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Listen hare, slowly does it every time

Most of the goals teachers set themselves, or have set for them, tend to be longer term. Success in the classroom is always an ongoing project, and more like a marathon than a sprint. In my experience, the problem for many inordinately stressed teachers is that they want results now.

In the case of children, changes only become apparent over the years, meaning the "slow and steady" approach of the long-distance runner is one that guarantees passing the finishing line. Many start a marathon by sprinting away from the start, leaving the slow-but-steady runners feeling panicky. But if they stick to their game plan, it is the slower ones who cross the finish line, while those faster competitors have had to stop by the side, panting and exhausted. Psychologists now believe that the mental approach of marathon runners is helpful for any job, such as teaching, that has long-term goals.

First, it is vital for runners to construct a clear training programme, with specific targets for distances and times. The same applies to teaching. Before creating a goal for an individual pupil, it might be useful to make a plan; the more detailed the better. Sit down and map out what your intermediate and final targets are and when you want to achieve them. Alongside this, make a schedule for others, such as parents, who are working on the project.

You also need to outline the mechanism by which you will achieve your goals. It is important to keep yourself motivated, so stick with the athletic imagery. Think perhaps of a relay race, and handing the baton between team members; it may motivate your pupils and encourage personal responsibility.

During a marathon, an athlete's focus can be on their performance - monitoring their breathing, stride length and heart rate - or on something else completely, such as a holiday. Where is your focus going to be at times of crisis in the classroom? The key to staying on track is to concentrate, as athletes do, on accomplishing your goals and winning the medal.

Finally, it is helpful to break the race up into intermediate targets rather than dwelling on how far away the end is. The elation of passing a succession of "finishing lines" will keep you, and your pupils, on course for the final straight.

Dr Raj Persaud is consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital in south London and Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry. His latest book is The Motivated Mind (Bantam Press). Email: rajpersaud@tes.co.uk

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