A couple days after I looked up the symptoms for depression, I was sitting all alone in the teacher’s lounge when the school counselor came in. She had just been assigned to our school for one day a week, and we hadn’t seen each other since I left the elementary school. She took one look at me, sat down at the table, and with a tone of sincerity I had never heard her use before, she said, “Dan, do you need to talk?”
I did need to talk, and so I did. She encouraged me to keep talking about it to anyone who would listen. The result was that I didn’t just open up to her, but I began to open up to other teachers.
This was the beginning of the turnaround for me. I thought back to all those times I told my students that talking to someone can often help relieve stress and improve your mental health. Why hadn’t I listened to the advice of others? Why had I been so stubborn, so foolish, and so prideful?
What I found was that I was not alone. I believed that I wasn’t alone before I opened up to others, but I never allowed myself to accept this or know it until I heard others say similar things. Not only did people share their stories of struggles and failures, they told me about others who went through, or are still going through similar trials, and they connected us. I began to speak to those teachers, as well. Everyone began to build me back up little by little, and I was exceedingly grateful. When I saw others multiple times, they no longer asked me how my year was going, but they started asking me how I was doing. They told me it would get better, and they pointed to their lives as examples.
At first the talks were more like bitter, angry rants, but the more I talked, the better my mood became about the subject. It gradually became a conversation, and I could feel the wound healing.
Then the most remarkable thing happened. I began to pay it forward. I began to try and speak life to other teachers, whether their year was going great or not. I met an Indiana TOY’s parents, and I shared how much her leadership has meant to me and our state. I told them how much I looked up to her and valued her friendship. I thanked them for supporting her teaching endeavors, because she is making teachers across our state better, which makes the kids in our state healthier.
Her and her parents’ eyes began to tear up. I also began to focus on speaking life to my students at a rate that I never have before. I no longer told them I appreciated an action they did, but I instead told them that I appreciated them. It was a small word choice change that made a massive impact. What I noticed was that the more I began to speak about the positive things I see in others, the more positive things I began to again see in myself. The more positive I spoke about my students, the more positive my job seemed.
So what changed? What is getting me slowly turned back around? The use of my PLN, my expectations, and lowering my pride. In other words, I changed my attitude towards this year.
If I had not been humble enough to open up to others, I would likely have left teaching during winter break. My wife told me we would be fine if I needed to go back to school to do something different. We would find a way. Through these conversations with other teachers I heard a valuable piece of wisdom. I was told, “Dan, you can’t compare your current situation to your previous one. It’s not fair to you. You’ll get there. Right now, though, you just have to survive and endure this, and that’s ok, because you’re going to be a much better teacher in the end because of it, and you’re already an amazing teacher.”
I realized I had put myself and my program on a pedestal, but I never adjusted my view when my situation changed. I learned that I had to take off the cape, for now, and that there is nothing wrong with that. It will be ready for me to don when I am ready to fill that role again.
My school, my students, my program, and I will all get there. My hope has slowly started to return, but I’m still working through it. My job is not yet as enjoyable as it was, but it is better. I actively seek out small pockets of enjoyment within each day, and I cling to those as much as I can. I’m still pulling myself out of the spiral, but now I look up and see so many other faces (my family, friends, and my PLN) reaching out to me, helping me, pulling me out, and supporting me.
I also stepped down from my Athletic Director role. It was not an easy decision, because I had worked so long and so hard to build up that program, but it was a necessary decision. When I did that, an immediate weight was lifted off my shoulders. I was sad when I came home and told my wife that I had finally made that decision after having several conversations with her about it. However, I was relieved to not have a mountain of paperwork to do when the next season started. It was at that moment that I knew it was the right decision, because I realized I had expected too much of myself and my school. I needed to retract my workload into a manageable scope.
To be perfectly honest with you, up to this point, this blog has been all for me. I did this for somewhat selfish reasons, because I hoped it to be therapeutic, and it has been. It’s a further pulling the curtain back to those who didn’t know. It’s been an extended way for me to get things off my chest and deal with these issues. I’m not out of the woods yet, but I’m closer now than I was before I started to write it. Now, however, I’d like to turn it to you, because I imagine many of you can see some of yourselves in these paragraphs.
It’s ok to not be perfect. Heck, it’s ok to not be excellent from time to time. Strive for excellence and work towards it, but please don’t beat yourself up if you don’t reach it with everything you do. It’s ok to be human, because you can’t always be the superhero. Teachers are miracle workers. It’s who we are, and it’s what we do, but you don’t have to work miracles every day to be one. There will be plenty of time and opportunities to work those miracles and be a superhero, but you can’t do that if you don’t take time to take care of yourselves. After all, don’t airlines tell us to put on our oxygen mask before helping others put on theirs? Please be open and honest. Be real, and be a listener.
However, don’t listen to yourself. Instead, talk to yourself. Everyone is often their own worst critic, and if we begin to listen to those doubts and negative thoughts, then we begin to bring ourselves down. Conversely, if we talk to ourselves in a positive light, then we begin to drown out those negative thoughts and build ourselves up.
That’s why my favorite question to others is now, “As a teacher, what makes you amazing?” In fact, at the national convention in Nashville, I asked that question to a district TOY honoree I had just met. She gave me a typical, generic answer and said what everyone says. Her lessons are content rich, fun, and engaging, she can build relationships with students, etc. I told her that this wasn’t an interview. She didn’t have to give me the same canned answer that everyone else says, and so I asked her again. This time she paused, looked away, and thought for a brief moment. She then smiled slightly, turned back, locked eyes with me, and she proceeded to tell me specific things that she does that make a difference in the lives of her students, specific things she does that make her school better, and specific qualities that she brings to the job.
The more she spoke, the bigger her smile got. Afterwards, she nodded and said she loved that question, because no one has ever asked her that before. She then did what so many others have done, and she asked me the same question. I love this, because it forces me to reflect and remember, and I try to not give the same answer every time. We then spent the next several minutes sharing success stories with each other, and for me, it was a powerful moment. I hope it was for her, too.
Even if she didn’t return the question to me, I still would have enjoyed talking with her, because I am slowly getting back to the place where I feed off the energy of others. By lifting up her, I was also lifted up. Even if she didn’t ask me, I still would have found her story to be a very powerful moment, because it confirmed to me that we all need this. Despite whatever awards, accolades, and levels of success we have attained, we all need to hear ourselves talk positively about ourselves, because if you don’t believe in you, how can you expect others to?
Moments like these have helped me so much, because we all have something about us that makes us special, unique, and powerful. Now I want to ask you, what makes you amazing? When you find the answer, hold fast to it. Repeat it to yourself often and out loud. Please don’t ever forget it, not for a moment, like I did.
I’d like to know what makes you amazing, and I believe the entire PE community could benefit from this. Please use Twitter to tag Cap’n Pete (@CapnPetesPE) and me (@BigTennPhysEd), and use #amazingPEteacher. I promise that we all share many of the same characteristics and qualities, but we sometimes lose sight of those things until we see it in others or hear others mention it.
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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