Administrator Drown Proofing


By Rex Ryker, IPLI Mentor & Assistant Superintendent at Crawfordsville Community Schools

New Administrator: It’s official; I’m completely underwater and drowning.

Superintendent: You’ll spend much of your time underwater.  It kinda becomes normal.

Drown Proofing

This brief conversation is representative of conversations between new and experienced administrators alike.  We often use the metaphor of drowning to represent the complex nature of being overwhelmed and feeling an all-encompassing pressure along with a struggle to find relief.  These feelings are real, and the associated stress has negative mental and physical effects impacting our abilities to lead.  However, we can learn to function in the deep pool of leadership.

This common metaphor of drowning led me to think of a component of training experienced by those desiring to be special-forces operators known as Navy SEALs.  Navy SEALs are the Navy’s group of special forces soldiers that have a history of operating in the “SEa, Air, and Land”; therefore, they spend much of their training submerged in the water, often with their own lungs providing the only air for breath.

One of the most publicized training methods is called drown proofing.  During drown proofing recruits learn to stay calm while being submerged to gain confidence that the mind can overcome much of what the body pleads that it cannot do.  Trainees, with both feet and hands bound, learn to sink to the bottom of a pool with water well above their heads and then to push off the pool floor to propel themselves briefly above water to catch a breath before sinking back down under water.

While much of their training has remained undisclosed (could not even find a Navy-approved YouTube video), a few news stories reveal that trainers often add additional struggles to the trainees by strategically stressing the trainees to become progressively adaptable in uncomfortable situations (think of the worse dunking you ever received and then magnify beyond the point of panic).

In time the trainees can bob in the water for extended periods and can even perform functional tasks such as retrieving a mask with only their teeth and traversing the length of the pool, while hands and feet remain bound.

With complete respect for both the grueling training and the paramount risks SEALs experience in their careers, I believe new and experienced administrators can relate to the experience of drown proofing and must learn to be comfortable and functional “when underwater,” metaphorically.  Just as SEALs, administrators need to know they are not alone, experienced administrators have others available to resuscitate them as well, and they mustn’t quit.

Not Alone in the K-12 Pool.

SEALs don’t train or operate alone, nor should a principal of any experience level.  Part of gaining confidence through difficult training is knowing others around you have survived and are fighting through the struggle.  Administrators and SEALs alike are more likely to persevere if they are working through the struggles together.  Find a battle buddy; you should not do this alone.  Experienced administrators can help facilitate such relationships by pairing up administrators in similar situations.

Ready to Resuscitate

Unseen in the picture are dive masters that are under the water with SCUBA gear ready to rescue any trainee that succumbs to the training.  Emails, observations and evaluations, meetings, after school events, teacher needs, parent concerns, Board agendas, central office directives, weather, lunches, discipline, staff and student attendance, professional development, budget management, and even trying to smile at that one teacher can quickly dunk principals under water and make them feel as if their hands and feet are bound and they can no longer go on.  Each new administrator needs to know that an experienced administrator is there to assist when needed and even capable of resuscitating a new administrator if needed.

Find mentors and be willing to look to them when you are struggling to catch a breath.  If you are an experienced administrator, please reach out to new administrators to let them know you are ready to help them catch a breath, as well.

Can’t Quit. 

Even as SEAL trainees become comfortable under water, they know they can’t quit working toward stealing a breath of air and must be aware of other possible obstacles.  New principals have to find strategies to work through myriad of tasks that others rely upon us to complete.

If you stop, you will drown.

Just as SEAL trainees learn when it’s time to grab a breath, administrators must feel when it is time to break free of the responsibilities of the duty of being a principal to catch a breath to be able to submerge back into work.  I recommend fighting to leave yourself one hour of each day for your own mental and physical health.  If you are not healthy, you cannot survive or serve others.  This one hour can provide you the air needed to survive under the all-encompassing pressure of being an administrator, reduce your stress, and allow you more effectively to serve in your role as a leader.