Skip to main content
a starfish stuck in the sand on the beach

Making a Difference: Who Is Your Starfish?

June 4, 2024

Making a Difference: Who Is Your Starfish?

As the school year ends and exhaustion sets in, take some time to reflect on this past year and remember the moments that mattered.


Share On Facebook
Share On Twitter
Share On Pinterest
Share On LinkedIn

Note: Names have been changed to protect student identity. 

It was the summer of 2017. I was fresh out of college and had begun training for my year of service with City Year AmeriCorps, a program for 18- to 24-year-olds that partners with public schools in high-need communities to provide student, classroom and whole-school support to help improve student achievement, attendance and behavior. I was in the mess hall at the camp where we were staying for our team-building retreat when I first heard “The Starfish Story” written by Loren Eiseley. It goes like this: 

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.”

The insight? Even if we only help one person, we have made a difference. This is particularly relevant when working in schools. It can be overwhelming with the sheer number of students, but it’s important to remember that even if you can’t reach every student, if you have managed to reach even just one, you have made a difference; and that student is your starfish. 

I have several of my own starfish stories, but I’d like to share this one now, as weary teachers across the country are taking a moment to reflect on this past year, remembering the moments that mattered. 

Flash forward to the first few weeks of the school year 

I was paired with an eighth-grade math teacher in a high-needs school to provide whole-class support along with one-on-one/small group support to students in a focus group. I reviewed student academic data from past school years and observed student behavior in the class for the first couple of weeks to select students who would be a part of my focus groups, which included kids who needed additional support to stay on track to pass. I worked with them during their study halls, lunch, or other flex times. 

Having students work with the same group of students every week allowed for trust to be built during these sessions and also allowed me to understand where there might be outside forces affecting their academic success.

While these small groups or one-on-one sessions were an academic intervention, building relationships was a big part of what we focused on. Having students work with the same group of students every week allowed for trust to be built during these sessions and also allowed me to understand where there might be outside forces affecting their academic success. As the weeks went on, most of the students I worked with no longer showed resistance to small group work but were excited and ready to meet in their groups, often asking me if they could have an extra session during the week. Friendships developed between the students in these groups, which consequently pulled them away from some less-than-ideal friendships and toward students who were supportive of their academic endeavors. It was exciting to watch, but there was one student I worked with who did not show the same enthusiasm for this academic intervention.

Flash forward a few months into the school year

I was mentally preparing myself for the resistance I was about to meet when I walked into Mr. Lake’s study hall. It was almost always the same thing whenever I tried to pull my student Malachi out of his study hall to work with me in a small group or one-on-one. As soon as my face appeared in the doorway, he would proclaim, “Nope, no, I’m not going with you, nope.” Or something else along those lines. I was hoping that today would be one of those rare times when he would just get up and come with me, but, alas, I was not so lucky. He made a fuss until Mr. Lake told him to get up and go with me. 

Malachi was one of my most challenging students, which is why I usually worked with him one-on-one or with just one other student. If there were too many other students in the session, he would use that to his advantage and let them do all the talking and work while he zoned out. He was pretty solidly getting D’s across his subjects. And in class, he was the king of pulling the hoodie over his head, popping in earbuds, putting his head down on the desk and ignoring you. So keeping him engaged and focused during our sessions was hard, and I had quickly altered course on how I approached our work together by including activities that involved getting up and moving. 

Despite all this, I had been seeing slight (and I mean slight) progress. While it was challenging to get him to come with me, once we got to the small group space, he had actually started to engage more in the activities during our sessions, and a little bit of classwork had begun to be completed. I was still feeling pretty bummed because I felt like I was failing and wasn’t really getting through to him as I had hoped; but on this particular day he proved me wrong. 

Sometimes that’s what it takes, showing a student that no matter how much they push you away, you will continue to show up for them.

The other student we sometimes worked with was out that day, so it was just Malachi and me during our session; we worked on two-step and multistep equations involving fractions, and he was engaged, asking questions, and seemed to be getting it.

It wasn’t until later in the day that I truly saw the impact. Malachi was in my sixth-hour class. He came in and sat down, and the teacher started off by putting an equation involving fractions on the board and asked for a volunteer to come up to the board and solve it. Malachi’s hand shot up in the air, and he went to the board. I would be lying if I didn’t admit I had tears in my eyes. Here, this boy who never even pretends to pay attention in class had just raised his hand and volunteered to solve a problem. I went up to the board and helped him make a couple of small corrections, but otherwise, he did wonderfully. And he sat back down and paid attention during the whole class period. 

In the next few weeks, I saw his demeanor change as his confidence in his abilities soared. He was participating in class, doing his work and turning in his assignments. It was time for winter break though, but I was excited to continue working with him in the new semester. During the break, I received a few letters from students, and one of them was from Malachi. Someone at the school had gone around and asked if any students wanted to write any of their educators/school personnel letters that would be sent to them over the break. I still have Malachi’s letter. It said this:

Dear Ms. Megan, 

I want to thank you for doing what you think is right to take me out [of] my class for your time with me to make me into a better student in school and in life. I want to also thank the City Year for coming here into this school for some reason. I do not know why but thanks a lot for teaching me in math [redacted].

Sincerely [redacted] to Ms. Megan

Malachi's letter

When I returned from winter break, Malachi did not show up to class. When I made inquiries, I learned that he had moved and was no longer in the school district. I never saw him again. I don’t know if I had a lifelong impact on Malachi or if I was just able to help him briefly find a little confidence in his math skills, but I do know that he had a lifelong impact on me. I admit that it would have been easy for me to stop meeting with Malachi, but luckily I’m a little stubborn. Malachi taught me that while it may not always seem that we are making an impact, it’s important not to give up, to remain consistent and to continue to show you care. Sometimes that’s what it takes, showing a student that no matter how much they push you away, you will continue to show up for them.

Who Is Your Starfish? 

I think at the end of the school year, sometimes we can all be so exhausted that it can be challenging to think about the positive differences we made in the school year and, ultimately, why we choose to work in education. So, as this school year ends, I ask you to think about your starfish. What starfish story can you tell? Because no matter how you are feeling right now, I guarantee that among all those starfish, you have made a difference for at least one.

Feel free to tell your starfish story in the comments below.

Your Summer of Learning

Looking for summer PD hours, ideas for back to school, or just ways to relax? Visit Share My Lesson's Summer of Learning page for upcoming summer webinars, teaching resources, blogs, self-care ideas and more.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Want to see more stories like this one? Subscribe to the SML e-newsletter!

Megan Ortmeyer
Megan Ortmeyer is an SML Team Member and has worked in the AFT Educational Issues Department since fall 2018. She received her M.A. in education policy studies in May 2020 from the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the George Washington University. Prior to working at the AFT,... See More

Post a comment

Log in or sign up to post a comment.