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The Pedagogical Benefits of Doing Hard Things

By Dave Stuart Jr.

I'm running a marathon today. At some point, months ago, my little brother and I thought this was a great idea. As the training miles (and skipped training sessions) piled up, my evaluation of the idea decayed. By the final weeks of training, I found myself repeatedly saying to Crystal, “Honey, if I ever talk about wanting to run a marathon again, please kick me.”

But ultimately, I am glad* to have taken on this “hard thing,” and that gladness is mostly due to what the marathon training process has taught me about teaching and life. (Remember, my aim is the development of an integrated life, where my life teaches me about teaching, and teaching teaches me about life. I think this integration is key to a flourishing life.)

*Disclaimer: I'm writing this prior to putting 26.2 miles of punishment into my body and mind.

Here's what I've learned in the marathon training process:

I'm still far too concerned with how I appear in public. One reason I write and think about humility is because I admire people who are humble; they are my favorite kind of heroes, unhindered by worries of how others might be perceiving them. Another reason is I know how cozy I am with pride. I don't wish to appear foolish or weak or unprepared in public, and this marathon today may require all three of those things from me. It has been good for me to have to deal with those worries and lay them to rest.

When I teach, I must also not be obsessed with how I look, how my students perceive me. My obsession must be how they are learning, how I am stewarding the time I have with them, etc. Any mental energy consumed by thoughts of me is energy that cannot be applied to thoughts of them.

It is good to practice satisficing. One reason I'm worried about the race today is because I didn't follow my training plan very well. Running four days per week for months on end did not play nicely with my responsibilities as a husband, father, teacher, and writer. And that time pressure forced me to have to satisfice — sacrifice top quality for satisfactory quality — marathon training so that I could put my best efforts into the aforementioned tasks of higher importance.

As I wrestle with satisficing personally, I'm better able to help my students satisfice. One of the chief things I try to teach my ninth graders is how to manage a high school workload. Inevitably, part of that management means learning when and where to satisfice. In a pinch, it is better to turn in work that receives some credit than not turning work in at all.

It is good to challenge our bodies. When I wrote my book or planned my first speaking engagements, these were “hard things” for me — but the challenge was all psychological and intellectual. With this marathon, no amount of “Jedi mind tricks” can change the fact that seemingly random parts of my body start hurting once I put in 10 miles. In this race, I will just have to be there, for about 4.5 hours, handling whatever bodily problems I'm presented with. Of course, there won't be a ton that I'll be able to do to solve those problems, so in large part I'll just need to find a way to make peace with them until I cross the finish line and get to hug my family. Again, I think this is all good because it presents me with a chance for gaining insight that psychological or intellectual challenges can't.

In the classroom, this process of experiencing weakness through this marathon gives me greater compassion for students who struggle with things that I don't. No matter how hard I study world history or literature at this point in my life, I can't feel how some of my students feel when I ask them to work hard at their studies in my classes. I have years of experience studying my subjects, and I've always enjoyed studying these things. I'm naturally interested in literacy and history and character, but some of my students aren't.

And those, my friends, are the reasons that I think this whole process, this “hard thing” for the 2016-2017 school year, has made me a bit of a better teacher. In what ways have you experienced similar benefits from doing hard things?


10 Responses to The Pedagogical Benefits of Doing Hard Things

  1. Leigh Ann Chow May 28, 2016 at 9:43 am #

    Great post. My high achievers need to learn the value of satisficing. As working mothers trying to have lives outside the classroom, my colleagues and I do it every day. I hope you had a good race today and finished strong. Marathoning is great training to get through these last few weeks of school. It feels like I’m at Mile 24 right now! So close but yet 2.2 more grueling miles to go!

    • davestuartjr May 31, 2016 at 11:23 am #

      Grueling indeed — but relatively short! We’re almost there, Leigh Ann 🙂

  2. Sue Butler May 28, 2016 at 8:01 pm #

    Well that post resonated.

  3. Twins Happen May 29, 2016 at 12:00 am #

    Congratulations!!! By the time I’m seeing this, you have most likely finished your first marathon!! Fantastic! I’m also a runner, but I’ve been dealing with plantar fasciitis for the last year. Part of how I’ve been coping is by reading about other people’s running adventures. I realize that your focus is on TEACHING, but I would have LOVED to read more about your training process (and still would, if you ever plan to write about it.) I hope it went well!! I’m glad you have two days to recover, and I hope you’re feeling ready to teach come Tuesday. I ran my one and only (so far) marathon during the summer because I was afraid it could be days before I would be feeling ready to teach!

    • davestuartjr May 31, 2016 at 11:23 am #

      Yes, all done! 🙂 I am very glad. You’ve intrigued me about sharing more, TH. Stay tuned 🙂 I do feel well-rested after the long weekend and ready to go today!

      • Twins Happen June 3, 2016 at 3:40 pm #

        Awesome!! I am looking forward to reading more about it!

  4. SusanGBarber May 29, 2016 at 9:01 am #

    I ran a marathon to celebrate turning 40 because I wanted to prove to myself that I could still do hard things. The lessons I learned from the months of training still impact me both in and out of the classroom today (even though I don’t run anything further than a half now).

    • davestuartjr May 31, 2016 at 10:23 am #

      Susan, the thought of running a half sounds lovely from now on. It is amazing how fruitful training for a physical challenge like this can be for one’s reflection.

  5. mollica604 May 29, 2016 at 3:09 pm #

    Nice post Dave. Putting ourselves in unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations models the kind of healthy risk-taking, questioning and vulnerability our students will benefit from. Enjoy the race.

    • davestuartjr May 31, 2016 at 10:23 am #

      Thank you, and you are right. I did enjoy it, strangely enough!

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