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Lessons from the fisherman’s boat

7 min read

Voice of the Educator

I recently had the pleasure of going fishing with three of my children on Lake Michigan. We chartered a fishing vessel and set sail from the dock with a captain and first mate at 5 a.m. for a five hour trip. This was our first such fishing charter and it turned out to be a great experience all around.

As an educator and educational coach, I am always looking for insights to bring back to my colleagues and the classroom. The following represents a partial list of lessons I gleaned from our time out on the water, a trip that we are sure to remember for quite some time.

  1. Adjust your paradigm. As I noted above, we left early that morning. To get to the dock on time, I had to awaken at just after 3 a.m. Two of my boys were already up, making it easier, but the abrupt change in my nocturnal habits made for some tough sledding at first. Why did we go so early? The answer is that fish are most likely to bite during their early morning feeding time. If we were going to have a successful day, I would need to adjust my habits in order to get out on the water when they were likeliest to bite. The benefits for us were quickly apparent, as we had two “fish on” successes within our first 30 minutes.

While the goal for teachers can never be to “catch” students in the fishing sense of the term (by setting them up for any form of failure or misstep), it is our goal to catch them doing things right and succeeding in various ways. Sometimes this means adjusting our thinking processes in order to ensure success and fulfillment, such as by offering different pathways to achievement. It may also include changing our daily routines in order to take advantage of student energy levels and interests.

  1. Cast many lines. I was amazed at the number of fishing lines that were cast from all sides of the boat. Some were thrown far out, others were weighted directly below the vessel. It was a true spectacle to see the crew manage all of the lines and ensure proper placement while avoiding entanglement. Of course, the purpose of this exercise was to try to hook as many fish as possible (including various species swimming in different points and at varying depths).

Similarly, students have different interests and abilities. What excites and stimulates one child may not engage another. Teachers who wish to draw all of their charges into the learning process need to consider the types of “hooks” that they should use in order to make the learning stimulating and meaningful.

  1. Got a bite? Troll! One of the decisions that we had to make early on was how long we would fish. The options were five or six hours, and were largely driven by the question of how far out we wanted to go. The salmon had been swimming closer to shore but had not been biting much of late. Trout and other fish were more abundant further out. After our initial success, we decided to stay close by and troll the area (kind of like treading water with one engine) for additional bites, even after a dry spell. We were fortunate during this slow season to get another five fish, including some sizable king salmon.

In the classroom, we oftentimes rush to try new and different things for the sake of change and diversity or if we stop seeing positive results. Sometimes, that is the best way forward. However, we can often do best by sticking with things that worked previously and may need to simply need minor adjustments. Naturally, there are no rules that govern such decision making and we often have to make the decisions that feel right at the time (using whatever data and input that we have at our disposal) and “ride” with it for a while before determining the best next course of action.

  1. Go deep. Many charters left the area where we were and “ran” out quite a bit farther. They had been unsuccessful at the shallower points and tried their luck in deeper waters. Many fish can be found out deep and so their approach made sense. For us, there was neither the reason nor the time to follow their lead. The only depth that I experienced on that day was the deepening of relationships with my children as we shared a fun but demanding experience.

Depth in an educational context can refer to many things, including the way by which you engage in content. So much learning can occur “well beneath the surface,” as the level of questioning and thinking connects with higher levels of cognition. Depth can also be used to describe the relationships that we develop with our students. You are likely familiar with the adage, “I don’t care how much you know unless I know how much you care.” By demonstrating love, care and concern and finding ways to share in meaningful experiences with students, teachers can “go deep” and build the foundation for learning and growth.

  1. Trust the experts. I paid a pretty penny for this charter. The money went, no doubt, to paying for the materials, equipment, staff, etc. that were needed to make the trip possible. But we were also paying for expertise and guidance. While I had a rudimentary understanding of how to fish and what bait to use, we would never have been able achieve similar results without the help of our new mentors, who eagerly taught us what they could to make the experience most rewarding and informative.

Teachers face many challenges, including how to work with students who do not fit within the conventional profile. There may be learning or emotional challenges to overcome or toxic familial dynamics to contend with. While we certainly know much about children, it is inevitable that we will encounter students and situations which demand new learning or simply heeding to expert opinion. This can be challenging when we think that we know everything that there is to know and that our “tried and true” methods will again reign supreme. If we approach new situations with the humility of new learners we can find that we not only approach the situation more correctly, but even come away with new concepts and skills that will hold us in good stead in other contexts as well.

  1. It’s not all fun and games. Fishing can be lots of fun, no doubt. But there’s a yucky side to it as well, everything from killing the fish to cleaning, gutting, cutting, etc. And there’s also that special odor that seems to permeate everything. While the activity itself is most exhilarating, doing the various things that allow you to ultimately enjoy your catch can be less appealing.

When it comes to teaching, there are two sides: the part that we sign up for (engagement, relationships, imparting wisdom, etc.) and the “necessary evils” (lesson planning, grading, meetings, supervision, etc.) that we can all do without. While there is no sugarcoating the more onerous parts of the job, it can be much more palatable when we recognize how these components ultimately allow us to fulfill our passions.

Naphtali Hoff (@impactfulcoach) served as an educator and school administrator for over 15 years before becoming an executive coach and consultant. Read his blog at

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