Swimming instructor boosts accessibility, enjoyment for all children
Maria Barringhaus was born to swim. Now she shares her passion with everyone she can.
| 5:00 a.m. November 16, 2023
From the time she was a teenage lifeguard in Missouri, Maria Barringhaus experienced the “magical connection that comes from helping someone learn to swim.” Thirty years into her career as a swimming instructor, it is this connection that continues to move her.
“Teaching swimming is not only fulfilling for me, but it’s also my personal mission to help others acquire a life-saving skill and enjoy a lifelong mode of exercise, recreation and sport,” says Barringhaus, who moved to the Country Club in Lakewood Ranch 21 years ago.
Known by her students as “Miss Maria,” Barringhaus is a Red Cross-certified swimming instructor with a background in elementary education and the owner and founder of the School of Fish Swimming Lessons. She holds a master’s degree in education (with a focus on teaching special needs students) from the University of South Florida; a master’s degree in industrial organizational psychology from the New York Institute of Technology; and a bachelor’s degree in business communications from Maryville University. Her passion for teaching children began when Barringhaus was a child herself.
“By 3, my bucket list included swimming,” Barringhaus says. “It felt natural, and I quickly learned about water safety and core strokes. And, once in, I never wanted to leave the pool.”
From lifeguarding and teaching private lessons by age 16 to serving the greater Manasota community as an adult, Barringhaus never lost her passion for swimming instruction. She and her School of Fish team teach swimming to underprivileged and special-needs children. Barringhaus also offers lessons, programs and camps around the region, including at G.T. Bray Aquatic Center, Lincoln Aquatic Center, Palmetto Youth Center and Robert L. Taylor Community Complex.
The Florida Swimming Pool Association and Every Child a Swimmer program have secured “learn-to-swim” grant funding for the work Barringhaus does. These funds are designed to expand opportunities for underserved and at-risk children who otherwise could not afford to participate in swim lesson programs. Barringhaus also serves a variety of other students of all ages through her School of Fish curriculum.
“We teach people with special needs, including people who are non-verbal, hearing impaired, and those with various learning and physical abilities,” Barringhaus explains. “We use the medium of water to help people recover from strokes, brain trauma and other sports-related injuries.”
In addition, Barringhaus helps people conquer aquaphobia (fear of water). She uses training from her master’s degree in industrial organizational psychology to gently guide people past their swimming anxiety.
“Teaching aquaphobic individuals requires a lot of patience and being a good listener. The process creates a lot of anxiety, panic and pure fear that each individual has to overcome,” Barringhaus says. “Each circumstance is different, as some people have experienced a near-drowning incident, some have been caught in a riptide in the ocean, and some just have a fear of the water without incident. Each lesson is customized to fit the needs of each person and their situation.”
Barringhaus is highly invested in every one of her students, monitoring their week-to-week progress and recommending specific actions for improvement. She is sensitive to their needs and customizes her programs to accommodate them.
“Experience allows me to teach from the individual’s physical and emotional baseline, respect their vulnerabilities and quickly earn their trust,” Barringhaus says.
This is all possible, Barringhaus says, with the help of her expertly selected group of instructors who receive hours of training to follow her proven methodology. She believes her programs are especially successful because she has created a low student-to-instructor ratio.
“Despite these ingredients, there is no substitute for our passionate and caring instructors who know how to achieve target skills but also respect and teach the individual,” Barringhaus says. “Each instructor has the experience to recognize and apply an approach that can be understood and converted into the desired swim outcome.”
So far this year, the School of Fish team has brought swimming instruction to more than 300 students at public and private pools and taught upwards of 4,000 lessons.
Beyond School of Fish, Barringhaus stays busy with another independent business called Busy Bee Tutoring, which offers tailored instruction and cognitive learning strategies to children and adults.
“I recognize the trust and sacrifice my customers make when they choose to engage us for swimming or tutoring services,” Barringhaus says.
In and out of the water, Barringhaus propels her students to reach their full potential.
“Teaching swimming is a passion, and it is extremely important, especially in Florida, as we are surrounded by water,” she says. “I know our students are learning how to swim and how to be safe, but they are also learning lifelong skills that are invaluable. Seeing the excitement from a child or an adult when they master floating, taking a breath, flutter kicking, and being able to get from point A to point B safely is so inspiring.”