Knox County teacher Cathy Ginel stands at the finish line of her 1,000-km virtual race.

Have you ever started down a path that you weren’t sure you’d finish? Maybe a project, degree, move, or job that felt uncertain at first? Or even a literal roadway that caused you to become lost? As an educator, this school year has that sense of uncertainty.

It’s a feeling I also experienced this summer as I completed the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee — a 1,000-km path in 101 days. When I registered in May following the pandemic shutdown, the race seemed like a good project to occupy my time and get exercise. Through heat, humidity, blisters, dead running shoes, and dehydration, I did finish the race. What I didn’t expect was the valuable lessons I would learn for the coming school year and how to prepare myself for the journey ahead. 

Segments Of The Race

When I began the race, I hadn’t really put the distance in perspective. One thousand kilometers is approximately the distance from Memphis to Chattanooga and north to Bristol, Tennessee. The length felt daunting, so I created manageable goals. First, I figured out how many miles I had to cover each month, week, and day. At the end of my first month, I was a third of the way across.

Along the way, I started to think about the coming school year and teaching my class — whether in-person, in a virtual setting, or a blend of the two. The hardest part of this school year is not knowing where the finish line will be. When I enter the classroom, I don’t know if my students and I will remain face-to-face for the entire year, or if they will transition to being at home and back at school again. The uncertainty of when the health crisis will end makes it difficult for educators to plan ahead. So, I will think about one module, one quarter, one semester, and finally the year as a whole.

Addressing Setbacks

Despite setting and meeting goals, there were also setbacks. The running shoes that had put a spring in my step lost their bounce, so I searched for new ones. My feet were bandaged, taped, and immersed in hot water by evening, but I never stopped or took a day off. I added dressings, changed shoes, and continued on the race.

As I consider the school year, I recognize that educators have that same perseverance. Lacking financial resources for classroom needs, we always find a way to make do, be resourceful, and press on. There will be times this year where things are lost, adjusted, or so new that we don’t even know the answers to them yet. We may be tempted to give up. No matter how many bandages we put on or how many different shoes we try, it just may not feel possible to continue. But I know that our collaboration to find innovative solutions will push us forward past these bumps in the road. 

Collective Effort

Despite signing up for the race by myself, I found that I knew others participating, including other Knox County Schools teachers. Soon there were groups participating from around the world supporting each other on social media, totaling more than 19,000 — greater than organizers’ imagination.

This support mirrors what we see in education right now. Tennessee teachers are banding together within and across districts to help each other. Whether it’s social media groups, YouTube channels, texts, or emails, educators are bound together. Despite the uncertainty around us, I am certain there is a strong network of educators dedicated to our profession and students. We won’t leave any educator behind; we will carry each other through this. 

Failure Is Not An Option

I think what pushes most educators is the feeling that we can’t fail our students, the parents, the community, or our colleagues — and we can’t fail ourselves. We spend most of our careers trying to instill this in students — a perseverance that even Galileo would find exceptional. As teachers, we have a narrow window of time to impact students. We are driven by the desire for every student to learn to the best of their ability. At the same time, we are our biggest critics and feel our students’ losses and failures as our own.

Having completed my physical race, as we stand at the starting line of this school year, I am confident we’ll finish our race in the classroom. Without a doubt, this year is going to be hard — for everyone involved. I look forward to what is to come. Our annual education race is just beginning, but together I am certain we will carry our students across the finish line this school year.

Cathy Ginel is an eighth-grade science teacher at Farragut Middle School in Knox County. She is a former member of Governor Bill Haslam’s Teacher Cabinet, and the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) selected her for the inaugural class of the Tennessee Educator Fellowship. Find her on Twitter as @CathyGinel.

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