I stepped into the room and was immediately reluctant to interrupt the controlled chaos before me. Diane was buzzing about the room. She cleaned up student work at one table, then found a broken crayon, which prompted her to throw it in the trash. Next to the trash was the next day’s agenda, so after she threw the crayon away, she erased the special and prepared to write the one for the next day.
I could tell what was happening: she was in the midst of an overload spiral. I’ve experienced it and seen it in many educators: that frenetic attempt to complete many tasks at once when it feels there is no time to complete any of them. Like a bee after guzzling down a pot of Starbucks, Diane was flitting from spot to spot, doing much but accomplishing little.
“Hey, Diane, how’d it go today?”
She looked up at me as she hovered over her computer. She had moved on to answering an email that had just been sent to the whole staff not three minutes ago. Her posture crumpled, but her eyes remained focused on the screen.
“It was fine—fine. There’s just a lot to do. So, so much. I’ve got to get it all done, but I don’t even know where to start.”
“I know those days. Weeks, it feels like sometimes. Is there any way I can help? I could sort those papers for you if you’d be okay with that.” Diane had returned to the papers and was sorting them—alphabetically, most likely, because she was giving them only a quick glance. She hesitated, and I could see that all-too-familiar struggle that so many teachers experience—deciding whether to let someone help—playing out on her face. Fortunately, she relented.
“Yeah, actually, that would be great.”
As I sorted through the papers, putting them in order, I probed gently, “So what all is going on?”
Diane was terse at first. “It’s just so much—grading, organizing, running errands . . . and so much more.”
I watched as she buzzed about the room, moving from task to task and never really completing any of them.
She continued to chat as she worked. “Grading the unit tests, getting ready for our writing celebration, plus my boy’s birthday is this weekend. Oh, and I need to update that bulletin board, which means I need to get the paper and the borders out. And my library—ugh, look at it.”
The Power of a Brain Dump for Coaches
I’ve been here before and seen others go through it, so I could see what Diane needed. She needed to be able to process unhindered and sort it out. One effective tool that I employ often is the brain dump. I call it a brain dump because it is meant to alleviate. It is much like a brainstorm, but does not call for synthesizing or creating new ideas.
“I know it might feel like you need to keep getting things done, but it seems like you’ve had so much put on your plate that you are having trouble keeping track of it all. Can I help you sort it all out?”
She paused again. “I don’t know. I mean, I have a list somewhere that I started.”
“I’ll make the list. You can just keep talking it out. You can even keep working while you do something. What can you do that will get you best prepared for tomorrow?” Diane was still hesitant, but as she moved to her small-group desk and began organizing, she talked.
Stream of Consciousness
The brain dump is effective because the person dumping is not writing and categorizing as well. The coach is facilitating the process.
As she spoke, I wrote. When I could, I asked clarifying questions to better define a task or ensure that we didn’t leave a task off. No task was too big or too small to include, because whatever it was, it was rolling around her brain and causing some part of the commotion.
“Do you have the labels made already or do you need to print them?”
“Well, no, I need to print them, but that will go real quick. We don’t need to include that.”
“I’ll put it down anyway. It will feel nice to cross it off once you do it.”
The list continued, and as the thoughts meandered, they also started to include non-job-related activities like picking up a cake and running to the bank. Those are important, too. When anyone is feeling overwhelmed by the amount they have to accomplish, their brains rarely silo the panic to the environment.
After awhile Diane had come to a spot where she wasn’t sure if there was anything else to add. We began categorizing the items on the list to better see what she could accomplish and when or where she could accomplish them. During the brain dump, I had begun some preliminary categories. She had mentioned the library needing tidying and a bulletin board in the room that needed updating. So I had written those together, creating a “room” list.
I started thinking aloud as I moved through the categories. “So it seems like you’ve got some grading-related work with the end-of-unit tests and the math exit tickets. Plus you wanted to input those into the grade book. Those you could do either here or at home or Starbucks. There is also a ‘room refresh’ group . . .”
As I started the categorizing, Diane made her way over to sit down with me and see what was being put together. I didn’t want to call her over and make her do it, because the purpose was to relieve her of the task and free her to think. But now she was beginning to own the list and had the mental space to engage in it. We worked through the categories together, and some more tasks popped up that she had almost forgotten about. When we were finished, we had clear areas of focus and had spoken through the most appropriate times and ways to batch tasks together.
The final step was to prioritize the list. During the brain dump I had noted the most pressing tasks. Usually the first wave of a brain dump is what is most pressing, but there are still some to-dos that a person might be putting off or avoiding that are way more important than others. We worked through the list together and created a plan of attack. Some smaller tasks were prioritized because they could be done quickly and would help accomplish or free up time to tackle a larger task. We set some due dates and plotted some tasks to be completed later in the week.
Diane’s whole posture had changed. She was less tense, more present, and less frantic. She wasn’t completely calm or stress-free, but she was in control of the massive heap she was trying to dig through.
A few days later, I made sure to check on Diane. She was at her cabinets putting away some of her station materials. Her movements were focused, intentional, and purposeful. She was focusing on her task rather on 10 tasks at once. I asked how she was doing, and she smiled.
“I’m still not getting to sleep when I’d like, but I have gotten a lot done. I’m still using the list. It’s been great.” She showed me the list. She had crossed off a lot and was still using it to guide her time and focus, adding dates and times that had not been there before. She’d also added a few items, and a new category. Diane was now steering her ship, rather than being tied to the mast.
Teachers have so much thrown at them. More than you may realize. They are bombarded by emails from administration, the district office, the main office, other teachers, support staff, specialists, parents, and professional learning or resources daily. They are sent bulletins, and attend staff meetings or professional development. They lead after-school activities and clubs and prepare for family literacy nights.
But most important, they have a life beyond the classroom. They have families they care for, communities they serve and support, trials and hardships that they endure. The fire hose does not stop. Those who can do so need to be aware, mindful, and understanding of this and help to intentionally stem the tide as best we can.