Bronx Middle School Teacher and Coach Finds Full Circle Through Running Track

In this installment of How I Teach, we explore the strategies that exceptional educators employ to engage their students.

Elías Cruz’s life took a different trajectory because of his involvement in track and field.

At the middle school in the Bronx where Cruz teaches English, he founded a track team in the fall of 2021, inspired by his own experience as a member of a track team started by his English teacher.

Cruz attributes his passion for running to his middle school English teacher, Shawanda Weems, who initiated a track team at P.S./M.S. 15 as part of the free youth program provided by the Rising New York Road Runners. Besides offering extensive youth programming and races that Cruz’s students are currently preparing for, the New York Road Runners is renowned for hosting the TCS New York City Marathon, the upcoming edition of which is scheduled for November 5.

Reflecting on their desire to become faster runners, Cruz and his friends eagerly joined Weem’s track group.

“When I look back at that decision, it’s clear that it had an immeasurable impact on my life,” Cruz said.

Cruz began his teaching career six years ago at the New School for Leadership and the Arts, located near his childhood home in University Heights. Inspired by his former coach Weems, who continues to guide and advise him, Cruz became an English teacher.

About two years ago, when New York City schools reopened their doors to in-person learning after a prolonged period of remote education, Cruz introduced the Rising New York Road Runners program to his students. Concerned about how they would adapt to being back together after a long period of isolation, Cruz believed that track and field could be as transformative for his middle schoolers as it was for him.

“I was primarily focused on helping them develop their social-emotional skills, fostering teamwork, and improving their physical and mental well-being,” he explained. “It brought to mind memories of middle school track with Ms. Weems.”

As a student on the track team, Cruz forged tight bonds with his peers outside of the classroom. They began to prioritize their health and diet, and they created lasting memories during track meets. Cruz still maintains strong connections with his middle school teammates Cris, Jose, and James, who continue to play a significant role in his life.

“To this day, we frequently recall the races in Central Park, Washington Heights, the challenging hills of Van Cortlandt Park, the meets at Icahn, and the bus rides back to school after a day of running,” Cruz shared.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

It’s fascinating to hear that you still live and work in the neighborhood where you grew up. When and how did you decide to pursue teaching?

During my high school years, my track team practiced from Monday to Thursday, and I diligently recorded our workouts, drills, stretches, and my personal lap times in a small notebook. Every Friday, I would return to my middle school and assist the younger runners by sharing what I had learned. I would demonstrate new drills, help them improve their technique on familiar drills, and support them in their individual events for upcoming track meets.

Unbeknownst to me, I was already cultivating a teaching mindset.

What is your favorite lesson to teach, and why, whether in the classroom or on the field?

One of my favorite activities during track practice is our buddy runs. For this exercise, the upperclassmen are paired with sixth or seventh grade students, and they run together during practice. It’s inspiring to witness the older students not only mentor their younger counterparts but also pass on the skills that I have imparted to them over the years.

Are there any community events or occurrences that have an impact on your school?

Our school is situated in the northwestern section of the Bronx. We have the privilege of running outside, holding practices in local parks, and even walking to some of our track meets at Van Cortlandt Park. However, we cannot ignore the economic struggles that many residents of the Bronx face.

When we first introduced the Rising New York Road Runner program, we started with a core group of around 15 students. The following year, 2022-2023, our numbers nearly doubled to approximately 40 students. However, after the first month of practice, it became evident that we were facing challenges related to nutrition and proper running attire.

Given that a significant portion of our student-athletes live well below the poverty line, it was nearly impossible for all of them to afford proper running shoes, which were essential for their performance. I distinctly remember one returning runner confiding in us that he had to stop running because the pain in his feet was unbearable.

Fortunately, thanks to a partnership with the New York Road Runners, we were able to provide our runners and many other students from our school with brand-new New Balance running shoes.

What is the best advice you have ever received, and how have you applied it?

The best advice I’ve received is to make sure that all classroom activities and practice sessions are engaging. When students are eager to achieve their goals, it indicates that they have wholeheartedly embraced your program and philosophy.

Have you ever participated in the NYC Marathon?

Next year will be my first-ever marathon. I took a hiatus from running to focus on my teaching career and only recently resumed my running routine. I am gradually increasing my mileage in the hope of crossing the finish line of the New York City Marathon in 2024.

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