“Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching. As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea. The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”
The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the boy replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”
The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”
The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”
adapted from The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977)
I was first introduced to the Starfish story as a City Year Corps member. As part of our daily responsibility, we were charged with providing one-on-one academic and behavior support to 10 struggling students. Even when we worked 12 day hours, we often left work feeling discouraged because we didn’t feel like we had done enough for our students. Then at one professional development day, one of the Directors introduced the “Starfish” concept to us; he challenged us to see past our own criticism and think of the student that we had seen the most growth in. He then read the Starfish story to us and reminded us that we were making a difference, even if it was only visible in one student.
I share this story because too often I see teachers struggling with reaching all their students and losing motivation as they look at their data. Numbers don’t always say the whole story. And yes, there’s so much pressure for us to do whatever it takes to provide every single student in our classes a transformative educational experience that somehow translates into quantitative results. Still, it is important to take the time to pause and refocus when you find yourself drained and feeling discouraged. There is a starfish in your class who you’ve inspired and supported. That starfish matters.
So in honor of Teacher Appreciation week, I want to say THANK YOU on behalf of all the starfish that you have touched. You might not reach them all, but you made a difference to that one or to those few and that is worth recognizing.
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