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Professional Development Opinion

How to Coach the Overwhelmed Teacher

By Elena Aguilar — February 14, 2019 | Updated: November 16, 2020 4 min read
Image of an exhausted teacher sitting at the bottom of a battery showing low charge.
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Updated: This article was updated to remove a sentence with a link to a PDF resource.

Often when I ask educators how they’re feeling, the most common phrases I hear are, “I’m overwhelmed” and “I’m so stressed.” I’m pretty certain you’ve experienced these, too, and so let’s learn a little about what it means to be overwhelmed before we consider how to coach overwhelm.

What Is ‘Overwhelm’?

Tired, overwhelmed, and stressed aren’t specific emotions like the kind you’ll find in this resource. Rather, they cross emotion families. They signify an emotional state but not necessarily an emotion. Likewise, “tired,” “stressed,” “fine,” and “OK” also reflect emotional states—they aren’t emotions themselves. These words could indicate a positive emotion or could mask distress. Overwhelm most usually crosses unpleasant emotional families so a first step in coaching someone who is overwhelmed is to help them identify which emotions are a part of their overwhelm. Let’s explore the strategies to coach someone who tells you they’re overwhelmed.

Five Tips for Coaching Overwhelm

Describe it: The first step toward responding to overwhelm—or any intense emotional experience—is to describe and name it. Ask your coachee to circle words on the Core Emotions resource that are a part of their overwhelm. This will help you gain insight into the emotion families that are a part of their experience. You can also ask your coachee, “If your overwhelm was a color, what would it be? What shades? What textures?”

Recall previous experiences: Asking someone to rate the intensity of an emotion—on a scale of 1-10—is also helpful. You can follow this question with one asking them to remember another time when their overwhelm was equally as intense, and then asking them to remember anything that helped to reduce the overwhelm. When you ask this, it’s a way of actively engaging them to do something about the way they feel—and it can be empowering. In addition, you’re helping them remember that intense feelings don’t stay forever—that overwhelm comes and goes.

Overwhelm can feel like paralysis—there’s just so much to do! Where to start? How to manage all the pressure and demands? Asking someone to connect to their internal resources and how they managed overwhelm in the past can help them jump-start their actions. This also allows you to be a facilitator of growth and not the director of it—your client has the resources and answers to solve their problems, and you just help them remember that.

Identify one tiny next step: Once they’ve reflected on previous experiences with overwhelm, you can help them identify one tiny next step that might relieve the overwhelm. Sometimes your coachee will be able to come up with this step by themselves, and sometimes you may need to offer some suggestions. What’s really important is that the next step is small, manageable, and do-able. Your overwhelmed client may feel disempowered, and so that first next step needs to be one that helps the client reconnect with their own agency. Small bites, small steps.

Listen: Don’t rush too fast to action steps, however. Make sure that as you help your coachee identify the soup of feelings that is their overwhelm, you validate whatever they’re feeling. Hold space for them to talk through whatever is going on, listen really well, don’t rush to trying to solve their problems, and communicate empathy. Often when we can just talk through whatever is going on and purge all of our fears, disappointments, and frustrations from our system, the overwhelm starts to dissipate.

Plan for Action: End the session with at least one next step. This could be any of the following:

  • Get a good night’s sleep
  • Grade three of the 30 essays within the next two days
  • Ask for a parent volunteer to help clean up the classroom
  • Make a comprehensive to-do list

The key is to identify the first next step that might lead to reducing the actual tasks that need to get done. While overwhelm is an emotional state that often includes many feelings, it usually includes a sense of having too much to do—having more to do than the client feels he or she is capable of doing. That can bring up feelings of sadness, fear, frustration, and shame, and so while you can hold space for an expression of those emotions, you also need to help the client address the underlying immediate challenge—which is the amount they need to do. Sometimes it’s appropriate for you to be directive, especially if you know your client well and know that they trust you, and you can see some clear next steps that could be helpful. For example, you might say something like, “I think you’d feel a bit better if you could tell your principal that you’re really behind on finishing your unit plans and you’re going to need an extra couple of days.” Or, “I want to encourage you to reach out and ask your grade-level colleagues for help with this. Do you think you could write them an email today and ask for this help?” Sometimes it can help to even nudge them, right then and there, to take that first next step.

Always Remember ...

When coaching someone experiencing strong emotions, it’s important to know the signs and indicators of depression and anxiety disorders. Emotions can turn into moods, and if moods hang around long enough, they may become depression or an anxiety disorder. People who feel overwhelmed a great deal may be experiencing depression, whereas those who are “stressed” a lot may be experiencing anxiety.

When coaching any strong emotion, it’s useful to remember that emotions can be guides to self-understanding. They are a normal part of being a human being, and strong emotions show up to get us to pay attention to what’s going on. We can welcome strong emotions—in ourselves and in our coachees—and explore them to gain insight into ourselves and humans and educators.

This blog is part of a series called, “How to Coach the ____ Teacher.” Check out How to Coach the Cranky Teacher, and let me know what you’d like me to write about!

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The opinions expressed in The Art of Coaching Teachers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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