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'Teaching is like an ultramarathon race: prepare well or you are in for a world of hurt'

Teachers and middle leaders in particular need to look at the school year as the toughest of running races, says this head of geography

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Teachers and middle leaders in particular need to look at the school year as the toughest of running races, says this head of geography

Line up at the start of a race for anything from a 10K to a marathon and you will hear people getting their excuses in early.

“I didn’t train for this.”

“I’ve never worn these shoes before and they are already rubbing!”

“I’ve got one heck of a hangover…”

And yet they’ll almost certainly finish. It may not be fast and it may not be pretty, but they’ll successfully cross the finish line.

Teaching and training

Stand at the start of an ultramarathon (any race over a marathon distance) and you won’t hear such things. If you are running all day you’d better be prepared for it. If you haven't, you won’t have a tough couple of hours: you’ll really suffer and you probably won’t finish at all. It could even be dangerous.

I think teaching is a lot like running an ultramarathon. We start the race in September and other than a few brief pauses through the year we don’t really stop running until July, when we fall over the finish line in a weary heap. If we are to endure the pain, we have to train like an ultramarathon runner.

Especially as a middle leader. Once we are in the midst of the action, teaching four-to-five hours a day, running from meeting to meeting, dealing with urgent issues and those things that blindside you in the middle of the term, there is precious little time for strategic thinking.

There are two bits of preparation that I have found critical to my job as a busy head of department:

1. Checking the diary

The year I bought a giant wall planner to sit on the wall next to my desk was a revelation. It shows the bits of the school calendar that are particularly relevant to me and helps me to see them coming. It also shows things specific to my role. I can add not only when the field trips are happening, but also when the paperwork needs to go in for them. I can plan in advance when I can get in a learning walk or when I want to take in a sample of books. That way I can make sure it happens despite my attention being taken off elsewhere.

2. Action planning

The most important document I refer to throughout the year is my department action plan. Each year I consider our one priority, as a department. The action plan then sets out how we are going to make this wish a reality. It spells out briefly the culture we are trying to create, the evidence we will have that we have that culture and then the actions needed to make it happen. All on one side of A4. This is our strategy for the year and means that we “keep the main thing the main thing”.

Last year’s action plan focused on creating a culture of high expectations (you can see our action plan for Expect Excellence here) and set out the steps we needed to take to see a difference. That way, in the middle of the year, when we didn’t have time to pause, we still knew exactly what we needed to do and why.

A middle leader’s role is a fascinating one. In combines the strategic thinking and leadership responsibilities of someone in SLT with what can be very close to a full teaching timetable.

The journey from September to July is the toughest there is, but if you go into it with a race plan well in advance the rewards are enormous. If you go in unprepared you are in for a world of hurt.

Mark Enser is head of Geography at Heathfield Community College and blogs at

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