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Sink or Swim


If you are human, and I'm pretty sure most of you are, you're likely feeling a little (or a lot) like you've been drowning. Septembers are hard in general, but Septembers of full five days of instruction after 18 months of being on pause or hybrid or whatever--well, that's a September like no other. Lifeguards are taught to look for swimmers experiencing distress. You know, those who are flailing or struggling because they are swimming the wrong way in the current. Swimmers who look like they are frantically moving but not going anywhere. Swimmers who are gasping for air and calling for help. These behaviors of distress, interestingly, are not signs of drowning; these are signs of struggle that may (or may not) lead to drowning in the imminent future. According to the article, “Swimming Park Accidents: 4 Types of Drowning Victims,” by Adam Loewy, “The reason for their struggle may vary due to fatigue, health disorders, or swimmers who have become disoriented from falling into the water. If you see a distressed swimmer, encourage them to discontinue activity before their life becomes at risk.” It’s the second sentence of this quote that I want to focus on here so I’ll repeat it:

“If you see a distressed swimmer, encourage them to discontinue activity before their life becomes at risk.”

Before you drown, you are distressed and you seek help. As a swimmer, seeking help might be trying to get to shallow water. It’s yelling, “HELP” between gasps for breath. It’s waving your arms to draw attention to yourself. Distressed people intentionally seek support.

When no help comes, the distressed swimmer begins to drown. This triggers what is referred to as the “active drowner.” At this point the person who needs help no longer has the energy or wherewithal to advocate for assistance; the body goes into a more quiet preservation mode of action without the ability to verbally communicate the need for help. Loewy writes, “Unlike the distressed swimmer, an active drowner is unable to call for help. The victim is too busy struggling in a panic to try to keep their head above water to call for help. An active drowner will be flailing around, and if you do not assist them their condition will only worsen.”

Passive drowning is the last phase I’ll write about here (though for those who are curious, the 4th type of drowning victim is one with a spinal injury). Whereas distressed swimmers draw attention to themselves verbally and with action, passive drowners are so depleted of energy and fight, they are now subtle and easy to miss. In fact, Loewy writes, “If an active victim ‘goes under’ they have likely inhaled water and are on the path to death by drowning. If a victim is passive for too long, it is likely they will die. Passive victims can be found floating on the surface, or underwater.”

I’m pointing out the differences between these phases for a few of reasons. First, I’d like to talk about the concept of coaching. In many districts teachers are placed on special assignment as a coach so that they can work with other teachers to help the other teachers work on skills and strategies in a non-evaluative, collaborative way. As a side note, coaching and mentoring are not the same thing. Mentoring new teachers is about helping them understand how we do things in the new school/district. That’s why, at least in NYS, new hires are required to have mentors. Coaching, on the other hand, is about how to grow regardless of how long you’ve been doing the job. I love the idea of coaching! I love all the work by great authorities on coaching like Jim Knight and Elena Aguilar. I love the coaching I have received from people like Dr. Paula Bevan, Lloyd Jaeger, Molly DiPirro, Dana Britt, and all of the Ken-Ton "Instructional Support Specialists." I am better because of this learning and support.

I also know that not everyone benefits from a coach. You may be shocked to hear me say that, but it’s true. You might think that I’m referring to the people who are the best swimmers. After all, if you’re the best, what can a coach do for you? To that I say Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, had a coach. Could Phelp’s coach swim better than him? Nope. However, could Phelp’s coach watch Phelps while he swam and provide him with support and teaching that Phelps could not provide himself? Yup.

So if Michael Phelps has a coach, then who doesn’t benefit from a coach? Two types of people. First, it’s people who are drowning. If the job of the coach is to work in partnership with teachers on areas the teachers identify as places they would like to grow in, then the relationship is one of equals. If someone is drowning, they are not looking for an equal (someone who is also drowning), they are looking for a lifeguard (someone who is not just able to show them how to swim, but to get them out of the water). A swimming coach says things like, “I notice when you’re doing that stroke, your timing is off and that’s slowing you down. You told me you’re trying to cut your time so why don’t you try to see if you can wait one more stroke to take your breath.” I’m pretty sure that someone who is drowning doesn’t need to hear that. I’m pretty sure that someone who is drowning wants to hear, “I’ve got you. Hold on.”

The other people who do not benefit from a coach are those who have not been immersed in a culture of peer-to-peer collaboration. If you think you’re going to the pool to play Marco Polo and you end up at a pool where a swim team is practicing, you feel like you’ve missed the memo or like this swim team with all of their deliberate practice is crashing your party. It’s very difficult for the coaches and the swimmers when coaches show up to the pool party or when the pool party crashes the swim team’s practice.

Finally, I’m talking about swimmers because those of us who are good swimmers need to be on the lookout for swimmers in distress. Distressed swimmers are at a crossroad. There are two possible outcomes, right? Sink or swim. Sinking means that we missed the signs. It means they slipped through the cracks. It means that they went under. However, since distressed swimmers make noise and draw attention to themselves, they can also be brought into a space where they can catch their breath and take a rest. In the book Bird by Bird, author Anne Lamott shared that the Gospel of Thomas said, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” That really struck me. After all, struggling is hard, but struggling silently is even harder. So, if you are struggling, speak up. Advocate. Flail if you need to and keep going until you get the help you need. Just as importantly, and for the third time, I say to those of you who are finding ways to keep your heads above water, “If you see a distressed swimmer, encourage them to discontinue activity before their life becomes at risk.” If we all look out for each other, we are all creating a culture that reduces the risk of drowning altogether.


P.S. Over the summer I attended a session by Dr. Eric Twadell, the superintendent of Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois--the birthplace of the PLC Model. During the session he showed the video below, "Can Skateboarding Save Our Schools." I know you might feel like you don't have 15 minutes to watch this video. I promise you it's worth it! But, if you have doubts or only have 5 minutes, just give it 5. What I know for sure is that I can't stop thinking about this video and it's been over a month since I first saw it. Let me know what you think!!

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