Let Your Guard Down


The Last/Next Time
Teaching blog shorts to get you thinking.

The Last Time
When was the last time you let your guard down while teaching?
Reflect on the week, the month, or the school year. When have you taken off your “teaching mask” to be human with your students? Have you shared a mistake? Did you misspeak and needed to correct yourself in front of the class? Do you ever laugh at yourself or allow students to poke fun of you the same way you might do to them?

The Next Time
Take advantage of the next time you can let your guard down.
Let’s be clear: in the school setting, teachers and students are not friends. However, we can certainly be friendly. A clear relationship needs to exist just the same as parents/guardians and their own children. Adolescents learn and thrive with discernible parameters in their interactions with adults. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take off our “teaching mask” for a few minutes here or there. Make a mistake? Laugh at yourself. Misspeak? Practice humility. Purposeful vulnerability in the learning process can prove to strengthen your connection with students.

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Wrong Answer

The Last/Next Time
Teaching blog shorts to get you thinking.

The Last Time
When was the last time you used wrong examples?

Reflect on your last few weeks of teaching. Have you presented a skill or topic that needed elaboration? Most likely, our concepts are not simply “right” or “wrong;” most of education is not cut and dry. But contrast is essential. Think about when last needed to use wrong examples, opposition, to help hammer home a point in a lesson or unit.

The Next Time
Take advantage of the next time you can teach what it isn’t.

Use wrong examples. Show mistakes. Provide opposition. Help with clarity by not only teaching what a skill or topic is, but also what it isn’t. Not all lessons have right or wrong answers, but in those cases where a life skill is presented for practice, it can help to model what that looks like as well as what it doesn’t. Our brains find deeper comprehension when hearing and witnessing contrast.

Go Back to Go Forward

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The Last/Next Time
Teaching blog shorts to get you thinking.

The Last Time
When was the last time you retaught a lesson topic?

Reflect on your teaching tenure. Have you ever felt frustrated as an instructor because students “just aren’t getting it”? Have you found yourself pushing on to your next lesson or unit even though you know a class didn’t grasp the last topic or skill? Teachers are under pressure to get things done and work through many different topics within their curriculum, often with time deadlines. It’s natural to find yourself moving forward even when your students need a review.

The Next Time
Take advantage of the next time you can reteach a lesson topic.

Teachers all have deadlines. We’re under constant pressure to meet standards, assessments, and curricular demands. But students deserve a review when necessary. Quite often, a recap is not time wasted— it might make more sense, and even save time in the future, to reteach an entire skill or cover a topic with a different angle. Lessen confusion going forward. Allow yourself to alter plans and fit in a reteachable moment when you recognize the need.

Classroom Connection: Teaching Mindfulness

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IMG_2615  Scott Todnem
“Few of us ever life in the present. We are forever anticipating what is to come or remembering what has gone.” – Louis L’Amour

Mindfulness emphasizes paying attention to the present moment in an accepting, nonjudgmental manner.

In other words, experiencing the now.

That’s how I define mindfulness for middle school students: Experiencing life as it’s happening. Mindfulness can sound confusing or even silly to a 13-year-old— “Wait… how else can we live?”— so background information helps, as well as examples, practice time, feedback… and perhaps a bit of sarcasm. It’s about living in the now, man.

Mindfulness is a topic that is gaining more and more attention lately, but it’s one that has centuries of use in various societies and spiritualities of the world.

It’s important to stress that mindfulness is not something we need to create from scratch. Instead, it’s a skill we already have— just one that’s always in development. As humans, we have the capacity to be consciously present in each moment, so mindfulness doesn’t require us to change who we are.

Going forward, this is not an expert synopsis of teaching mindfulness; instead, this is simply a look at how I am personally infusing the technique into mental health lessons. Like any Health Ed topic, I am allowing myself to constantly learn, for lessons to be fluid and accommodating, and I will update resources as I find more.

The Rationale
In seeking to provide the best Health Education experience we can, it is imperative to offer skill development to students that will benefit them for years to come.

Since it’s beginnings, Health Education has used meditation or quiet time inward as a reflective process, helping students learn the benefits of slowing down from time to time in order to have clarity with thoughts, feeling, and actions. We teach valuable lessons about analyzing influences from the past and we motivate with goal setting lessons looking ahead to the future.

I find mindfulness to be useful in the between.

It helps students to realize there is a healthy place in the present. A place where we don’t dwell too much on previous events or overthink what’s to come. There are times where it makes sense to live in the past or the future, but there are many moments each day/each week where it’s more important to live “right now.”

It is noteworthy that mindfulness for children, particularly young children, can be taught without needing a definition. Activities can be done without calling it “mindfulness” at all.

By middle school, I’ve found that students are in fact ready for a basic description, and while any grade works fine, I have focused on 7th grade in particular. We begin with a full definition but immediately follow that with something far more simple… again along the lines of “experiencing life as it is happening,” or “being aware of the present moment.”

To the point: whatever your choice of wording, its usefulness is clear: Mindfulness is a life skill that promotes healthy habits of emotional management, of decreasing distress and anxiety, and of increased concentration.

For research studies on the topic, you can read through this database of articles on mindfulness compiled by the American Mindfulness Research Association. Other resources and rationale below.

Reading:

Apps & Podcasts:

  • CALM Calm.com and its app provide free access to teachers!
  • Insight Timer The largest app for providing meditation exercises.
  • Pocket Mindfulness A “start here” blog and app with tips for beginners.
  • Aura Daily 3-minute meditation prompt.
  • NPR A list of podcasts out there on mindfulness.
  • Developing Good Habits Another list of mindfulness podcasts from recent months.

Teacher Resources:

The Process
When promoting mindfulness, teachers should approach things in a way that works best for their classroom and personality. Rarely is any Health Ed lesson one-size-fits-all, so no mindfulness activity will work perfectly with every age group or every student population.

Choose a style of mindfulness that best suits the needs of your unit, essential learnings, and state/national standards.

Hook
Whether you jump right into an activity or give some background first, you will want to use an activator that catches student attention. Again, do what works best for you, but some intro ideas I’ve used are in the next section, “The Examples.”

What It Is / What It Isn’t
Mindfulness does not need to be a 20-30 minute ordeal. After all, to be mindful is to be aware. A quick meditating “reset” can be done in 30 seconds, as discussed by Phil Boissiere in his Ted Talk.

Mindfulness does not need to be meditation. While awareness can utilize a focus on breathing, worry less about forcing students to concentrate but to instead be aware.

Mindfulness does not require us to sit in any meditation pose. However, drawing awareness to posture can be a useful technique, and having eyes closed can help as well.

Practice
Taking part in regular mindfulness doesn’t have to take up too much class time and is certainly not interfering in anything academic; instead, mindfulness stands on its own as a precursor to concentrated learning.

Perhaps your mindfulness practice is within a specific unit or skill focus. If you have multiple lessons in a row, they can build on one another. Another potential use is to offer a mindfulness activator before one lesson a week.

I use both: a multi-day focus during a mental health/self-management focus in 7th grade, and then we have “Mindful Mondays,” with a quick activity at the beginning of the period to kickstart the week.

The Wrap-up
Journal
Often, no reflection is necessary because the time inward can itself help focus the group; you may find the class primed and ready for what’s next with a calm readiness. That said, you can always use a journal prompt— this might work well if you are having students assess progress with their approach to mindfulness.
Q’s: What did you become aware of either within your own body/thoughts/emotions or the nearby environment? Did you notice anything different during this activity compared to previous lessons?

Small Group Reflection
Mindfulness activities are often silent, but social reflection is still allowed! Use a “turn & talk” method for quick check-ins.
Q’s: What helped you to focus on the present moment? Was it difficult? Do you feel calmer now? Were you frustrated or bored? What can you improve for next time?

Large Group Reflection
Give a chance for students to share as a big group as well. This could lead to beneficial conversations and allow you as the teacher an opportunity for feedback (both giving and receiving).
Q’s: Have you enjoyed our Mindful Mondays so far? What method of being mindful are you putting to use in your personal life? Have you shared any of this information with family members?

The Examples
I know many teachers use various stress management techniques from relaxation stations to zen gardens to simple coloring activities, all of which are fantastic. Here, however, I will focus strictly on the mindfulness end of things. Below are quick and simple mindful activities that I’ve found successful in the classroom. Most of these examples are aimed at the middle school level, but the basic concepts could definitely be expanded for high school teens or used with younger students. Make sure you’ve scoped the resources from “The Rationale” section above for lots of examples too!

Introductions

  • Just a Minute
    Students close their eyes or put their head down and the teacher starts an online stopwatch. Students quietly look up when they think one minute has passed. The goal is to get the closest to exactly one minute without cheating. Yes, this is more of a mental “game,” but it allows students to understand how to focus on the current moment and can lead into more discussions or activities. Discuss what senses felt heightened; what thoughts of the past/future were abandoned for the present moment; how this can apply to other life scenarios.
  • Change Something
    Students pair up and face each other, about 5 feet apart. Have one partner turn around for 30 seconds and close their eyes while the other student changes something, anything, about themselves. Examples: take off an earring, switch shoes, or put their hair behind an ear. Then the first partner turns around to quietly try to identify what has changed. Switch roles and carry on for a few rounds each. Discuss how this can lead to solo mindful walks or meditations.
  • Ted Talk
    Why Aren’t We Teaching You Mindfulness?” from Anne Marie Rossi. Spoken to adolescents, this can be used as an excellent intro to mindfulness concepts. Discuss your use in the class afterwards, or link this to your first mindfulness practice.

While mindfulness doesn’t have to be religious or spiritually based, it might be worth referencing historical uses of meditation. I adopted the Buddhist teachings slightly to match some categories for activities in Health class. Much of this stemmed from Noah Rasheta and his Secular Buddhism website/podcast.

Mindfulness doesn’t need categories, of course, but it just seemed natural as I aligned our work to the National Health Education Standards. For clarity in mindfulness activities, I often connect what I call the 3 I’s. (Or, if you want an interesting connection to the inner consciousness of Hinduism, use the term Third Eye.)

For use in Health class: impermanence, interdependence, and what I call insight.

Impermanence
The concept of impermanence is that physical and mental events come into and out of being. Life is a transient and continuous change of condition; much of our reality is in a state of flux.

Potential Health Ed units: Analyzing Influences, NHES #2; Decision Making NHES #5; and/or Self-Management, NHES #7.

  • The Bell Tolls (Mindful Listening)
    Students close their eyes closed or put their heads down. Ring a bell or use this YouTube video. Students quietly open eyes when they think the bell has stopped ringing. Discuss what students noticed about when people stop hearing sound vibrations at different points; people sat up early/later; relate static in video as it can represent distractions in life.
  • Head in the Clouds (Mindful Seeing)
    At the possibility of a nice, but cloudy, day, simply lay on the grass, face up, and watch the clouds for a set amount of time (3, maybe 5 minutes). Have them notice the movement of the cloud patterns, and which direction and speed they are traveling. Can we see the beginning or the end of the line of travel? Or, rather, does it dissolve into and out of existing within our sight?

Interdependence
Interdependence refers to our state of human connectedness. It is the connection of nature and life, of all things and of all situations. We are all linked in some way, with our presence made possible by many factors and by many people affecting each other.

Potential Health Ed units: Analyzing Influences, NHES #2;  Accessing Valid Info, NHES #3; Interpersonal Communication NHES #4; and/or Advocacy, NHES #8.

  • My Favorite Things (Mindful Thinking)
    Ask the students to think of an item of their choice, a favorite possession, either at school or at home. This can be a book, a piece of technology, an article of clothing, etc. Have them think about how that item got into their possession. Who had an impact? Was it created? How did them make that item? Who had an influence, whether it was resources or tools or the machines themselves. Have the students become aware that some of our favorite things exist only because of others. Ask the students to consider the many steps it took to get the item of their choice into existence.
  • The Origin of Food (Mindful Eating)
    A tricky one for school, but perhaps linked to upcoming or previous lunch period. Before/while/after eating, take a minute or more to quietly be mindful of what factors influenced the meal. Where did the food come from? What had to happen in order for it to get to your possession? Who made it possible for you to eat this meal? What allowed them to prepare/process/manufacture each item involved? How far back can you trace the origin of your food?

Insight
Gaining in-the-moment awareness and feedback, so we can be responsive. Reaction is involuntary, albeit healthy depending on the scenario. Being responsive to our senses and our surroundings allows mindful concentration and process time.

Potential Health Ed units: Interpersonal Communication NHES #4; Decision Making NHES #5; and/or Self-Management, NHES #7.

  • Hidden in Plain Sight (Mindful Seeing)
    Hide a toy or maybe a common/well-known prop in the classroom, but somewhere in plain sight. Alert the students that the item is there, and their job is to quietly find it, and notice where it is in comparison to its usual spot. Follow up mindful prompts from there.
  • Pass the Cup (Mindful Teamwork)
    This easily works for interdependence as well. Fill small cups of water about one inch from the rim. Ask the students to form groups of 4-6. Paying close attention, and trying not to spill, have them silently pass the cup of water back and forth through the line/circle. Have them focus on the purposeful movement of cup, hands, and arms. If it’s a trustworthy group, you can even have them try to pass the cup with their eyes closed, while still being silent. Maybe combine groups for a larger activity. Discuss what senses were heightened; could they hear the rustling of clothing or feel each others’ hands as they worked to pass the cup?

 

Reflection Questions for Teachers

  • What are your favorite mindfulness activities?
  • Is there a specific skill or unit that best lends itself towards mindfulness practice, or do you interweave it throughout the course of the quarter/semester/year?
  • Have you found success, or failure, in a certain type of set-up versus another? Will you share any ideas or examples?

Other activities and lesson ideas are shared throughout the school year on social media. Join the conversation!

YouTube.com/MrTodnem  Facebook.com/MrTodnem  Twitter.com/ScottAmpersand

Worth a Thousand Words

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IMG_2615  Scott Todnem
“Smile; it’s free therapy.” – Douglas Horton

Back to school. And back to the drawing board.

This marks the beginning of the 16th school year for me, teaching Health Education to today’s youth.

Some major life events have occurred in that time, the most recent of which is the birth of my youngest son, who is two weeks old today. Starting back up in the classroom is a definite change from time at home with family through the last few summer months. I always have my fitness business going, where I coach and plan workouts year round, but the break from full-time teaching allows a bit of a reset before each fall term.

It is during this time of return when I feel the rejuvenating energy from students, back and alive in the hallways and classrooms, and, somewhat surprisingly, hungry for new life lessons. Each “Hi!” and “Morning!” and “What are we doing today?” brings adolescent zeal that is sometimes exhausting, but I take this energy, this nervous and sometimes boisterous energy that spills in the door each period, to be a reflection of a genuine interest in learning.

Sure, much of middle school involves a social component as well as the mental balance of stress and self-esteem— but that’s why I teach Health. These are the very life lessons that pique my interest and it’s what I take pride in teaching. In reality, at this point I really don’t see myself taking a liking to any other subject area. Health allows me to use anything and everything that is pertinent throughout history and current events and weave it into the ever-evolving curriculum of life. You can’t put a limit on topics that carry potential impact, and that’s one of the best parts of teaching Health class. There is no one way to teach the topics of physical, mental, and social well-being, just like there is no one way to live life.

• • •

About a year ago I made a conscience effort to smile more.

I’m not talking about a creepy “Why is this guy smiling so much?” type of smile, but a genuine expression to show friendliness in conversation. Something simple, really, and it came about as I was reflecting on professional goals and personal life. I felt like a part of myself had gone missing. See, if I look back on the last decade, I’ve gone through a couple of tough times of stress and negativity. I realized that, particularly in recent teaching, I wasn’t smiling as much as I once had. I wanted that to change. I wanted to create and portray a better, more positive aura surrounding myself.

“Back to the drawing board,” I thought. “Time to whip up some smiles.”

Even if I didn’t feel especially upbeat at certain times throughout the week or throughout the day, I thought if I could still project happiness then I might be able to make someone else comfortable. I might be able to help a student feel encouragement through an otherwise dreadful day. Because, like my own life, ups and downs are inevitable. Adolescence certainly brings laughter, but it can also be a time of stress and struggle and even inexplicable withdrawal.

Now, it’s not like I’ve taken research data on the topic of smiling or the outcome of the last year. But I have to say, I think it’s made me feel better. I think it has honestly made a difference in my style of addressing a classroom of students, in speaking to a crowd of parents during curriculum night, or in presenting to a room full of fellow professionals. If I ever felt nervous or unsure of myself in the past, I would often rush to finish; I would speed up in order to “just get through it.”  Lately, I try to pause, take a breath, and give a smile before carrying on. Cliché? Yes, perhaps. But true.

In a world of haste and uncertainty, I have found that I can make a positive impact… starting with myself.

In the meantime, something happened that I didn’t necessarily foresee. Something that wasn’t on the radar until I looked back to reflect. There was a cause and effect that occurred: eventually, I didn’t need to force a smile. In fact, the smiles were occurring quite naturally in every day interactions. If I felt humor in what I was talking about, if I felt a connection occurring, if I felt happy or impressed in any way, I let myself express it.

In other words, I was just being human.

And I’ve noticed something else. I’ve noticed that, as a result, I’m receiving more smiles in return. More people immediately follow my expression with a smile of their own. I then experience more comfort, more human connection within myself.

Funny what a simple, conscious effort to project happiness can do.

Now, all of this might seem super cheesy, but I don’t care. What I am experiencing is positivity, so I don’t have time for anyone who might think that’s stupid or corny.

We create our own reality, and I want mine to be full of positive people.

I think I can do better, though. I think I can continue. And I challenge you all to do the same. Hit a rut? Back to the drawing board: add some smiles and see what results come around.

Let’s put out an expression that reflects the image we want to see in the world.

The Long Road Ahead: A Mental Health Marathon

393650532_6a8fb1d6be_omichelle3.jpg Michelle Lynn

7 Things You Should Know About Mentally “Getting Better”
Fortunately, people are slowly starting to realize that mental health is an important, and necessary, topic of conversation.

There is a growing effort to help people become better informed about various mental health related subjects, and articles about anxiety and depression are easily found in most mainstream news sources.  You can, for example,  find foods to fight the blues, tips for coping with everyday stressors, and even mental healthcare resources fairly easily these days.  Society seems to support maintaining balance and achieving the “right” state of mind.  Many people are seeking out avenues to “get better,” and each year even more people seek professional help.  There is something, however, that gets overlooked in this sea of helpful information and resources, and that something is what the actual process of healing is like for most people.  As we like to do in our society, we tend to glorify the process of “getting help” for a mental illness by focusing on the fan fare of taking the first step on the “getting better” journey and then fast forwarding to the arm flailing crossing of the finish line or “the cure.”  Having been on this path myself for several years, and still feeling like it is a bit premature to start popping open celebratory bottles of champagne, I think there are aspects of dealing with a mental illness that need to be looked at more thoughtfully in perhaps a slow motion or instant reply fashion.  Here is what I would like anyone starting the mental health marathon to consider:

  1. The novelty wears off.
    When I was unable to sleep for three days in a row, refusing to eat, and standing in a corner staring at a wall for three hours at a time, people were more than supportive of me getting help for my anxiety.  There were constant check-ins, high-fives, and “good jobs.”  Just picking myself up off the floor was enough to earn some praise.  As you start to get better, those extremes aren’t as frequent or noticeable.  When you are actually able to pick yourself up, get yourself to work, and function during the day, that is a huge win.  What feels like a huge win to you, however, won’t always look that spectacular to the spectators in your life.  This lack of enthusiasm can be discouraging, and your unhealthy self might try and convince you that no one notices your efforts, or that nobody cares.  Your healing self, however, should take this as another win, because it means the people around you are starting to view you as more stable and functional.  It’s not out of the ordinary for you to have a good day, so they don’t act out of the ordinary when you do.

  2. People start to expect more out of you when you seem better.
    Perhaps when you were at your worst, people wouldn’t even ask you for a glass of water if they were on fire, because they weren’t sure how you’d react.  Maybe you could let laundry and dishes pile up for months on end, and people kind of just left you alone.  When you start to get better, people start to expect you to be better.  They aren’t viewing you as a person on the brink of disaster, so they feel comfortable requiring more out of you.  This can be overwhelming for someone trying to heal, because the process of healing is already draining enough.   A person trying to work through anxiety or depression has to exert a lot more energy during the day to stay “in-check” than people realize.  Just because you look better from the outside, that doesn’t mean you are 100% better on the inside.  Your unhealthy self will feel unappreciated and draw the conclusion that you will never be able to do enough to please the people in your life.  It may even tell you to give up.  The healing self, however, will recognize that you are starting to look like a healthy person, and this is why people think it’s no big deal to ask you for a little more.  They feel like you are someone reliable.  They think you are someone that will be able to follow through, which means they aren’t tip toeing around you anymore.  It means you are getting stronger.

  3. The further you are on your journey the harder the fall.
    You will fall.  You will fall at the beginning of your journey.  You will fall in the middle of your journey, and you will fall even after you swore the journey was over.  That is to be expected, but what is not expected is just how much more it hurts to fall the longer you have been running.  You would think that the more times you fall, the easier it would get to bounce back up, but it’s not for some reason.  This may have something to do with the fact that if feels really good when you can manage yourself better for longer periods of time.  It feels good to be in control, and once you see what you can do, and get used to the smooth sailing feeling, it is extremely upsetting to suddenly have a panic attack or a bout of depression.  Your unhealthy self will make fun of you and tell you that you are just fooling yourself if you believe you are anything but a broken, flawed person. This self-defeatist thinking is what helps keep you down even longer.  Your healing self needs to step up when this happens to remind you of just how few and far between these episodes now occur.  It is easy to lose sight of where you once were, and the progress you have made, if you are only focused on a perfect finish.

  4. Your new self will loathe your old self.
    When you start to heal, you will gain a new perspective.  This new perspective often involves a bit of clarity, as well as taking more responsibility for the person you once were.  When you are having a mental crises, or stuck in a really dark spot, you can be a very ugly person.  You may have said things that hurt the people you love, and you may have done things that you feel can never be forgiven.  It may be painful to talk about the past as you heal, and you might be really angry at yourself for not doing something sooner.  Your unhealthy self will try and trick you into believing you are a fundamentally bad person that doesn’t deserve to be happy.  Your healing self will need to work overtime when this happens to remind you that you cannot change the past.  All you have is the present, and in the present moment you are trying to be your best.  It also helps to remember that the fact you even recognize you hurt people through your words and actions in the past, shows that you aren’t a bad person in the present.  You are becoming a caring, healing person that wants to do better.

  5. Your new self will envy your old self.
    I feel a little guilty admitting this one, but there will be days when you will seriously feel like it would be much easier to just go back to being a mess.  It is really exhausting to actively participate in healing and self-work.  The mental strain of constantly self-regulating, practicing coping strategies, being cautious of triggers, and steering clear of emotional potholes is not for the weak.  When you are a mess, people don’t expect much out of you.  If you want to sit on the floor and have a fit, you can.  If you want to skip work and lay in bed all day, go for it.  Your unhealthy self will continually sabotage your thinking by telling you how carefree your life could be if you just went back to being your old unreliable self.  Your healing self, however, will hopefully remind you how it made you feel to constantly let people down and not feel like you were living up to your true potential.

  6. You will always be the same person to some people no matter how much you change.
    There will always be those people in your life that can’t let go of the person you used to be.  They might tease you about how nervous you used to get, or they might continue to walk circles around you to avoid upsetting you.  Even though you may be a completely different person, they are trapped in old ways of thinking about you.   Again, your unhealthy self will want you to believe that you can’t win and no matter what you do people will always have a negative view of you.  Your healing self knows, however, that this journey is about you and not other people.  You can’t control other people’s perceptions of you, but you can control how you see yourself.  Focus on that.

  7. There is no finish line.
    I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if you are running the mental health marathon with the hopes of it being over soon, your are going to be greatly disappointed.  Mental illness isn’t a fad or trend, and there is no magical cure.  If you suffer from anxiety or depression, you will probably need to manage your anxiety and depression your whole life.  Yes, you are always going to be running.  Your unhealthy self might want to throw in the towel upon hearing this news, but hopefully your healing self recognizes the value in building stamina and endurance for this race and your longterm goals.

Mental illness is tricky at times, but I am not in competition with my anxiety.  I am aware of what it can do to me and the people in my life, but I am continually in the process of learning how to coexist harmoniously with it as well. It may sound unbelievable, but there are aspects of my anxiety that I feel have been positive for me. Because of my own struggles with emotional well-being, for example, I am very sensitive to the struggles of others.  My journey with anxiety has made me more sensitive to the emotional needs of the people in my life.  I recognize anxiety in people, and I can offer field tested strategies in the moment.  I know when someone needs me to listen, and I have great empathy for any person that is even participating in this race.

I think instead of seeking a fast and glamorous photo finish, the goal should be to stay on the track, avoid swallowing too much dust, and try to keep the sweat out of your eyes.  That seems a bit more manageable in the long run.

The Long Road Ahead – A Marathon Session

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IMG_2615  Scott Todnem
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” – Yogi Berra

I ran a marathon. It was horrible.

Over five years ago, my lovely girlfriend and soon-to-be wife, Sarah, decided to sign up for the Chicago Marathon. The challenge and the training and the culminating event were going to be representative of life’s roller coaster ride. It would be a test of her physical and mental will; a battle over the proverbial obstacles of stress and struggle at that time in her life.

However, after months of training, just two weeks before the marathon, she opted out. While fighting constant knee pain, she couldn’t put her body through the mileage that was beating her down with overuse injury. It was a tough choice but the right one, proving intelligence and foresight for future joint health. Smart.

That’s where I stepped in.

Why let the registration go unused? Or, at most, why sell the race number to someone else?

I could run it,” I thought.

I had already completed a few half-marathons. I had been running with my young athletes while coaching Cross Country and Track. And I was keeping up with strength and conditioning in my CrossFit workouts.

“I can do this,” I convinced myself.

So, in the two weeks leading up to the Chicago Marathon, I upped my mileage a bit with a vision of completing the 2010 race. And then, without a training run longer than 10 miles, I set out that Sunday morning ready to take on the long road ahead.

Mile 1: This is easy.
There were so many people present that it took at least 20 minutes to approach the starting line, even after the race began. Sarah was able to walk with me for a while as I neared the big banner overhead. Once close, we said goodbye, and I knew to look for her around the 10k mark.

My timing chip crossed the threshold and off I went, pulled along in the herd of humans– we were so close to each other that I’m not sure my feet touched the ground. The pack of bodies charged forward to sideline cheers and cowbells and Rocky theme songs. Willing or not, I was along for the ride.

Mile 3: Hmm… this is still easy.
Hitting the 5k mark, I remember feeling so strong and confident that I picked up the pace. Water? Gatorade? No thanks; not needed. Zigzagging the masses, I was on a mission.

Mile 6: There’s Sarah!
Finding my favorite girl through the crowd wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. Actually, she spotted me first. But after a quick hello, I was off, wrapped up in athletic bravado called “pace.” Our next check-in would be at mile 11.

Mile 11: It’s getting pretty hot, isn’t it?
At the hour-and-a-half marker, a sickening realization set in like the warm sun overhead: I hadn’t been drinking enough water. Uh oh. Sarah was there and she jumped in with me, grinning and excited and inspired by all whom she had already seen in passing. The plan was for her to join me for a bit, so side by side we ran, taking in the sights, already in awe at the experience.

Mile 13.1: You’re halfway done!
The marathon world record is just under 2 hours and 3 minutes. That’s a pace of 4:43 per mile. Times 26. Needless to say, the winners were almost done by the time I hit the halfway point.

My parents helped watch my two oldest children that morning, and my mom was able to get my daughter through the crowd at the midway mark for a quick stop, a reluctant sweaty hug, and well-wishes onward. I will never forget the pride I felt at that point. Seeing my little girl sparked motivation in my belly, and the adrenaline temporarily curbed the impending doom of dehydration. Fittingly, I will also never forget the dread of realization when I heard, “Keep it up… you’re halfway done!” 

Mile 16: Oh my quads.
Away from my family and big crowds, the backstretch through Chinatown was a furnace. Horribly full of concrete and obscenely lacking shade, I went to a dark place in the mind. Why did I say I’d do this again? Gatorade and water were no use; my body was an arid desert floor in the dead of summer. Fluid evaporated immediately, the heat picked up even more, and my quads locked tight like two pillars made of stone. All I could do was roll them along as boulders in a pained shuffle jog. Sarah was my only light, still running alongside me amidst my compulsive dismay that I somehow needed to run another 10 miles to finish this damn thing.

Mile 20: This might be it.
Sitting down on a curb to massage my legs and contemplate the meaning of life, it was at this point that I officially gave up worrying about time. 6 miles to go? Maybe back-peddling will work better. Hallucinations were setting in, but Sarah’s voice rang true in my ears. It was her constant positivity had gotten me this far, yet it was the simplest statement of the day that got me off my ass. “Scott, you can’t sit down in a race. Get up.” She was right. I could take one of two forks in the road: stop and walk away defeated, or stand up and finish what I started. I got up and I ran.

Mile 25: One mile left!
Complaining my way through the roaring 20’s wasted time, in a good way, and got me to a point where the end was in sight. Sarah needed to leave the race in order to let the finishers finish, so she veered off and there it was: the final mile. The end of the Chicago marathon is uphill. Truth. It’s gradual, but at that point it might as well be Everest. Why they do that to the runners is beyond me, but it brought on a bitterness that allowed me to keep enough focus to claw my way forward, if only just for spite. Maybe that’s the exact reason why it’s set up that way… as an extra kick to the kidneys to see who’s tough and who’s not. Or maybe it’s just better viewing for the spectators. Either way, some hipsters in bathrobes raised their coffee mugs my way and told me a grandma had passed a few minutes ago. So there was that.

Mile 26.2: Victory is mine.
The end stretch was an epic duel between me and my log legs. And? I won. Stiffly, I finished in a frankenstein walk through the chute. That was that. I had done it. I saved the feeling of accomplishment for later, focusing then on staying upright, getting food, and lamenting my poor choices in life. Plus, after looking at the time, we needed to run to catch the train back home. Literally. I had to run to the train station.

Back at home that night, safe and sound and sore as shit, I weighed myself.

I lost 8 pounds that day.

We endure marathon sessions in all we do. In essence, we are a marathon. We are a series of mistakes and small victories at each mile marker we pass in the road race of life.

Sarah ended up running most of the marathon with me that day. She may never fully comprehend what that meant to me, but I’m sure I would’ve quit if it wasn’t for her. Turns out she could have completed that race after all… and in less time than I did, no doubt.

In the end, running a marathon proved many things, particularly here in hindsight. It represented so much more than just cardiovascular endurance or muscular stamina. It signified the struggles of that point in my life… of all points in my life. It let me know that I can’ t do anything alone; I need my family and my loved ones to help me through emotional times. It stood as a reminder that I am human, and I can be defeated just like anyone. It also remains as a motivator that if I can withstand 26.2 miles, I can withstand a lot more in life. That race reflected the barrage of self-hate, the feelings of ineptitude, and the panic of second guesses I had always known, and will continue to know, in my journey of mental health.

That marathon will always symbolize the long road of life and the ups and downs of daily living.

We may not always make the right decisions, but we sure as hell live and learn and we keep, keep moving.

Water Under the Bridge: The Big Wave of Guilt

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IMG_2615  Scott Todnem
I have never come close to drowning, but I have swallowed enough water to know the horrible, stopping feeling. Halted, in both decision and movement. Choking on the very compound that gives the universe its unique ability to live.

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been in the ocean. The leading memory being the Pacific while on my first honeymoon. Hawaii. It was while surfing off the coast of Maui in my mid-twenties that I vividly remember being consumed by the water in a sudden, overwhelming spin of a *cough* quite modest wave on a learner’s beach. It was nothing, really, except a good old-fashioned wipeout. Upturned and smacked right in the face like a complete newbie.

Also consuming within that memory was the spinning experience of a new marriage. I remember thinking I’d look back at pictures of the trip for years to come. It made me think about being old; it made me contemplate one of the biggest decisions of my young life. And my mind wandered to its usual level of ridiculousness… with just a hint of premonition.

“I wonder where we’ll live when we’re wrinkly and looking back at these pictures of now. Will I remember driving this Jeep around the island listening to punk rock? If I have kids they’ll probably think my hair was really dark. Will I remember these striped trees that look like candy? I may never be this skinny again. Did I make the right decision in marriage?”

Marriage.

Overall, I remember thinking I was happy. The sun and the surf and, yes, even the sand in the swimsuit. And I think I was happy in my direction in life. But things change. Like the tidal waves of the ocean, things constantly change. In one moment we can be standing on top of life, enjoying the ride and the wind in our hair, and the next moment we can be taken down underneath the world in a plunge of panic.

Funny, isn’t it? Water can be the elixir of life or the overbearing force which takes it.

Such is the mind.

• • •

I don’t know if I can truly forgive and forget.

I try and try and try, and yet something lurks… there, in the depths of my mind, as a muddy swamp monster reminder of the times when someone did me wrong.

That someone? Always me. Myself. The swamp monster reminder is the times when I did wrong to myself.

Quite possibly, the hardest person to forgive in life is oneself. Our self-regard ebbs and flows in second guesses like a river bend.

With other people, generally, I can live and let go. I can build bridges of interactions, and if a bridge is abandoned, the water flows nonetheless. The structure itself still stands if that person so chooses to cross and visit again. And if the bridge is burned completely? That stings. But so be it. In most instances, I try not to be the one holding the match.

I attempt to start each day with a blank slate. A carte blanche. I’m far from perfect, and I figure everyone deserves a new day or a second chance. It’s not always possible, but if I didn’t work to hold this viewpoint I’d be a lousy teacher. I’d be a horrible parent. I’d be a leech to those around me, and that’s not fair living. I’d also be a hypocrite, because I’ve already had another chance. I’ve already had a second start to this life, as is.

Divorce.

A topic I’ve avoided in my writing, on purpose, for years now. It’s been the typhoon I just didn’t want to try and face without shelter. Maybe I didn’t want to mention it out of fear of judgement, maybe I didn’t want to hurt feelings… or maybe I just didn’t want to stir up the muddy swamp monster in my mind.

In a look within, it is difficult to live and let go. It is so drowningly tough to forgive and forget my own doings.

Yet the guilt isn’t in the divorce, really. With all due respect, it was the right decision. More so, the guilt oozes from the circumstances surrounding that time of my life… and how I treated myself. Specifically, that I left myself vulnerable for self-loathing. I treated my own brain in ways that weren’t healthy, and it’s hard to forgive myself for that. Yes, other people were left behind in the wake of my personal actions, and some bridges were lit on my end. But mostly, I resent how open I left myself for unnecessary self-hate. My eyes were once a sunny blue-green match to the water of the ocean, but at that point they had fallen upon the ground, a guilty gaze on rocky land with uneven footing.

The great news is that there is a new wave. A great big wave of positivity, powered by love and support and family and enough velocity to get these eyes looking forward again.

More than that, I’m looking at surfing this massive ocean of daily living, and riding that great big wave all the way to shore. Just gotta get this water moving under the bridge of my thoughts and let positive momentum do the rest.

For Sarah. Thank you for keeping me above water.

The Early Bird Gets the Worm: Every Day Matters

Every Day Matters
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  Scott Todnem
I’m late almost everywhere I go.

I’ve been told being late is a choice. That it’s rude. Selfish. That it sends a message: my time is more valuable than yours.

On the surface, all of that makes sense and I don’t fault people who get upset or look down on others who are constantly 5-10 minutes late to meetings, get-togethers, or other occasions. I get it; it’s annoying. I end up upset at myself, in fact. I look down on my own behavior with disappointment and disdain.

Why can’t I just get up earlier? Why can’t I be on time? What is wrong with me?

There can be legitimate underlying issues in habitually late individuals; mental illness may be a factor, with social anxiety, depression, OCD, or another disorder playing a leading role. But because these cases are lower in occurrence, because late people are most often, in fact, just late, the public has little regard for mental illness when it comes to timeliness. More so, as a stereotype, people can’t comprehend something they can’t see. Thus, those without sympathy for mental disorders usually fire insults at such an explanation for lateness, speaking out against “weak-minded” people, even labeling the acceptance of social differences as the “wussification” of America or the downfall of the modernized world. Harsh words from those not afflicted. Harsh words that add to the stigma of mental illness.

In contrast, I’ve read and examined a different take on tardy behavior which concludes people who are continuously late carry more optimism in life. We are hopeful multi-taskers who believe we can fit more into a limited amount of time. For those of us always behind the clock, an optimistic view of our time flaw is definitely an appealing concept… but of course we can read into whatever we want in synopses like these. In the end, inexplicable tardiness is flat out unacceptable, and that’s that.

Whatever the cause and effect, for me lateness is a work in progress and one that I’m improving in my adult life. Yet being late never, ever feels like a choice. It never feels controlling or arrogant or passive-aggressive. In fact, it’s always quite the opposite. Anxiety and panic generally set in during the rush to meet people or meet deadlines. It’s not like I want to be late; it’s not like I want to upset others. I would love to be on time, or, no way, could it be?! … Early! It would seemingly alleviate all stress involved. Sure, time is of the essence, but in essence I feel out of control in that time. In those minutes of lateness there’s an internal battle of self-worth, and I’m losing on both sides.

Get going! You’re late again! Come on, man… you never get this right.

• • •

I have been teaching for 15 years.

Every school day I wake and go, many times in the blur of the morning rush. And like anyone anywhere, I oftentimes dread the grind of the work week. On any given day I know that dealing with teenagers and the ups and downs of middle school life might be trying, it might take major effort to discuss difficult topics, and, usually as my biggest worry, the day might not go as planned.

In the philosophy of Health Education, acceptance that we don’t have all the answers in life is paramount. To express fear lets us be human. To show signs of emotional turbulence is not only allowed but encouraged. It lets us experience the here and now, to see our personal limitations, or to find points for future character development. Just as I might teach the youth of today, mental wellness is a continuous journey.

No one is perfect. And I am a perfect example of this.

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. I chose to write today instead of earlier in the month because of the meaning and symbolism behind this day. Each year, September’s focus elicits an awareness in me of the journey we are all a part of– the struggle to constantly stamp out inner demons. The difficult fight within.

My battle? Like any other, perhaps, with the beautiful disaster in the details.
I doubt myself every day. I never know if I’m good enough. Good as a dad, good as a teacher, as a coach, as a friend, as a husband… as a person.

I may not be an early bird, but every day I rise and shine regardless, for those I need and for those who need me.

And at the end of the day, “See you tomorrow!” serves as more than just goodbye, take care. It’s a reminder to myself that I’m alive and happy to be, and I will do everything I can to live and see another day.

Everything in Moderation: All Work and No Play

the-shining-3-all-work-and-no-play-makes-jack-a-dull-boy-100daysinfilm-35-jpeg-129354 IMG_2615 Scott Todnem
Most adults aren’t in school anymore. But we still work, alright. That’s for sure. Maybe even more so than we actually did in school.

So much so, we simply call it “work.” It’s what we went to school to learn, in fact. Learn how to work to learn how to work. Providing for life means making a living in order to have simple luxuries like food and shelter.

“What do you do?”
We hear this all the time. Of course it means, “What is your job? What is your chosen profession?” As if our job defines us; as if we’ll remain on the same path indefinitely. Quite the contrary, U.S. employees only stay in their current field an average of 4.6 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Without true purpose, it seems like that’s the way it is. You know the song: everybody’s working for the weekend. And so it goes, until something purposeful strikes swift like a horror film to make our hearts race in anticipation.

Many citizens are in fact involved in service work as their job– serving the community in one aspect or another. Some have found a profession they enjoy, a career path they believe in, and therefore a passion they get paid for. They have found purpose.

But for others… for the masses? In corporate America it becomes rare to sit down and do work for personal benefit. In general, the work we do is for the benefit of others, yet that collective work is not for the betterment of a cause or a community. It is instead for the financial gain of a company. The benefit of others really refers to the benefit of big money. The little guy is flat out of luck, slashed to the side like an extra in a film’s opening sequence.

Studies through Fortune and Time, Inc. revealed that upwards of 72% of national employees were stressed in their profession, 67% considered switching careers, 85% said their job intruded on their personal life, and 42% lost sleep over work.

In fact, we have it almost entirely backward in much of the work communities of society, don’t we?

Instead of businesses thanking their workers for providing tireless hours of duty, often away from family, serving with time and energy at the potential expense of personal happiness, health, and even livelihood, we are expected to worship and depend on our bosses or companies as if they have given us life.

Alas, we have given them life– our life– and it would benefit both parties and maybe the existence of mankind to create mutual respect and appreciation of being in an endeavor together. So long as that endeavor does not interfere in the well-being of another person or their own quest to seek content in life on earth, this relationship, this respect would be a huge step towards true progress in the workplaces of free society.

It’s quite possibly an important turn for the human workplace. Not upstairs… out the front door!

Instead of the 21st century worker sludging away at banality, leaving no time for social growth or personal sanity, we would see a balance, a moderation in the workplace, and to the benefit of all involved.

A handful of businesses have picked up on this. Kudos to those who work for one. Even bigger props to those who own one. It is this axe swing in the opposite direction, one towards workplace positivity, health, and happiness, that can save morale and become the best executed business plan for future societies.

Great companies provide purpose. Purpose is a step stool, not a leash.

Create a happy and healthy human being and that life experience exudes into everything else like one massive electromagnetic wave of positivity. Everything and everyone benefits: relationships, hobbies, and particularly work.

Service projects, community interactions, fundraisers, company outings, team building, goal setting, wellness programs, fitness challenges, social events, picnics, parties, marshmallow toasts… whatever. The list could be endless. In a place full of purpose, the law of attraction then applies, and business is booming without the employee burnout.

All work and no play? It makes us dull and decayed.

Positive work and purposeful play? Now there’s a plot twist worth watching for.