I took my class outside to the parking lot, got everyone organized and ready for the activity, and then I heard, “Mr. Tennessen! There’s a dead rat over here! And some of it’s over there, too!” Unfortunately, she was correct. Because we don’t have a daytime custodian, it fell on me to get it cleaned up, and we still had to have class. As best I could, I had to get everyone settled, refocused, and back on task. It was only first period, had I known six months ago that this moment was going to be my easiest part of the day, I would not have taken this new position.
I am in my eleventh year of teaching, the previous ten have been at the elementary level, with the last eight being at a successful charter school. For a long time, things were very good. I felt as though my program and classes were a crown jewel of my school. If there was a visitor in my school, they always came to my gym. Everyone from multi-millionaire donors we were trying to woo, potential new staff members, potential new board members, and even state legislators during important education legislation vote cycles all spent time in my gym talking to me and observing my amazing students. I had received several grants, done a lot of fundraising, traveling and presenting my ideas to teachers across the country, and I had been featured in videos through multiple resources.
I was loved by my staff, students, and their families; I loved them and my job. We were doing a lot of things that made other PE teachers say, “Really?! You have fourth graders doing that? I can’t do that with my sixth graders!” I was a superhero who was able to clear any obstacle and overcome any adversity. I could win over the toughest kids. Kids who hated PE when they came to my school gave me hugs in the second week of school. I could teach skills to a level that parents and students thought were unimaginable.
Parents would regularly tell me they could tell when their child had PE, because they came home in a better mood, and my class was often the first thing they wanted to talk about. Parents of new, older students would approach me and ask me how I got their child to enjoy being active. “I can’t do that” became, “Did you see that?! I can’t believe I just did that!” Kids were learning, and it was an enjoyable experience for both them and me. Life was good.
Due my school’s success, we were getting pressure from parents to open a middle school. About this time I sensed a philosophical shift at my school. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I began to believe I needed a change. For a variety of reasons, I thought making the move to the new middle school would be the best for me and the middle school. My superintendent, who was my principal at the elementary school, and the middle school principal started having conversations with me about switching schools.
We all agreed that I was the best fit to start this program. I did my best to make sure I knew what I was getting into. I was going to be the only special area class for at least the first year, which means I would see my students every day, instead of once every three days like I was accustomed to. I was told we would have modular rooms onsite (the middle school and elementary school would eventually be attached), and they had committed to trying to get me a double long or wide modular. I would have access to all of our outdoor, green space, and I would also be allowed to share some of the roughly $30,000 worth of equipment I had brought to my school. I knew it was going to be difficult, but we all believed that I was going to be needed at the new school, and this setup would allow me to be fairly successful at delivering high quality PE.
Later, those decisions were changed. The modulars were out, and we would be at another site; the upstairs of an elementary school that was not yet at capacity. This school also doesn’t have a gym or storage areas. I immediately began to have doubts, but the school had already begun the process to find my replacement, and I had given my word. For better or worse, this was my new assignment. Unfortunately, worse would eventually become the norm.
Despite my doubts and concerns, I tried to remain positive, but when I finally saw my teaching spaces, my heart dropped. I was given the smallest of the classrooms available and the aforementioned parking lot (remember, I now have middle school sized kids in an elementary sized classroom).
My room was also going to be my storage area, which severely limited both the quantity and variety of equipment I could purchase. I was later given lockers that I specifically told my administration not to buy for me, but they wouldn’t take them back. “We will need them when we open the new school,” they said. About half way through the first quarter, someone showed up with extra desks and chairs to store in my room.
The parking lot was covered in weeds, and I spent a couple hours one day spraying weed killer all over it. The cracks and potholes drastically shrank my activity area. I also learned that my parking lot was used for the construction area when the school organization bought the building and renovated it. We did regular parking lot sweeps, but I was still frequently finding glass (some pieces larger than quarters), screws, bolts, nails, pieces of wire, and of course, a dead rat.
As a school, we struggled mightily with managing student behavior, because with the exception of my instructional coach and myself, every teacher was a rookie. Unfortunately, we had to let go of one teacher a few weeks into the year, and we had another quit a couple weeks after that. We also lost one of our two special education teachers due to medical issues. My instructional coach and assistant principal had to fill in the non-special education roles for several months. This left my principal alone and outmatched to handle all of the rising discipline issues.
Unfortunately, we did not have a discipline process figured out, which led to some inconsistency with how things were handled. We had regular morning meetings that I could never be a part of, because I had to ride the bus with the students to and from school every day. When changes were made, I was left unaware. The lack of staff also meant we needed someone to help out the other teacher. During my preps, that often fell on me – “The Elder Statesman.”
I was not ready to see my kids every day with only $2,000 worth of equipment and the facilities I was given. My school was going through some severe growing pains that I attributed to being a new school, having a tight budget, and figuring out a lot of things as we go. Regardless of the validity of the reasons, life was not good less than two months into the year. It was quickly getting worse.
All of this caused me to struggle more than even during my first year of teaching. I was doing the best I could, although there were some bright spots, it wasn’t always quality PE, and I knew it. I played more kickball in the first quarter of one year than I ever did the previous ten years combined. I was in survival mode. The love, joy, and passion I felt for my job was fading. Fast. I hated my curriculum. I hated who I was as a teacher, and it was causing me so much pain.
I would often come home and spend the first 20 minutes in my bedroom trying to hold it all together and gather the energy I needed to face my family and be the husband and father they needed. I wanted to quit more times than I could count; I even contemplated a career change. The cape that once allowed me to soar was now a weight that I could no
longer bear. I felt like I had become the worst possible version of myself at my school and at home, and it was beginning to show. This wasn’t burnout. I’ve flirted with burnout before, so I recognize it and can spot that coming before it hits me. I can take appropriate steps to prevent burnout. No, this was something much worse, much deeper, and much darker. My superintendent once came into my room during one of my preps and asked me if I was as miserable as I looked. This woman saw me the week after my father unexpectedly died. She saw me trying to hold it together then. I did not have to tell her. She knew.
I got sick of losing my prep during the day to go help a teacher with their class, because I would then have to bring my work home with me, and I hated my work. The last thing I wanted to do when I got home was to do work that I couldn’t stand. I hated the regular occurrence of being at home, and due to the weather forecast, preparing an indoor lesson plan for the next day just to get a text a half hour later that nullified that lesson, because my room was going to be used so some of our students could do make up tests. Where was I supposed to teach? What was I supposed to teach? How many days would this actually kick me out of my classroom?
During this period of time I would often sit in my bed in the morning, hunched over, looking at my phone, wondering how many times I could call in sick before I got fired. Although I never did call in sick, the temptation was always there; looming over me as some sort of dark force falsely offering me what seemed like my only salvation for the day. This job has ups and downs, just like life, but the downs used to feel like jabs or light body blows in the first round. Now they felt like 12th round, haymaker left hooks as I was staggering and trying to stay upright. I was out on my feet, hoping the referee would step in and stop the fight, because there was no more fight left in me. I was no longer the red, rubber ball I use to illustrate resilience to my classes. I was deflated physically, mentally, and spiritually.
I had a strange sense of falling down a spiral, looking up for help, and seeing the best version of me looking back down at the current version of me. We would simultaneously reach out for each other, but we could never seem to connect. I also had the other view. I could see myself falling deeper and farther out of reach, and it was all tragically surreal. My joy was gone, and my hope was following closely behind it.
It was becoming more and more apparent to everyone else around me that something was very wrong. I am normally a party looking for a place to happen. The extrovert in me naturally feeds off of the positive energy of others, but my friends noticed that was not happening any more. People could hear it in my voice while we were on the phone, and they sensed something was wrong at birthday parties or dinners. I put on a brave face, smiled, and said I was fine, but I wasn’t. One night my family and I were having dinner with my parents.
My wife, who was the only one who I truly let in on all of my struggles, expressed deep concerns for me. My mother said she could see it too. These two know me better than anyone else on this earth, and I was a piece of glass that they could see through. They’ve seen me in both physical and emotional pain, and they could see the wound that had been opened, even if I refused to acknowledge it to myself. I shared a small portion of my struggles, and then I shared some more, and I just kept going for several minutes. At the end of my vent, my mother, who is a nurse and also has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, told me I should talk to someone. A professional.
I casually dismissed that advice. After all, we were only in October. “I am in a rut. A funk. I’ll pull through. Just give it time,” I often told myself. Someone else began to notice the rips and tears in my super suit, she asked how things were going. I told her a few things. When she asked if I was able to shake these feelings, I told her I couldn’t. “Dan, you’re depressed, because you hate your job,” she told me. My first thought was, “What?! No! Not me. No way. Not ‘Mr. Energy,’ not ‘Mr. Life of the Party.’” I then remembered that this person once told me a few of her family members had battled long term depression. She could spot the signs, because she saw them on a daily basis. I also thought back to what my wife, mother, and friends had all said, and I thought that maybe she was right.
I later looked up the symptoms of depression. Out of the 27 symptoms listed, I was frequently experiencing at least 21 of them.
At this point, the seriousness of my situation hit me like a freight train. Something needed to change, and it needed to change quickly. There was no way I could finish the year like this. The problem was I didn’t know what to do, where to go, or who I could turn to. I felt like a castaway with no Wilson volleyball. Then, out of nowhere, a lifeline was thrown to me from an unexpected source.
Check out Part 2 of "Recovering From a Fall" by Daniel Tennessen this Sunday, April 29. Daniel will discuss how he has been able to change his "mindset" with the help of others and get his teaching life "back on track!"
Dan Tennessen is a physical education teacher working in an urban environment in Indianapolis. He started an athletics program at his school that has grown to include a dozen inner city schools and benefits approximately 1,500 kids across the city. He is a national presenter, an OPEN National Trainer, and he is very active in Indiana SHAPE."
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