A positive sign: Cross country team encourages teacher’s running goals

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Over the summer, MFL MarMac high school physical education teacher Pat Wille decided to get back into running. The cross country team has been encouraging her efforts, and two weeks ago, surprised Wille with positive signs and cheers while she was running on the track. (Submitted photo)

Many of the signs are now put up outside Pat Wille’s office, offering continuous encouragement. “It was something that meant a lot to me, but I think it meant as much to them,” she said.” (Photo by Audrey Posten)

The MFL MarMac high school cross country team poses with Ms. Pat Wille outside her office. “Now, I’m trying to figure out how to do a payback,” Wille said. “I’ve got to get them back in a positive way.” (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register


Over the summer, MFL MarMac high school physical education teacher Pat Wille decided to get back into running. The high school track in Monona was being resurfaced at the time, so she worked out at the Butterfly Garden and Trail instead. Once school started, she moved to the track. 


There, Wille’s run would often coincide with practice for the high school cross country team, which warmed up on the nearby tennis court. It didn’t take long for the students to notice—and start encouraging—her running goals.


“They would be up there doing their stretches and see me coming, and they’d start cheering, ‘Yay, Ms. Wille! Go, Ms. Wille!’ Every time I would come around, the same cheer,” she recalled. “Every time we’re out there at the same time, it’s just been a continuous thing.”


One morning, the team had an early practice. When Wille arrived at school, it was her chance to return the favor.


“I rolled down my window and said, ‘Hey, cross country!’” she shared.


On Wednesdays, when the school typically has an early out, Wille runs earlier and can catch the team before practice.


“I probably scared the crap out of them the one day. I started screaming, ‘Go, cross country!’” she said, laughing. “I never really get to cheer back at them. It was my way of saying thank you for encouraging me to continue to keep moving and reach another goal, another lap.”


One day two weeks ago, the team gave Wille a surprise she won’t forget. Hiding behind the crow’s nest, the athletes popped out and raced to the track fence as Wille ran by, where they cheered and waved signs that included a variety of positive messages.


The idea came from freshman runner Jacob Schellhorn.


“I thought it would be cool and that, if we could keep it quiet, it would work,” he shared.


Jacob’s sister Abby, a senior member of the team, recalled the anticipation.


“He took us to the opposing team’s crow’s nest, and we hid. Jacob was like, ‘OK, guys, she’s at the goal post. She’s at the fence. She’s by the mats.’ He told us when to go, and we ran up to the fence and just showed the signs,” she explained. “They said, ‘Get after it!’ because that’s what my mom says a lot. They said, ‘Go, Ms. Wille!’ and ‘Yeah, Ms. Wille!’ because that’s what we say every time. ‘Keep running!’ and ‘You’re awesome!’ and ‘You’re doing great!’ It’s just little positive messages.”


The whole team banded together to make the signs, finishing the project in less than a day.


“It didn’t take long. Everyone made a few,” said sophomore Clare Grau.


The effort was worth it.


“It felt good,” Jacob said. “We made Ms. Wille stop.”


“It did make me stop in my tracks,” Wille quipped. “Even the look on their faces when they were doing it. It was a proud moment for them, to know they were giving some positive encouragement, being supportive. It was something that meant a lot to me, but I think it meant as much to them.”


“The time they put into it probably was longer than that moment was, but just to know they pulled it off,” she added. “I was told they were making so much noise back there that I’d hear them, but I didn’t hear a thing. Not until they all came charging around the corner. It was pretty amazing. It’s good to see good things and show good things when they happen, because we hear a lot more negative. I think this is a great group and they are going to do great things.”


Abby said positive feedback is part of cross country, whether you’re part of the team or not.


“We all know how hard it is—3.1 miles of pure death and destruction, basically,” she stated. “It’s a mental game and a physical game, so we want to cheer everyone on that’s doing, even if they’re outside our group. We want to bring positive reinforcement.”


Clare said she was eager to be part of the surprise once she heard about the idea.


“It’s such a good idea to do to support people in the community. You don’t really get that in other sports,” she remarked. “I hope this can happen in other sports too, and that they can learn from it and grow.”


Wille shared the experience on her Facebook page, and the post has received over 175 likes and more than 20 comments—all positive. 


“The comments are uplifting, to let the kids know, ‘Hey, just that small minute meant a lot.’ Even to the people who weren’t there,” she said.


Wille said her goal is to run 3.5 miles. She’s at just over 3.25. 


“I would eventually like to get up to five miles,” she stated. “I’m doing it slow, taking my time. I’ll get it done, then set another goal, just like these guys do. Their positive encouragement will go a long way.”


That positive encouragement will go a long way for the cross country athletes too. 


Jacob hopes people learn about the gesture and see the importance of being nice to one another.


“Realize that the smallest thing can make a big impact on someone,” added sophomore Kaylee Walch.


That’s what sticks with Wille.


“You never know the kind of day someone’s had,” she said. “When you have that little thing at the end of your day, all of a sudden, boom. Your whole body shifts into a whole different—the endorphins get going. That little gesture can change somebody’s day completely.”


“Now,” Wille continued, “I’m trying to figure out how to do a payback. I’ve got to get them back in a positive way.”

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