It’s a steeplechase out there! One perspective on a long and successful teaching career


I tell our runners to divide the race into thirds. Run the first part with your head, the middle part with your personality, and the last part with your heart.

– Mike Fanelli, former Head Coach of the USA National Track and Field Team


A steeplechase is a fun way to race around a track. There are five obstacles, one of which is a pool of water immediately following a hurdle. When you arrive at the water pit, it is especially important to step on the barrier and propel yourself over the obstacle. There is nothing worse than landing in the deep water, getting soaked and having to finish a long race with soaking wet shoes. Similar to a steeplechase, my teaching career has been an endurance event with many hurdles to negotiate. I splash through deep puddles occasionally and they remind me that teaching is an art, not an exact science.  Perhaps Coach Fanelli’s advice for successful endurance running is also great advice for a long and successful teaching career?


Our teaching careers begin with our heads- we learn about child and adolescent psychology, content and pedagogy at our universities. During our student teaching experience, we are placed into a laboratory where we are required to juggle teaching content and skills while simultaneously executing a set and close, integrating multiple methodologies, monitoring student behaviors, grading papers, and assessing student outcomes. During our first few years of teaching, we spend an inordinate amount of time planning, differentiating, evaluating and revising lessons. We strive for more than competence-we strive to make a difference in children’s lives. While all young adults move into career paths requiring an increasing amount of daily decision-making, young teachers often struggle to stay afloat moving into a career that requires over 1500 decisions during a six-hour school day-on average 7 decisions every minute during an interactive teaching lesson (Cuban, 2011 ). Our brains are on stimulus overload as we enter into our final stage of full development.

A successful teaching career starts with a firm foundation of knowledge and practice. Every professional occupation (musicians, engineers, basketball players, and doctors) requires an inordinate amount of hours of practice to achieve excellence (Cuban, 2010). It takes a new teacher at least seven to ten years to have the knowledge and experience to excel in their profession. Consistent with a focus on the headiness of their new careers, most teachers acquire a Master’s degree after their initial certification. Successful teachers spend holiday breaks reading and having new life experiences that can be applied to their teaching. While a flexible personality and a passionate heart can help on those days we fall into deep water, our energies during the first third of any teaching career is best invested “getting our head into the game”.


My first activity during my senior secondary education social studies methods class has always been polling my students as to what makes a successful teacher. Overwhelmingly, my students identify a variety of personality traits including, but not limited to, sense of humor, approachability, flexibility, and kindness. The secondary teachers that made the greatest impression upon my university students were the ones that opened up and shared their personalities with their students. Personality is the glue that connects the teacher and the student to the subject matter being taught.

I have seen beginning teachers rely on their personalities and not take the time to do the heady work on the forefront of their careers. The result has always been an entertaining show with few positive student outcomes. In contrast, the knowledgeable and experienced teacher reaches the next level of success by opening up and expressing himself or herself in the classroom. Continuous improvement at this level occurs when we go outside ourselves and collaborate with our peers. Growth comes from experimenting in our own classrooms and/or mentoring a beginning teacher. We grow substantially by the action of teaching another. During this second decade of a successful teacher’s career, he or she doesn’t focus on his craft or person as much as on the people he or she is teaching. We have become comfortable in our own identities and enjoy our interactions with others.


It is very difficult to sustain and maintain the same level of enthusiasm for teaching as one might have felt in the beginning of one’s career. Just like an endurance runner, our bodies do not hold up as well, our patience wears thin and we become tired more quickly. The head is rational and tells us that we should taper off and do what we can just to make it to retirement. Our personalities have encountered difficult situations and we have landed in a lot of puddles over the years. During the last decade of our career, our head and personalities are not enough to achieve excellence.

The most successful teachers finish the race with heart. We continue to prepare, execute and interact with students with excellence because we want to make a difference. Just as a lame-duck president is concerned with his legacy, our successful senior teachers know that this is our last shot to make a difference. Our heads taught us to learn the rules of good teaching, our personalities helped us adapt those rules to the students seated in front of us, and now our heart will sustain us by giving us a genuine feeling of appreciation and caring for our students. The heart drives us and gives us hope that a piece of our wisdom will make a difference and make the world a better place.

In every phase of a teacher’s career, we use our heads, personalities and heart. There are just times that one part of us may better serve longevity and success.  This is my thirty-second year of teaching and I have never been more enthusiastic about my profession. I have a renewed spirit that is fueled by a passion to make a difference. I continue to fill my head with new knowledge and strategically place my personality as a vital hub in vast professional networks. My experience guides me to step on barriers and propel myself over most obstacles. But it is my heart that ignites the fire inside me to guide young teachers, create new curriculums and share my insights here with you today.



The day will come when, after harnessing the wind, the waves and the tides, we shall harness for God the power of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

Pierre Teillhard de Chardin

Published by Maria Sanelli, Ed.D.

Educator, Author, Professor of History Education, Diversity Specialist; Director of the Frederick Douglass Institute at Kutztown University.

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