We Create Our Own Demons

During episode 68 of The PE Umbrella podcast, Sarah mentioned how she experienced a teaching rut during the fall. After listening to the podcast, Naomi messaged Sarah and said that teacher burnout was a topic she had been wanting to write about for a while. Naomi suggested writing a joint blog post about teacher burnout. When Naomi and Sarah mentioned their idea to the rest of the team, everyone quickly admitted that they were either currently experiencing teacher burnout, had recently gotten over it, or struggled with it in the past. As a group, we have been wanting to write about more serious topics within teaching and we think this is a great place to start. During the next month, you will read each of our stories about teacher burnout. Adam continues the series with a post about his struggles in the midst of burnout.


We create our own demons.  Who said that? Doesn’t matter.  Much like the opening monologue of Iron Man 3, to properly share my story on teacher burnout, I need to track this from the beginning.  The truth is, I am dreading writing this blog post.  I am afraid that it will be interpreted the wrong way; I am fearful that colleagues will view this as nothing more than a very public vent session.  I’m slightly embarrassed with my bottled up feelings and I don’t trust my own author’s voice. I am angry and frustrated and full of guilt, but I am terrified to write with that tone.  So I’m going to take a leap of faith on this one thanks to my friends on the PHYSEDagogy team (who still have no idea what I am writing about) and hope that by sharing, it can help me begin healing a part of me I hope I haven’t lost.

I remember when I first started “tweeting PE” in 2012.  I have always had a bit of a chip on my shoulder and this was evidenced by what I chose for my Twitter handle, @TheDumbJockMyth.  I remember feeling so energized by meeting and talking physical education with people who were equally as passionate as me.  Moderating #pechat on Monday nights was one of the highlights of my week.  I remember one particular conversation that I had on Twitter where I had this light bulb go on in my head.  I spent some time searching through my history of tweets and I finally found the pivotal moment.  Three days before my birthday in 2012, I tweeted the following:

I probably didn’t think about it then.  But, this tweet served as a moment of inception for me.  Less than three months later, I founded PHYSEDagogy.  I never imagined that the website and blog would have grown to where it has.  Contributing to PHYSEDagogy and the #PhysEdSummit has influenced the physical education profession in ways that I never anticipated.  Whether I like it or not, this influence has created an incredible pressure to become a leader in the profession.  Normally, I wouldn’t mind this pressure because all of my fellow colleagues who are physical and health educators–you are my tribe.  So why has this become a demon?  My demon is my own inability to reconcile the esteem that I feel within the physical education profession with the political nature of being a physical educator in my state, local community and the school that I teach in.  

There was a tipping point for me about three years ago where I began to withdraw from my activity as a professional on social media.  This was intentional because educators in Oregon were not on social media and I wanted desperately to change the culture around physical education in my local community and state.  In hindsight, this created a vacuum within the social media space that eventually became filled with Oregon educators who were only interested in using social media as a one-way marketing tool (speaking of demons…).  After becoming well known in the #PhysEd universe so quickly, I felt energized to take on this challenge.  Fast forward to 2017 and I feel tired, unsuccessful, overwhelmed, anxious, and lost most of the time.  My students are my salvation and the only part about being an educator that I enjoy at the moment.  The remainder of my professional obligations are a turbulent sea of accountability, paperwork, a cycle of initiatives that we are directed to implement and an endless calendar of meetings that never accomplish anything.  I don’t feel value in creating a common assessment just to check off a box with my district.  I don’t find it meaningful to collect, document and submit behavior paperwork just so a specialist can tell me things about a student that I already knew.  I loathe the word FIDELITY.  Teaching in 2017 often feels like I am discouraged from being innovative and creative and encouraged to play it safe and be predictable.  An environment where we tell students to jump and they demonstrate how respectful and responsible they are by asking, “how high?”  Education feels more about programs instead of people.  Compliance within this factory model is what we seek and reward.

I often find it difficult to express my frustration and anger with the system with words which is why this blog post is so challenging for me to write.  Where I do have a sense of clarity is how all of these things on my plate make me feel incredible guilt.  I feel guilt because I feel ineffective as an educator.  Recycling some of the same ideas that I used four, five, even six years ago.  I do this because I’m desperately trying to protect myself and at least hang on to something.  Picture a treasure chest and each time you make a connection with a student or have a meaningful professional connection with a colleague, it allows you to add something valuable inside.  For many of us, this treasure chest is overflowing and that becomes the joy of teaching.  However, many of the aforementioned things that cause us to feel frustration as an educator begin to steal and chip away at your treasure.  It finally gets to the point where you lock the chest to allow nothing to go in or out.  That’s me.  That’s my demon.  That’s burnout.

It extends beyond the classroom, as well.  With the ascension of teacher leadership through social media, it is the expectation that we act as agents of change when advocating for physical education.  This is where I feel most demoralized.  It constantly feels like physical education is under attack in the state of Oregon (and nationwide).  Just tonight before writing this blog post, I read a news article that Portland Public Schools intend on making massive reductions to physical education in their district for next year.  The article notes that elementary physical education would be reduced to thirty minutes once every two weeks.  Two years ago, I spent a year outside of my classroom working in a teacher leadership position that was not related to physical education.  Throughout that year, I was able to get a crash course in just how political educational leadership is and how little physical education matters to many people who are in leadership positions in districts from around the state.  I was often reminded and encouraged that I needed to “look at the big picture” more and not just focus on physical education.  This was, of course, if I was ever going to have any impact as an educational leader.  I have a master’s degree in educational leadership, but never in my professional life have I felt so small and inconsequential.  I felt more like a pariah than a leader and advocate for physical education and educating the whole child.  I still work on state level committees as a representative of Oregon SHAPE and I often come away from those meetings feeling as though the people who think (and maybe they are right) that they hold the decision making power in our state and local communities already have their minds made up as to what they can or cannot do before they even listen to what I have to say.  The ultimate irony is that these groups are collectively referred to as the, “education lobby.”  Why I am not considered to be a part of that group, I could not tell you.  Amidst other educators, I am once again persona non grata.

Prior to writing this post, I have read Sarah G-H’s post in this series where she mentioned her conversation with Andy Hair and how he, “knew that this would happen to someone in our Twitter community.”  I suppose it is only a matter of time before someone in the community stands up and just leaves the profession completely because the system has permanently taken the hope out of the educator.  At what point does it become not worth it any longer?

I’m afraid that person will be me.

Adam Howell (@adamphowell)

8 Comments on “We Create Our Own Demons

  1. The most important thing in education is the personal relationships we have with our students. No amount of politcal change or technilogy or best practices can replace the personal relationship between student and teacher. Everything starts and ends there.

  2. Reading then listening to your post reminds me of a Luke Bryan song, “Strip it down” about a relationship that had become so convoluted over time that he wanted to “Strip it down” to the pure love and passion they had in the beginning. This has become a life mantra for me. Listening to your blog, classroom teaching is that stripped down passion, with that said doing things that you did in the past IF IT WORKED, is not lack of creativity. Reinventing the wheel is not always going to provide a better ride, take care of it, maintain it, and appreciate it. Next your social media community gave you awesome emotional support, good, keep it, enjoy it celebrate it! Now the elephant in the room, the “P’s”, politics, paperwork, and “pissin” teachers. Politics increases quality of life and effectively improves everything, said no sane person ever! It just is a fact of life, focus and actively provide it the smallest place possible in your teaching life. History of teaching has shown all the theories constantly renamed and recycled, keep your daily life “Stripped Down” Paperwork, be glad you are not a lawyer. Paperwork is about accountability or some attempt of covering some ass. Don’t give paperwork power, relagate it to its proper category, like taking out the gabarge. Got to do it or it is going to stink.
    Strip it down to the foundation, and add items only as long as they are adding a positive note, dump the guilt! Ask yourself each day, what did I like doing today, reflect on it and smile, then tally the negative and see how you can minimize it tomorrow. Then smile that you are taking some of your power and energy back. Oh change, doesn’t work top down, it starts with the students, expand to the parents, use your passion to create a Phys Ed health day to share with students and families. Be an important presence in their regular lives, have an adult Phys Ed workout class, etc.. Your students’ families will hear you and you can Make A Difference where it counts!

  3. I certainly agree with the comments from Chris. Change does not happen from the top down. It starts with our students and just as importantly our parents. If every PE teacher in our country could adequately explain to their students and parents the importance of PE we would no longer be looked at non essential. We need to advocate and tell students the value we bring to their. lives. This is true if we first of all offer a quality PE program. If every day we remind students that their brains are better and their bodies are better because we got them actively moving. More importantly we need to explain why we do what we do in class and encourage movement out side our classroom. We have to remember that those in the power positions you talk about have experienced PE first as students and then as parents.

    Keep the faith and don’t get discouraged which we all do from time to time regardless of our jobs. I’m sure even our fellow educators do not feel often that they are valued as classes become bigger and budgets become tighter. So remember we are not alone with these feelings. Just remember why you got into this profession in the first place. Hopefully it was because you wanted to make a difference in the life of students. Also remember we are the only subject that affect students physically, socially. emotionally and with the evidence of neuro-science mentally. Thus making PE the most important subject in the life of our students.

  4. We generate our own demons and only the owner of the demon may defeat it. It is rewarding to focus on our students and what they learn. Communicating with parents the accomplishments of their children makes the connection. Sharing the accomplishments of the children with the classroom teachers makes the connection for the teachers. Share the tools you use to communicate with the parents and teachers with fellow teachers,

    Being a leader in the field among politicians takes one back to the basics of communication about the difference between physical education and physical activit, about the difference between sport/athletics and physical education. I totally understand the repetitive answers and comments one must give to get a message across or perhaps not. But, you must continue the verbiage, so others with the same message can work within their circles to influence the political machine that moves slowly.

  5. “My students are my salvation and the only part about being an educator that I enjoy at the moment”

    I think a lot of people feel that way pretty often, I know I do.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and frustrations.

  6. Thank you for sharing Adam. I am sure these are thoughts and feelings many of us have had at some time or another – I know I have. When I stepped away to go to the DOE, I thought I could make change happen. And while much change goes on without our knowing it, I then felt I could make a bigger impact outside of the profession. So dont fear your the ‘what we do’, in your heart, you will be making a difference in or out of the profession. 🙂

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