I’ve always found clichés annoying, but one more than others:

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

Now I’m no expert on horses, but there seems to be some inherent problems with this phrase. First of all, if the horse is thirsty and there’s water around, you can’t keep it from drinking. Thirsty horses drink. Period. Second, if the horse isn’t thirsty, whyare you leading it to water? Quenched horses don’t drink. Lastly, if the horse is thirsty but not drinking the water, then something is terribly wrong with the water.
Obviously I think too much about clichés, but I’ve heard this particular one used in reference to students. Students may be described as apathetic, unwilling to work, unmotivated or uninterested in academics. Or unthirsty horses, if you will. Many teachers see themselves as tirelessly leading these unthirsty horses to the water over and over again only to have the cooling waters of knowledge refused. Teachers wrestling with unengaged students turn to fellow educators for tips and hear: “Well, you can lead a horse to water….”
Each summer, I spend two weeks in a room full of thirsty horses; a group of engaged and dedicated educators. These teachers spend 14 days in a professional development course that leaves them drinking from a fire hose. It is our job as the facilitators to bring buckets of water by way of content knowledge and hands-on strategies. It is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Teachers know that feeling because thirsty horses are awfully fun to teach.
Whatever the reason, teachers return to the classroom to find students unengaged — or rather to find horses not drinking the water. Our job as educators is to hydrate those horses. Here are my thoughts on how to keep your horses thirsty:
  • Ask what’s wrong with the water. Don’t get so busy that you forget to consider reasons that your students aren’t engaged. Perhaps they are full of water from a previous class and need time to digest. Perhaps they don’t recognize the water because they lack prior experience. Perhaps they are too busy thinking about food to realize they are thirsty. Perhaps your water is stale and could use some freshening up.
  • Be thirsty yourself. With budgets tight it is harder than ever to find funding for professional development, but it is always worth the effort. Investing, both the money and the time in your professional growth pays off not only for you but also for your students. Seek out those opportunities that allow you to experience as a student. Solid professional development not only deepens your content knowledge, but also keeps you excited about the classroom.
  • If you are full, leave the water alone. Find balance in your life. You are not just a teacher, or a parent, or a spouse or the chairperson of that committee. You are all of those things and you must not let any one responsibility overpower the other. If you are full, step away from the water.
  • Hang out with other thirsty horses. There are unthirsty horses in the teachers’ lounge too. Avoid them. Make an effort to spend time around other teachers who are determined to help students learn. You can identify the unthirsty teachers by noticing who says, “Well, you can lead a horse to water…..”

For additional resources from HudsonAlpha’s education team, visit the education portal

Madelene Loftin works as an education specialist
at HudsonAlpha. She was named Mississippi’s
Outstanding Biology Teacher of the Year in 2008.
Since joining HudsonAlpha, she’s been inspiring
Alabama students to pursue careers in science while
inspiring science teachers to be better educators.