Who is your Starfish?

In her account below, Amanda Varley an English content writer, shares some inspirational words for teachers to hold in mind in challenging situations.


A Challenging Environment

When I first started teaching, I worked in a school that was widely recognised as serving the most deprived area in the region. For the majority, unemployment was widespread, teenage pregnancy was high and income was low so many of the students that came through our school gates were vulnerable, often we had limited parental support and students simply being in school was something to be appreciated, let alone them having their own pen or correct uniform. The school was challenging, but the staff, like in so many schools, worked incredibly hard, not just on their students’ academic progress, but also to support them emotionally, understand the additional burdens some students carried and continually focus on raising the aspirations of students who didn’t necessarily have role models to show them how to better themselves.

Difficult Lives

Like so many others, I wanted to be a teacher to make a difference. During my NQT induction, the head teacher, who was a vibrant, thoughtful and inspiring woman, talked us through the catchment that we served, giving anecdotes about students and giving us the background of the school. Some of the stories she told us made us smile, many made us laugh, but more often than not, the things she had to tell us about the students of the school were sad, exposing truths about lives that I had never even imagined, let alone experienced myself. As I listened I asked myself: how could I have an impact on these students who faced such challenges?

Unpicking A Metaphor

As she fondly recalled a student who had faced horrific personal circumstances but had been able to achieve GCSE results that would allow them to access excellent future opportunities, the head teacher clicked onto a slide with a picture of a beach, white frothy waves sweeping across the golden sand and a single starfish settled in the sand. “And he was my starfish,” she said, with a smile. Myself and the other new staff looked around at each other. What did she mean? Seeing our obvious confusion, she told us the following story:

“One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?” The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.” “Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!”

After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said…” I made a difference for that one.

She explained:

“At this school, we know that we face challenges and as much as we want to, we can’t help every single student as much as we want to. But if each of us can make the difference to one student, to take them under our wing and nurture them, to be the friendly face, the helping hand, the cheerleader for that student, we can all make a difference.”

The role of a teacher can be overwhelming with the inevitable pressures of the conveyor belt of emails, teaching, marking, planning, observations, duties, meetings…the list is endless. But on top of all of that is the reason that most, if not all, of us went into teaching: to make a difference.

Finding Purpose

That day and that advice stayed with me for the eight years that I continued in that workplace, long after that inspiring head teacher moved to another school and another head with different priorities and focuses took over. It was a challenging school and there were students who certainly made it more so. It would be so easy to get caught up in the workload, the trials and tribulations of teaching, the unrelenting focus on progress and data and results. But whenever I faced situations that tested me, where a student was difficult and rebellious, kicking back against the rules or my expectations, I remembered, I cared, and I made sure I took the time to focus on the student as a person, not a number or a target grade, so I could make a difference to my starfishes too.

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