There is a story I clearly remember my mom telling me when I was little. It was a story about the ocean, a little boy, and starfish. I don’t remember when or why she told me and my siblings the story, but to this day I clearly remember it. While the starfish story holds many truths, I now know that story was meant to influence, inspire, and empower me as a teacher. Before I tell you why this story is so powerful for us as teachers, I would like to share the Starfish story with you:
Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing.
He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.
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 youth 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’m not sure about you, but I know that for me personally, I often feel overwhelmed with wanting to make a difference in the world and especially in my classroom, but at the same time feeling as though all of my efforts will be in vain. It’s not that I don’t believe in my abilities, or that anything is possible, but rather the inner voice of doubt that questioningly whispers “can you even make a difference?”
Have you ever felt that way and heard the whisper of doubt that questions if what you do will matter?
As teachers I think we often times feel overwhelmed with making a positive influence on our student’s lives, especially when our numbers grow and before we realize it we have 100 or more students relying on us to teach them. At the end of the day our job can seem overwhelming and maybe at times you could even feel insignificant, but I think in the midst of our own inward doubts we can learn a lot from the little boy in the starfish story.
I remember clearly going into my first year of teaching last August. I was filled with energy and excitement and couldn’t wait to meet all of my students. Within two weeks I had learned all of their names, gotten to know them individually, figured out most of their personalities, BUT MORE THAN ANYTHING I STARTED TO LEARN THEIR PERSONAL STORIES and even started recognizing the students that might be harder to reach (because of their difficult stories).
At times I have felt the weight of my students stories, because I knew that for so many of them they were fighting their own battles outside of my classroom and within themselves. They were battling mental health, learning disabilities, family problems, friend issues, relationships, etc. The more I learned, the more my heart broke because I realized as much as I wanted to fix everything & everyone’s hurt, I sometimes felt helpless …but I knew that I couldn’t just stand around and do nothing.
There were so many days where I would go home and talk to my mom about my classes, and as the year progressed there were specific students names who frequently came up in our conversations. I found myself learning more about these specific students, thinking about their struggles even when I wasn’t at school, and telling my mom about our conversations in class.
I will never forget the day that she looked at me, after I had finished telling her about one of those students, and saying, “You know, I think you have found your starfish”. I remember looking at her and thinking to myself, “they might be my starfish, but I feel so unqualified to be their starfish thrower.”
My doubts started to overshadow the power I had as a teacher …the power each and every one of us has as a teacher to be a positive light in our student’s lives with our smiles, joy, and positivity. The power we have to impact students simply because we are willing to listen to their stories, stand with them in the hallway as they cry, look them in the eyes and tell them that they can rewrite their story and change the narrative of their life. The power we have as teachers to show students that we care, not just about their success as students, but care about their success as people. The power we have to stand by students and help them fight battles, never giving up, but always willing to GO ANOTHER ROUND on their behalf.
As teachers, each and every one of us is the little boy in the story. The little boy who wouldn’t take no for an answer. The little boy who didn’t look at the miles of beach strewn with starfish as an impossible task, but as an opportunity to do all he could to make a difference, even if it was only saving one starfish.
The little boy knew that every time he threw a starfish back into the ocean he was making a difference in their survival…..he didn’t know whether or not they would end up back on the beach the next day, or if they would survive, but he knew that he absolutely had to do the one thing he knew how….the one thing that made sense.
The story of the Starfish Thrower stuck with me all throughout my first year of teaching. Not just because my mom reminded me of it, but because I realized that I wanted to have the tenacity of the little boy…..to never take NO for an answer! To never let others doubts affect how I treat my students. To never be told that what I do doesn’t matter, even if it seems small and insignificant at the time. Never to be told that I could never positively affect a student. Never to be told, “that student is to far gone”. I wanted to have the faith of that little boy in believing that what I do matters, even if it seems small and doesn’t make sense to others who see me throwing starfish back into the ocean…I wanted to believe in the purpose of my power!
That first year (last year) I learned that it didn’t matter that I was often on a beach covered with starfish, all that mattered was that when I came across one I was willing to stop, pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean knowing that one small act could make a difference.
Sure, at the end of the day we might not be able to save everyone, but that doesn’t mean that we give up because the task seems to great. It just means we stick to the mindset that we will try hard everyday to reach every starfish that we come across, knowing that our efforts can make a difference to EVERY ONE!
Sometimes as teachers we might not know if what we do makes a difference in a students life. We might spend our entire year throwing starfish back into the ocean and never know if it makes an impact in their survival or see the fruit of our labors….sometimes our results come weeks, months, or years later. However, that is not to say that we should give up, as the old man was encouraging the little boy to do, but rather harness the little boys childlike faith that we have THE POWER TO BRING CHANGE AND MAKE A DIFFERENCE in EVERY student’s life !
Our students need us to be Starfish Throwers. Why? Because we know that even something as small as listening to them and offering encouragement could be just what they need to save themselves!
As we continue into this school year, I encourage you to take the story of the starfish thrower to heart. Remember the lesson of the little boy that even if we only throw one starfish in the ocean, our efforts make a difference to that ONE! Keep an eye out for your starfish, because we all have them! You might find one, or you might find many, and when you do remember the tenacity of the little boy who believed that he had the power to make a difference, even if others had doubts.
As teachers we don’t do what we do to get recognition from students, but rather we do what we do because we believe what we do matters! And every once in awhile we might receive something that reminds us that our efforts really do matter and that the day we threw the starfish back into the ocean did indeed make a difference to that ONE.
My mom was right about my “starfish”! At the time, I might not have seen that the things I did made a difference in that particular students life, but I knew that I had to be what they needed. On our last day of school I was reminded that STARFISH do exist and small things I do can indeed change the trajectory of students’ lives! That afternoon on Valentines Day (my first year), when I stood in the hallway as one of my students cried and poured out their heart, didn’t happen by accident. The choice I made in that moment to be who my student needed me to be, someone to listen, even as insignificant as it might have seemed, ended up saving a life! I didn’t know the impact and difference my actions and words that day in the hallway made on my student until the end of the year, but when I read the words he wrote to me the Starfish Story made since!
NEVER UNDERESTIMATE YOUR POWER TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN EVERY STUDENT’S LIFE!!! You have the power to be a starfish thrower, so keep your eyes open for your Starfish and never let others stop you from tossing them back into the ocean!