Learning About Teaching (and Life) on the Back of a Bike

Sandy Merz Professional Development, Sports, Uncategorized

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Stephen R. Covey lists “Sharpen the Saw,” through care of mind, body, and soul, as the habit through which we renew ourselves.  So, on the last day of school in May, I bought a sport hybrid bicycle and named her Midnight. (Sport hybrids combine features of both road and off-road bikes.)

Throughout the summer Midnight and I explored Tucson’s “Loop,” a paved pedestrian and bike path that follows our riverbeds throughout our city. Since school started, I’ve been riding the Loop to school once or twice a week. One-way covers 16 miles and takes just over 60 minutes. So two round trips in a week amount to 64 miles and four hours of exercise. But since driving to work on those two days would take two hours anyway, biking amounts to getting four hours of exercise in half the clock time.

Lots of health gains there, plus Midnight and I have discovered that some rides yield a “biker’s high.” And nothing says “renew” like flooding the body with endorphins.

Moving into September, Midnight and I decided we needed to take the measure our trail-riding skills. It didn’t take long to learn some lessons that transfer directly to teaching, as well as the whole of life:

  1. Minutes (seconds?) into our first trail we realized they need a classification below Beginner. Lesson: Nothing is as easy as it looks.
  2. The path was much rockier than I expected. Then I remembered, duh, mountains are made of rocks. Lesson: When in doubt, return to the basics.
  3. It’s not hard to steer your front tire around a rock; the trick is getting the rear tire to miss it, too. Lesson: Watch your back.
  4. Putting your feet down prevents crashing. Lesson: There’s no shame in seeking support.
  5. No gear is too low. Lesson: As long as you’re moving forward, you’re getting there. Just keep pedaling.
  6. If you don’t see a path or tire tracks ahead of you, you’re lost (or blazing your own trail, to put it kindly).  Lesson: Follow a path and you learn from others’ experience; blaze a trail and you learn from your own.
  7. Bad things can happen in the last 100 meters of a ride. Lesson: Take nothing for granted.
  8. A poor rider blames the bike. Lesson: Blame yourself or blame nobody.
  9. The ride’s not over until you’ve cleaned and lubed your chain. Lesson: Take care of your colleagues and they’ll take care of you.

Now, my district is pretty generous when it comes to compensating teachers for off-contract professional development, but I doubt they’d pay for my hours riding on the Honeybee Canyon Loop, no matter how much it improves my teaching. But who says best compensation comes with a dollar sign?

After all, my ninth governing principle as a teacher leader does say to, “Be human first by caring for my family, faith, and health before all else.” Midnight makes that happen on the trail or on the road whenever the light is right, the view is clear, and my playlist lands on the perfect song (like the piano finale to Eric Clapton’s Layla). In those moments no questions about what Heaven is like remain, and I thank God for being alive.



I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I've moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I'm a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

Comments 8

  1. Jaime Festa-Daigle

    Yes! This is as real as it gets! Once we realize that all we do supports us in becoming better teachers and learners, we will all be better!

    1. Sandy Merz

      Thanks, Jess, that’s a high compliment coming from you. On my trail ride this morning I saw the biggest rabbit I’ve ever seen – with ears that must have been a foot long. Not sure what lesson to draw from that – Expect the unexpected? or, maybe – Know when you’ve gone down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.

  2. Angela Buzan

    Isn’t it funny how those extracurricular hobbies inspire the most important insight about the profession. I like this. I’m bringing my mountain bike next time I’m in town– and I’ll make you pedal through my dust. :P

    1. Sandy Merz

      I’d happily pedal through your dust – after all I pedal through pretty much everyone’s dust at my level, so it might as well be a friend’s. I’m half way thinking seriously of getting a custom made shirt that says, “Caution, Student Trail Rider,” on the back. Dang, I’d bet I’d get asked where I got it. What do you think?

  3. Amethyst Hinton Sainz

    I just got back on my bike for the fall, and my rear end hurts. All my friends said to get padded bike shorts, which I have never had, because before this all my bikes had big cooshy seats. I am hoping I learn the lesson of “Sometimes you just need the right equipment.” :)

    I have never braved mountain biking. Good for you! Sounds like you and Midnight have many more adventures in your future.

  4. Lisa Moberg

    Oh my goodness, best imparted wisdom from your bike-riding analogies!! I spent 3 summers in college bicycling the Canadian Rockies and the Oregon Coast (both about 250 miles each). So your tips brought a lot of fond and painful memories… and lots of laughs. Love this article. Thanks, Sandy!!

    1. Sandy Merz

      Oh, man. When I was in maybe 8th grade we took a car trip through the Canadian Rockies. Much of it wasn’t even paved. This was in maybe 1970 or 71. I dreamed of biking there some day, but have never made it. What a great adventure you had. Thanks for your comment.

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