Finding Common Ground
in Running and Teaching
Cross country running can take place over grass, mud, dirt trails, rocky areas, water, hills – almost anywhere off-track or off-road. Cross country teams are comprised of seven runners racing together against opposing teams. Although punishing at times, the physical results of fitness, the friendships built through common suffering, and the unequaled satisfaction of pushing well beyond pre-conceived limits make cross country an extraordinary sport. I have had the privilege of coaching this awesome sport for 14 years!
There are many things I love about being a cross country coach. I love being out running with the team in God’s creation. I love the relationships that are built during the long training runs together. My favorite thing about coaching cross country is piecing together the different types of runners into one cohesive team. Many people don’t realize it, but all runners are not created the same! Some runners have been blessed with natural speed, but not much endurance. Others are very strong runners, so they are great on the uphill sections of a race course, but cannot kick to the finish particularly well. There are many unique abilities that each runner brings to a cross country team. My job, as the coach, is to develop training plans to accentuate individual runner’s strengths while improving upon their weaknesses. It is a pure joy to witness athletes performing to the best of their abilities, utilizing the very specific gifts God gave to them.
The teaching methodologies an educator feels most comfortable with almost invariably mirror the specific gifts the Lord has bestowed upon him or her.Lutheran educators, like runners, come in many different shapes and sizes. The book of Psalms says, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” Psalm 139:13-14 The Hebrew root for the word “wonderfully” means “to differentiate or distinguish.” Every person was created by God to be unique in design and purpose; no two are exactly alike. Educators are no exception. Lutheran schools are comprised of teachers with a wide variety of skills, gifts, and passions. All of these educators have been called to a common purpose, using their unique skill sets to contribute to that purpose. Some educators are concrete and cognitive in their teaching methods. Others shade toward the affective and relational methods of teaching. One method or style of teaching is not necessarily better than another, just different. The teaching methodologies an educator feels most comfortable with almost invariably mirror the specific gifts the Lord has bestowed upon him or her. It must be pure joy for God to witness the teachers at His Lutheran schools performing in their classrooms to the best of their ability, utilizing the very specific gifts God gave to them.
At cross country races, my team approaches each meet the same way. Upon arrival at the meet site, I hand the team captains a course map. The entire team takes that map and performs an easy run of the entire course. Their objective is to warm up their bodies as well as to do a bit of recon of the course they are about to race. Once the team is fully warmed up for the race, they gather together at the starting line for a team prayer and final instructions from the coaches. I do not change my pre-race instructions much from week to week. The final instructions I always leave my athletes with is this statement: “Run your own race!” One of the biggest dangers at the beginning of any cross country race is to become caught up in what other runners are doing. I don’t want my team to determine how they are going to race based on what their competitors are doing. I give each of my athletes a race strategy that they will be able to carry out successfully based on the individual abilities they possess. If they attempt to race like one of their opponents, they will not be able to race to the very best of their ability. My reminder to “run your own race” is to remind my athletes that God created them with very specific abilities and their training reflects those abilities. When these things are coupled together, true success follows.
Although many current ideas regarding best teaching practices can be highly effective, do all teachers really have to use them the same way to be effective?The “Run your own Race” philosophy is applicable for Lutheran educators as well. There seems to be an ever-growing pressure in the world of education to conform to a particular method or style of teaching. Teachers are challenged more and more to adopt the latest, greatest classroom strategies. Collaborative groups, flipped classrooms, or serving as a “guide on the side” instead of a “sage on the stage” are just a few examples. Although many current ideas regarding best teaching practices can be highly effective, do all teachers really have to use them the same way to be effective? Many in education circles today seem to be pushing for a one-size-fits-all approach to the art of teaching. The Apostle Paul, a wonderful teacher in his own right, said, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:10 God has specific good works that He has prepared Lutheran educators to perform, and He has given us specialized tools to perform that work. Not only are individual teachers unique, students are unique as well. Teachers must survey the needs and abilities of each student in each class, as a cross country runner would recon a race course. The Apostle Paul speaks to this adaptability in 1 Corinthians, when he states, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law, so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law, so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means some might be saved.” 1 Corinthians 9:20-22 The true purpose of Lutheran educators is to use the gifts God created us with; to explore all of the best practices in the world of education and then select those ideas that will complement the unique abilities God has given us.
Because I do not take a one-size-fits-all approach to training my cross country runners, every single season becomes an adventure. Each season I have coached, my cross country teams have been unique. Some years the team will run in big packs working together as one unit to push the pace at various sections of the race course. Three or four runners will remain within feet of each other throughout the entire race. Other years don’t work for pack racing because the talent variations do not allow for the team to remain together (some are faster or slower than the others). These teams feature runners who can maintain a strong pace on their own. Because the team cannot remain together, they must learn to draw strength from within instead of from teammates. During seasons in which I have very strong runners, hilly race courses are a benefit. The individual abilities of the runners on each team will reflect the type of strategy to be used. No two teams in my 14 years of coaching cross country have competed in exactly the same way.
Schools that are geared toward discipleship will function very differently than schools that are mission minded. One ministry focus is not better than the other, just different. In the same way that cross country teams change from one season to the next, Lutheran Schools change and evolve. The personality of each school will be a reflection of the needs of the community in which the Lutheran school serves. Some Lutheran schools are located in areas that are predominantly Lutheran, so the focus of these schools will be to disciple students and their families. Other Lutheran schools are located in areas which have very few Christian, much less Lutheran, families; their focus will be more missional in nature. Schools that are geared toward discipleship will function very differently than schools that are mission minded. One ministry focus is not better than the other, just different. Some educators will discover that the teaching gifts God has given to them fit most comfortably into a school that is focused primarily on discipleship. Others will find that mission oriented schools provide the type of educational setting in which they can thrive. And each new season brings its own set of challenges and opportunities both with the staff we walk alongside and with the students and parents we serve. The secret is to allow God to reveal the gifts, talents, and interests He has placed into each one of us. As we grow in our relationship with Him, we will begin to see more clearly the teachers He has created us to be.
Mark Newman teaches Religion and Spiritual Life and coaches cross country and track at Lake Country Lutheran High School, Hartland, Wisconsin. He enjoys competing in marathons and triathlons in his free time.
Photos courtesy Lake Country Lutheran High School, Hartland, Wisconsin.