"Everyone's treading water just to keep up with the day-to-day."
"We keep talking about 'what's new,' but it's all any of us can do to stay afloat."
"I'm just trying to keep my head above water."
These are the voices of our teachers. In my role as a lead instructional coach for Albemarle County Public Schools, a district encompassing approximately 1,200 teachers, I've heard many teachers compare their emotional and physical state to sinking under water. I thought that by exploring the drowning metaphor, I might discover concrete ways to help.
There are tricks and techniques for how to strategically rescue a person who's literally drowning. For example, as noble and sensible as it may seem, my gut-level response—to dive headfirst into every situation like some folk hero and pull each victim to safety—couldn't be more misguided. A drowning victim's survival instinct kicks in. His or her sole desire is to escape from cascading water; the victim flails, kicks, and grabs at anything solid, including a rescuer. For every successful attempt to save someone this way, there's a tragedy in which no one makes it out alive.
I experienced this firsthand when I dove in to help an overwhelmed teacher prepare for his team's common assessment. This teacher's negative attitude toward the endeavor was understandable given how frustrating the task was, but this attitude led him to shirk responsibility and hold back from engaging in the work at any level. Although we were eventually able to complete the task, I left that school exhausted. I had been sucked into taking on the work for both of us. Any strategy a coach uses to help teachers must take into consideration the safety of victim and rescuer. Sometimes it's hard to tell if someone far out in the water is drowning, or just waving in excitement. Diving into the fray without a plan should be the last resort.
A phrase that helps people remember how to assist a drowning victim is Talk–Reach–Throw–Row–Go–Tow.1
This checklist effectively prioritizes a would-be lifesaver's options, from lowest risk to highest. I believe unpacking Talk–Reach–Throw–Row–Go–Tow leads to ideas for powerful action in response to distress calls from overwhelmed teachers.
In times of panic, some teachers simply need to be reminded that they know how to "swim." Coaching with reminders and encouragement without jumping in to act may be the best first response. As someone distanced from the incident, I can survey the educator's environment, identify a goal that's quickly reachable, and point a way to safety.
Last year, one middle school teacher I'll call Lily sought me out as she tried to wrap her head around her state's portfolio assessment guidelines, specifically how they could relate to day-to-day work in her classroom. I asked Lily to tell me about a typical lesson. She described a day in the life of her students, painting a picture of collaborative, problem-based learning involving challenging material. Therein lay her concern: Because her instruction was collaborative, with a great majority of students' time spent working jointly, Lily did not see how she could conduct the individual assessments of knowledge and skills that these portfolio guidelines require.
I noted that it sounded as if the "meat" of her instructional time was focused on group learning and asked how students began and ended each class. It turned out that Lily's students usually did a warm-up activity at the beginning of class or answered two or three questions on an exit slip. I saw my entry point. I resisted simply telling Lily to use her exit slips for the required assessments (because talking shouldn't always mean telling). Instead, I led her to realizing her next steps by asking, "Do you have any exit slips from students that we could look at together?"
She brought out a stack of half-sheets of paper, and we analyzed these student responses. Through this process, Lily realized that these slips were evidence of students' understanding: "It looks like [this student] got the big idea…so do you think I could just use this exit slip as a piece of evidence? That would make things a lot easier!"
Just asking Lily a question about her everyday practice helped her apply things that she already did comfortably in her classroom to a new, stressful situation. She recognized her next steps—and got back to swimming for enjoyment instead of survival.
For many teachers, talk is not enough; they need a hand. So I keep my hand extended and hope that people grab on. For instance, I end most e-mails with a phrase inviting teachers to connect with me, such as, "If you have any questions, I'm here," or "Shoot me a message if you feel the urge. I would love to hear from you!" Although these short salutations may read like filler phrases, they show teachers that I'm available. The key is, when a teacher does grab my outstretched hand, I have to be ready to pull.
Sometimes I need to be resourceful enough to find something that extends my reach. Whenever I run across something that looks like it might reach a teacher in need, I extend it as quickly and directly as possible. That may mean offering opportunities to rally around a common interest, such as an engaging project separate from the daily grind. Recently, I forwarded a curriculum development opportunity to a group of teachers. I got this enthusiastic response from one who I know had been feeling drained: "I have a lot of interest in this project…rope me in!"
Some ultrastressed teachers are farther away from safety than I can reach from shore. So I ask myself, what can I throw to them that will help them float? From completed lesson plans to content websites, ready-to-use learning resources can act as life preservers.
One of my fellow coaches throws items to teachers regularly. Whenever she sees resources and websites that connect to a shared point of interest, she forwards the resource with a note: "This made me think of our conversation. Hope you find it useful!" These devices often keep sinking teachers afloat—teachers who'd otherwise be overwhelmed trying to locate, build, or invent devices of their own.
Some educators won't respond to any of the above strategies. Maybe they're not close enough to grab hold of the resources we throw, or maybe the effort to get these tools to work in a stormy situation seems so hard that they give up. To help in these situations, coaches must put forth effort to reach teachers where they are, in the thick of challenging teaching lives. Of course, to row, you need a boat.
I think the "boats" in our schools and districts are those large, dedicated chunks of time where teachers come together and collaborate. These opportunities—like the lesson plans and rich websites we throw—can keep a struggler going, and they're large enough to carry lots of drowning teachers to shore. Professional learning communities or areawide learning opportunities can do wonders if they're presented in a way that promotes autonomy, mastery, and purpose. As one of my colleagues shared,
I used to hate the idea of countywide conference days as they approached. I always had so much I needed to do instead. But once I got there, I would see my friends from other schools and connect with them about things I was trying to figure out. By the end, I always had a great time: It gave me a chance to breathe.
Of course, coaches have to be sure these larger opportunities are solid and structured enough to serve as boats. Hours spent in a professional learning community without purpose, for instance, often end in collective frustration. But the addition of purposeful structure allows for generative conversations around the relationship between student success and instructional planning.
Go and Tow
If all else fails, you have to jump in to try and save the day. Bring something with you that will tether you and the teacher together—or else there's a high likelihood you'll be made into a victim yourself. You need some resource or focal point—a template for planning a lesson together or even blank paper to start a list of next steps—to connect with the teacher and tow him or her alongside you.
I remember an incident from my first week as a central office administrator. I found myself at a newly renovated elementary school, with teachers' stress levels at their peak in preparation for open house night. Bumping into the assistant principal, I asked, "How can I be of use?" She pointed down a hallway toward one teacher who was trying to reorganize her room after the chaos of remodeling. This teacher had been telling everyone how much she still had left to do, and how she'd love a hand. I jumped in.
Walking toward her room, I realized that I didn't know this teacher. I poked my head into her door and scanned for a face but saw boxes upon boxes of books spread across the room to the point that I could barely make eye contact with the teacher underneath. I blurted, "Hi, I'm from the central office. How can I help?"
In retrospect, this was probably not the best way to start a productive conversation. She barked, "You can't help me. You wouldn't know where anything goes, and I would have to explain everything."
Talking did not seem to have worked, and although I was trying to reach out, she wasn't grabbing. I had no resources to throw, nor any way to row toward her. I had two options: walk away, or tow her out of this relative emergency.
I asked, "Is there one thing I could tackle that would take some burden off you—maybe a group of books that all go in one place?" Rolling her eyes, she gestured toward two boxes overflowing with texts: "Those books go in those buckets on the bookshelves, split up into different reading levels for the kids." I responded that I'd be happy to take on that task.
I opened up the boxes, which meant I was buried in the books as well. Without a background in elementary reading materials, I initially struggled to figure out how best to organize them. I soon discovered that she had a pretty solid organizational scheme; each book had a sticker on the cover, the color of which corresponded to its difficulty level. I proceeded to put the books in the buckets. In complete silence. For 10 minutes.
After making a dent in my boxes, I finally broke the silence with "It's great the way you've organized these books. The colors make it easy to tell where everything should go." As she continued working across the room, she responded, "Yeah, I like to keep them all organized. Sometimes the kids can't read so well, but they know their colors. Whenever we get into reading centers, each kid knows where to get everything they need." This made me curious about her reading centers, so we began to discuss her practice.
For the next 10 minutes, this teacher and I engaged in a rich conversation about the process of learning in her classroom. Suddenly, this teacher's mind was back on instruction instead of drowning under the weight of her huge setup task. I realized that I had been listening for some connection that would tether us to each other—which turned out to be conversations about her practice.
The Talk–Reach–Throw–Row–Go–Tow framework helps me consider how to act when I see teachers paralyzed by the enormity of their work. And it makes me think back to moments where someone reached out to me at a time where I was not waving, but drowning.
Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency. (2009, April 8). Boating emergencies: What to do. Retrieved from www.boat-ed.com/tn/course/p5-1_riskmgmt.htm
Tony Borash is a lead coach at Albemarle County Public Schools in Charlottesville, Virginia; 434-296-5820.
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