Leader's Response to "Overwhelmed" - Steve Barkley

Leader’s Response to “Overwhelmed”

In the last few months I’ve heard coaches or principals say that their teachers are overwhelmed. I’ve been in PLC meetings where teachers share with teammates that they are just overwhelmed by …students’ needs, paperwork, parent demands, curriculum requirements, etc. Leaders and facilitators often ask, ”How do I respond?”

A look at the word:
o•ver•whelm (ō’vər-hwělm’, -wělm’)
To surge over and submerge; engulf: waves overwhelming the rocky shoreline.
a. To defeat completely and decisively: Our team overwhelmed the visitors by 40 points.
b. To affect deeply in mind or emotion: Despair overwhelmed me.
To present with an excessive amount: They overwhelmed us with expensive
To turn over; upset: The small craft was overwhelmed by the enormous waves.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, October 2008 – Empathy to the Complaining, on responding to complaints, a common mistake that leaders make is to respond with:

An attempt to personally solve the issue that is causing the teacher the negative feeling or A defensive response suggesting, ”It’s not my fault.”

Here are some options you might want to consciously practice:
1) An Empathy Statement:
First, empathize with the person’s feelings. Second, point out the person’s past or future success and/or lead the person in an alternative direction.

This is an overwhelming time of year. The holiday break will give us all a chance to recharge.

Struggling with new mandates is stressful. Have you found any of the new materials that have positively impacted learning?

The role of the empathy statement is to allow the person to feel that they’ve been heard and that their feelings are accepted. Then the refocus allows one to look beyond the emotion and persist or problem solve and change strategy.

2) Guided problem solving– Here the leader has a more involved role than with just the empathy statement.
I was facilitating a PLC session recently where teachers said they were overwhelmed with “panel meetings” (a presentation to the principal of all their students’ current assessment status) required by the state department for the school’s “struggling school” status.

Statements teachers made:
I don’t have time to teach.
I’ve been here until 5pm for three days and I still won’t be done.
This is a waste of time.
Step 1- I listened…paraphrased …“You’re putting in lots of extra time.” “You want to be focused on your student learning”. Etc.

Step 2- Reality Check…..Is it possible to get the state to change the requirement on the school? (No one saw that as a place to spend their current time or energy) What’s the worst thing that could happen if you showed up at panels with less than all your students’ information ready? (After a long silence and strange looks, they tuned to the principal who said, ”I guess we’d schedule you to come back with the rest of the information as soon as you could”). As we discussed this, it was amazing the “fear” that teachers said they had that “something very bad would happen.” Yet no one had an example of when the administration had ever handled anything that way in the past. Until I had asked the question, they hadn’t.

Step 3- What can we do? I posed two questions, “What can we do to minimize the negative impact of doing the panels? This discussion identified that teachers with good tech skills did the work in ¼ the time that others reported. So, the more tech teachers offered to do a quick modeling/training for the others. We uncovered that the reading coach could print off a report with all a teacher’s scores instead of teachers looking up each student’s individual score. Next question posed, “How can we maximize the value of this activity that we have to do?”. A short discussion raised the idea that the report could serve as the focus point for upcoming parent conferences.

Folks left the meeting focused on what to do. My guess is that knowing the worst case will free many teachers to be more productive and most will show up with everything finished.

3) Using the team… In an earlier blog, September 2009, I presented a continuum on the progression of PLC’s from a group of individuals to a franchise to a team. My finding is that when teachers feel overwhelmed their natural tendency is to pull away and seek more individual time as a survival strategy. Leaders need to encourage teachers to “turn to the team” and make the overwhelmed issue the topic of conversation. (I recently was in several schools where principals cancelled PLCs for the week because “teachers were overwhelmed”.) The team will need the skills to turn the conversation from complaining to problem solving. The empathy statement and guided problem solving can be a start.

Leaders who model and teach these skills will be increasing the capacity of their staffs both individually and collectively.

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5 Responses to “ Leader’s Response to “Overwhelmed” ”

  1. Irene Says:

    As a coach, I try not to overwhelm the teachers. I try to give information clear and short. I also think about how the information fits into their day.

  2. Stephen G. Barkley Says:

    Thanks Irene…. clear and short is right on…teachers need to see coaches input as helping to clarify or understand…. may not make my work easier, but often more productive.

    I have seen some principals respond to teachers “overwhelmed” message, by decreasing the coaches time working with them…. in my mind that’s the wrong message to send.

  3. jmthoma Says:

    This is great for a first year coach to hear. I hate feeling like I’m imposing, but helping staff to see me as a source of helping others to problem solve alleviates that fear. Thanks!

  4. Stephen G. Barkley Says:


    Thanks for chiming in…. that feeling of imposing is stopping too many coaches short of what they could be doing for students through the teachers.

  5. Vineetha Says:

    I do agree that empathizing is a good way but me the coach still remains pondering over the fact that no practical solution has been reached. Now what I encourage is boost my companions’ capacity to accept and adapt to changes. At times a suggestion to have an impartial view of the demands/changes and to see its impact on teaching or learning can help alleviate the pressure.

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