Most people will have an opinion on the topic of school cross country. For many it was a cold and unpleasant experience. My memories of cross country at school include the PE teacher getting a good telling off from a local resident as thirty of us stamped mud off our shoes as we came out of a ploughed field at the end of his driveway and of a good friend getting a bollocking for taking a rather sizeable shortcut.
My first memory of it was life changing. I am an asthmatic and as a child it was particularly severe. My Mum always furnished me with a note for cross country lessons, I never asked, she just gave them to me. I guess having seen your child hospitalised and struggling to breathe would make one a touch over cautious. One day my teacher, who we’ll call Mr Ford, took it upon himself to insist that I took part anyway. I was terrified. More so of what my Mum would have to say to me than of the cross country itself. He jogged alongside me for the first part of the run, helping me to set a gentle pace and to try and control my breathing. I ran almost the whole course that day and it opened my eyes to the fact that I was capable of more than I realised.
Fast foward 15 years and I was Head of PE myself. The school was set at the bottom of a long hill and a forest. The cross country opportunities were endless. Taking Mr Fords’ approach and showing pupils of what they were capable of we ran as a year group with me setting the pace for the first lap of the cross country course. The look on kids faces when they realised they had run a mile without stopping was truly awesome. So much for the absolute donkey of a male PE teacher in the department who refused to teach distance running of any sort because it wasn’t “liked”.
The question became how to differentiate the course so that all pupils finished in a very close window of time and ensuring that all felt they had worked to the maximum and achieved. Following the first lap came a one lap time trial where the goal was to complete a second lap without stopping but each pupil running at their own pace. The first five to finish turned and ran the route backwards, encouraging their peers and helping anyone who was struggling to set the right pace for them. The first five rose to the challenge and took their role very seriously. In future lessons the course had four variations in length and was further differentiated by the direction it was run in. With individual target distances and target times based on the original one lap time it was indeed possible to have most pupils finishing in a few minutes of each other. Those used to be faster and fitter and coming in first had perhaps the greatest challenge — learning to compare their performance with their own performance and not relying on the public acclaim that first place often brings.
To teach running in this way is a real gift for young people. They groan when you tell them that one day they will want to lose weight, get fitter, reduce their stress or to run a marathon for the fun of it. Yet the reality is that it is the absolute truth. I routinely get tracked down via linkedin or facebook or email by an ex pupil keen to let me know that they have run a 5k, a 10k a half marathon or that they have entered their first marathon. I have had ex pupils let me know that they too have become a teacher and deliver distance running in the same way that I did. Their pride in their achievement remains the same as an adult as it was as an eleven year old in year seven. The proportion of year eleven pupils opting in to cross country was 50%, of which there was an even male-female divide. A statistic which I remain, to this day, very proud of.
What gift are you giving to your pupils? What attitudes are you changing? What preparation are you giving them for the future? What will they remember you for as years go by. It’s worth giving a thought to what your legacy is for young people. I’m proud to have given the gift of a love for running and am just as proud of motivating teachers to try new things in my current role. I love my job, I really do.