A familiar, but powerful story…
“While walking along a beach, an elderly gentleman saw someone in the distance leaning down, picking something up and throwing it into the ocean.
As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, picking up starfish one by one and tossing each one gently back into the water.
He came closer still and called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”
The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”
The old man smiled, and said, “I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”
To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up, and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”
Upon hearing this, the elderly observer commented, “But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach, and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”
The young man listened politely. Then he bent down, picked up another starfish, threw it into the back into the ocean past the breaking waves and said, “It made a difference for that one.”
adapted from The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977)
Summer has come and gone faster than many of us wanted. Nevertheless, we are at the start of a new school year. As we return to school, some of us in tears (teachers and students), it is important we remember why we started in the first place.
This morning, I had the honor of being invited to share my story with our teachers at Firebaugh High School in Lynwood. Some of the teachers in the room taught me when I came up through Lynwood Schools, but it was the first time they had ever heard what I shared with them. I talked about the profound impact my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Beaver, had on my life and shared with them how my running for the school board was a result of her and the other outstanding educators I had in Lynwood.
I sought to use my story to preface the new school year in hopes they’d think about the impact teachers had on their lives as well as the stories of the children they had helped realize their full potential. I hoped they would, in moments when they are wondering whether or not anything they are doing is worth it, be reminded of the tremendous and never ending impact of their work.
I hope they left the room with a reminder of what happens when they refuse to give up on kids, even those who are the cause of headaches and frustration. We know the kids that need the most love ask for love in the most unloving ways. But we, as educators, have to be committed to loving them anyway. In doing so, we hold them accountable for doing their best. We set boundaries and consequences for them. We ensure they have all the support they need to succeed and when they fall short, we help them in building resilience as we urge them on and give them opportunities to try again.
As educators, we are seldom afforded the opportunity not to be “on.” Our world can be falling apart, but our students show up daily and expect us to teach them anyway. They expect the same of us when theirs is falling apart too. Often, we are the glue that holds them together.
Those of us who chose education as our profession or heeded the call to teach did not do so thinking we’d make lots of money or gain fame. We wanted to educate young people because we hoped we would make a difference in someone’s life, just like our educators had one for us. In doing so, we have run into hardships, headaches in discouragement more often than we thought we would. In fact, some of us went home at the end of the roughest days with the intention of quitting more times than we can count, only to return to try again the next morning or next year.
So to educators across the country, returning to classrooms after years of teaching and those of you who cross over that threshold for the first time, you will have good days and bad days. Those students who ask for your love in the most unloving ways will rarely be absent, and it will seem as though you never get a break, but I urge and encourage you to lean in.
You will question yourself and find it hard to ignore the fact that you are underpaid and overworked, but know you are doing God’s work. You are changing the world one student at a time by changing their world just be being an ever-ready beacon of hope, facilitator of knowledge and standard of success. Make no mistake about it; your students show up for you more often than they show up for their friends, activities or because they have to. I dare you to show up to class every day, exuding your passions for life and teaching and watch the incredible impact it has on your students.
We know we can’t, individually, reach every kid everywhere. But we can, in some way, reach all of the kids we have under our care; that should always be our intention and goal. Each one we reach makes a difference and shapes the world. Each starfish you throw back into the ocean is a student we cast in the direction of their hopes and dreams.