With schools closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Surprise-area teachers have had to try to come up with unique ways to keep their students motivated.
All Mountain View seventh-grade math teacher Arrick Nietert had to do was let his legs do the teaching.
What started as a small solution to motivate some of his students turned into a district-wide event each Monday over parts of the last two months.
Mr. Nietert, an avid runner, completed weekly marathons that he livestreamed district-wide to help students stay focused.
The goal was to have students complete as many assignments as possible as he traveled more than 100 laps around the track at Shadow Ridge High School, 10909 N. Perryville Road, in 3-1/2 hours.
“The first lap’s always the worst,” Mr. Nietert said out loud as he passed the first lap during the last Monday Marathon Challenge on May 11.
The 38-year-old teacher, who is also the cross country coach for Shadow Ridge, said he came up with the idea during one of his long training runs when thinking about a new book that was written by a family friend, a Navy SEAL.
Called “Deliberate Discomfort: How U.S. Special Operations Forces Overcome Fear and Dare to Win by Getting Comfortable Being Uncomfortable,” Mr. Nietert said it details being put in “situations where you’re uncomfortable, but you come together as a team.”
“I went on a long run a few days later and thought how I could connect with the kids and how they could start getting more motivated with learning with this weird distance learning thing we have,” Mr. Nietert said.
Participation in remote learning was slow at first, Mr. Nietert said, so he wanted to show that it wasn’t a grind to the students.
“It’s a struggle,” Mr. Nietert said about the runs. “So, maybe I can feel what they’re feeling like. That’s where It kind of came to me.”
When he originally floated the idea to school Principal Gail Miller, his original intent was to keep it to just his students and cross country runners.
But Ms. Miller learned it was an instant hit as 100 assignments total were completed the first week.
“When he kind of came up with this idea and posed it to me, I told him, ‘You have no idea how it’s bigger’ than what he thinks it is,” Ms. Miller said. “His big goal was motivating students. Through this transition, it’s hard for students in their home environment to have that student hat on. It’s really motivation for everybody.”
Mr. Nietert even got support from his friends at the district level, including Assistant Superintendent for Education Services Steve Poling.
“I was a big cheerleader,” said Mr. Poling, who used to run marathons and ultra-marathons himself. “I just encouraged him and said go for it.”
Each run that Mr. Nietert held was part motivational speech, part joketime, and all agony for anybody watching who is too lazy to walk to the refrigerator to get a drink.
“Since it’s the last week, wouldn’t it be cool if you moved on to tomorrow’s assignments and maybe Wednesday’s assignments?” Mr. Nietert asked his students near the beginning of his last run. “So, that way you’ll be free for the next few days.”
He stopped after every mile or so to monitor student progress during his run and give positive feedback for the things they’ve completed.
He interspersed inspirational quotes from such sports heroes as John Wooden and Arthur Ashe and even threw in dad jokes, such as “What the triangle say to the circle?” (The answer was “you’re pointless.”)
“You guys have worked hard over the past few weeks and I’ve enjoyed every minute of being out here with you guys,” Mr. Nietert told his audience near the end of the final run.
He said he ended up building a rapport with students that weren’t even in his class. But Ms. Miller said many of the same students came back week after week.
“I’ll just give them praise for what they’re doing as they do it,” Ms. Nietert said. “I just thought if I got one kid to get some assignments I’ll be happy.”
Mr. Nietert typically runs about 15 or 20 miles less each week, while “training for other stuff, too,” he said. “Keeping up with the cross country kids is tough.”
But, he added you gotta do what’s necessary during tough times.
“They’re not getting [motivation] from their teachers like they normally would,” Mr. Nietert said. “It’s really fun and the administrators can say, ‘Hey, nice job.’ It keeps [the students] going at least on a Monday morning for a few hours.”
Ms. Miller said she thought it was bigger than that.
“It’s ‘how can I still reach and inspire kids,’” Ms. Miller said. “And he was able to do something that he loves to do and make it work. I don’t think he even realized how big it was. It’s really a bigger message.”
That’s because Ms. Miller thinks he inspired more than just students with his runs.
It even motivated her to jump on her elliptical machine at home.
“Hey, he ran a whole marathon, and I’ve been on my computer all day,” she laughed. “At least I can do my mile.”
Editor’s Note: Jason Stone can be reached at email@example.com.