It’s 6 o’clock on Friday morning and I am surrounded by a dozen people gasping for air in pools of sweat. Hype music blasts over the speakers and I can barely catch my breath before the buzzer goes off and it’s time to rotate to the next station. The walls are bathed in blacklight, illuminating the droplets of perspiration that trickle down my arms.
I woke up at 4:30 a.m. on my sacred day off from teaching at a Title One elementary school, and now I feel gratified: F45, the latest fitness fad, lives up to its promise of 45 minutes of high-intensity intervals. Blending functional fitness with cardio and strength, F45 appeals to those looking for the fun motivation of group classes and the ease of someone else coaching and programming the workouts. The franchise has more than 1,750 locations spread over 40 countries and the numbers keep growing. Bay area locations have popped up recently in Tampa, St. Pete and here in Clearwater.
The gym prides itself on building power in its franchises as well as its members. Many claim huge improvements in fitness, mobility, and strength.
And strong I certainly do feel. Maybe it’s the sledgehammer dips or the box jumps or the burpee bench jump-overs — my money’s on the sledgehammer for sure — but I feel like even though I can’t catch my breath and am dripping sweat five minutes in, I am already owning the day.
This is why I came here.
After rotating through each of the nine stations twice, our 45-minute session is complete and I get the chance to sit down and stretch alongside the other reason I came here today: to talk with Danielle Felten, local elementary school teacher and F45 aficionado.
Felten and a team of teacher friends from Saint Paul’s, the independent K-8 school in Clearwater, meet up at F45 several mornings a week to get their sweat session in before school. Having originally joined the gym to help a friend stay accountable, Danielle loved F45 so much she invited her Saint Paul’s coworkers to join in, too. Now the group of them keep each other motivated and inspired.
It only takes a minute into our conversation before I am in awe of all three of them.
I have only been a teacher for a few years myself, but even before I taught full-time I met many teachers who discouraged me away from the profession. As the months and years go on, I reflect back on the frustrations those teachers warned me about — the lack of resources, pressure from standardized testing, not enough support from administration, low pay — and realize everything they said was right.
I listen eagerly to the trio I meet today, though, who have nothing but positive things to say about their jobs:
“I love teaching so much. I don’t know why anyone would do anything else. I really don’t.”
“I think it’s God’s work.”
“I am continually inspired when I see the ownership kids take in their successes. I am always encouraged by deep thinking questions and a sense of wonder that can’t be ignored,” Felten says.
And I realize that everything these women are saying is right, too.
Felten and I have two big passions in common: teaching and fitness. And we both share our training stories with our students.
I constantly compare the challenges my students encounter in our classroom with the challenges I face when I train for a marathon or compete in a CrossFit competition. The parallels to physical and mental/emotional strength are strong, and I encourage my students to train their brains the same way we train our bodies.
Recently at a faculty meeting, my administrators had us teachers listen to a talk given by the Pinellas County Teacher of the Year, Sarah Painter. She is a distance runner and described how teaching any year, but especially this year with Covid challenges, can feel like navigating a long run through the worst of storms. The parallels she draws between fitness and teaching are powerful:
“I have found my joy in running,” Painter said, “which allows me to overlook the rainy days. My mission didn’t waver; my dedication didn’t change. I’m a runner regardless of the weather.”
“The quickest way to get out of a dirty, muddle puddle that I didn’t create — that’s in my way — that I don’t want to stay in — it’s not to sit there and talk about it and complain. To get out of a muddy puddle, you keep on running.”
Teaching, running, exercising — it’s all pretty damn hard.
It takes grit.
Grit and a whole lot of heart.
And that’s exactly why we do it. It’s why we get up early to set up our classroom “just so” for each new day, why we stay late to make handwritten notes for our students so they feel seen and special, why we make a pit stop for snacks because some kids are hungry and all kids deserve it, why we celebrate their birthdays and ask about their football games. It’s why we give a troubled kid a second chance, then a third and a fourth and one more after that.
We wake up early every morning and teach the future generation for the same reason we wake up even earlier to get that workout in. Even when we’re tired, even when we’re sore, even when our body aches from five days of workouts in a row or our heart hurts from stressing over a child’s home situation.
We wake up and we show up. And as the first rays of sunrise spill into the large windows of F45 Clearwater, Danielle Felten and her friends remind me why. “I consider it a true honor to have a job dedicated to helping youth see their potential and help them believe they can do ANYTHING because this world will try to tell them differently,” Felten says.
Because as Sarah Painter so perfectly puts it: “I run with an undeniable hope that there is something better. And that’s the race we’re in.”