2020. We had field trips planned. Traditions to carry on. Moments and students to celebrate. Colleagues to rejoice with as they entered into well-deserved retirements. Then March 13th came. We did not prepare for this sort of race. This was not our training as a teacher, as a parent, or as a student. Personally, I started into this race trying to maintain the same pace that I had before everything changed. As a parent, as a teacher, and quite frankly, I even had a desire for my children to do the same as students. Not surprisingly, I had the same result as my first marathon. I was insistent on “winning that race” in the first mile.
But you can’t. You shouldn’t. And here is the part that was the most difficult thing for me to understand and accept: nobody expects you to maintain the same pace you had before. What is going to save me as a teacher? The survivor shuffle. As a parent? The survivor shuffle. And I hope students around the nation recognize that it is perfectly okay to "run your own race" at this time and trust what your body, your mind, and your heart are telling you to do.
Conditions have changed. Take a rest when you need to. Look to others for encouragement and support when you think you just can’t do it. There will be more obstacles ahead for each of us. It’s okay to save a little in the tank for when you need it. In a marathon, you find things out about yourself that you never knew you could do. You deal with setbacks, both within and outside of your control. You push the limits of what you thought your mind and your body could handle. But you just never know when you are going to need that survival shuffle to slow the pace, reassess what is most important, and to get help when you need it. There is no shame in using it.
Students, parents, and teachers: It’s okay to just do what you can do, at the pace that you can go in that moment. It really is. Just get back into this race when you’re ready.
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee