Lifeguard or Swimmer?

My current summer read is the book Teach Like a PIRATE  by Dave Burgess. In the book he describes ways to increase student engagement, boost your creativity, and transform your life as an educator. Since Dave is a teacher himself, the examples are geared toward teachers as well. Yet, as discovered during our first #educoach chat about the book – the principles outlined, Passion, Immersion, Rapport, Ask & Analyze, Transformation and Enthusiasm, apply to all educators including administrators, curriculum directors, and instructional coaches!

In the chapter on Immersion, Dave raises the question.

“Are you a lifeguard or a swimmer?”

He explains, “lifeguards sit above the action and supervises the pool. Although he or she is focused, there is a distinct sense of separateness both physically and mentally. In contrast, a swimmer is out participating and an integral part of the action.”

I started this blog as a journey – my journey as a learner leading to a principal position to empower and inspire all learners in the 21st Century. Along the way I have done a lot of LEARNING and GROWING as a visionary leader. The question about lifeguards and swimmers caused me to think about my style as a leader.

Many teachers mention that I have not lost the “teacher in me.” I take that as the highest form of a compliment. I am a teacher at heart. I went into education to make a difference in the lives of children. To inspire them. To create a sense of wonder and excitement about the world around them. To guide them to be the best they can be! I live by the same goals as an instructional coach and will continue to do so as an administrator.

Let’s look at the role of the instructional leaders in terms of lifeguards and swimmers.  I think there are subtle differences. It is not to say the role of a lifeguard is wrong. But a fully immersed administrator will not only take on the role of a lifeguard, but will swim as well. Swimmers are fully immersed into their work and the work of others.

Instructional Leaders as Lifeguards Instructional Leaders as Swimmers
Attend professional development opportunities with teachers. May sit toward the back. May interact with fellow administrators. Fully engaged in the professional learning and dialogue with variety of teachers.
Tells teachers to implement new approaches, curriculum, etc. by specific due date. Learns new approaches and curriculum efforts side-by-side with teachers including trying them out with actual students. Reflects on the learning process. Adjusts and continues to increase abilities with the various approaches.
Makes observations in classrooms followed by feedback such as, ”I like how you engaged students in the close reading approach that we are studying as a staff.”  Makes observations in classrooms followed by reflective feedback/ questioning. “I like how you engaged students in the close reading approach that we are studying as a staff. How did you go about determining the focus of your lesson?” 
Uses summative data as the measure of success for students and teachers. Engages entire staff in ongoing dialogue about the data that will best portray student learning that staff currently has as well as any gaps that need to be filled.  Develops data wall with teachers to show movement/areas of concern for students.
Develops schedules for interventions to take place in school. Develops schedules as well as assists with interventions. May be responsible for a small group of students.
Reads professional material. Subscribes to educational journals. Stays current in the field of education. Reads professional material. Subscribes to educational journals. Stays current in the field of education and interacts with others both at the school level and globally via Twitter and other forms of social media to gain a deeper understanding and views from other perspectives.
Monitors various areas of school such as hallways, lunchrooms, playgrounds so that all is safe and orderly. Not only monitors areas of the school so they are safe and orderly, but interacts with students as well. Greets students by name as they enter the school. Talks with students in the lunchroom. Can be found joining in on playground activities.

I have been fortunate to have many experiences as an instructional leader from my role as an instructional coach, to my internship and interim experiences. Each of the scenarios above are taken from actual experiences. I have learned to SWIM from some amazing instructional leaders. I can’t wait to jump in the pool and SWIM as an instructional leader in an elementary school someday. I know my pool is waiting for me. You won’t find me standing on the sidelines!

What do you think? Can you think of any other instructional leadership scenarios that show the difference between lifeguards and swimmers?


  • Maureen Devlin 13 Jul

    Hi Kathy, Did your book discussion of this book already start? Your post has me intrigued. It’s been a busier than expected summer, but I may be able to drop in on a few conversations. Thanks for letting me know. – Maureen

    • Kathy Perret 13 Jul

      Yes, Maureen. Our #educoach book study of Teach Like a Pirate started last week (July 10). We will be discussing the book for several more weeks. Our schedule is posted at http://instructionalcoachchat.wikispaces.com/. I hope you do stop in! Your voice is always valued!

      Enjoy your summer!


  • Christie Flayhart (@FlayhartC) 13 Jul

    Hi Kathy, I love your comparison of the principal as a swimmer and a lifeguard. While both can do a good job, it’s clear which one would truly be immersed in the school.

    Teach Like a Pirate is an inspiring book, and I have enjoyed all of the chats. Our discussion on #educoach, however, helped me to reframe my thinking to PIRATE like an instructional leader and coach.

    Thank you for sharing your reflection. It has helped me think even more deeply about these two chapters in the book!

    • Kathy Perret 13 Jul

      Thanks, Christie. I typically have education leadership on my mind – so as I started Teach Like a Pirate I’ve been trying to focus on what the book means in my current role as an instructional coach and beyond. I’m looking forward to learning of your insight as well as others during our upcoming chats. I really like having the opportunity to discuss books with others!

      See you next week at our chat!!


  • Dr. James Norwood (@JRNorwood) 11 Aug

    Excellent article! The comparison of instructional leaders as either life guards or swimmers is amazingly simple but really evokes a visual image that helps even a quick glance at the concept become instantly clear between the two styles. I look forward to perusing your blog and reading more of your excellent work.

    • Kathy Perret 11 Aug

      Thank you for your kind words. I appreciate your feedback on this recent post. Continuing to grow as a “swimmer” leader is a passion of mine!


  • Jennifer Houlette 7 Jun

    I definitely want to be the type of teacher & leader that is considered a swimmer. It’s so important to be engaged and actively involved in learning experiences with your students!

Comments are closed.