by John Gardner (via LinkedIn)
The starfish story (not my original) is about someone trying to make a difference and I think of it periodically when I find myself trying to balance that healthy, professional detachment from the lives of individual students with the reality and significance of those lives and my desire to make a difference by being more than “just” a classroom teacher.
Working with students is not a life or death proposition, of course, but some seem to get washed up on the beach. Here’s the story and 10 ways to make a difference.
The man was out for a walk on the beach when he noticed a boy frantically picking things up and throwing them into the ocean. Curious, he approached the boy to discover that he was picking up starfish that had washed up on to the beach — and was throwing them back into the water.
“Son, what are you doing?” the man asked.
“The tide is going out and these starfish got left behind. I’m throwing them back into the water to save them.”
“But son, there are hundreds of miles of beach. You can’t possibly make a difference.”
As the boy picked up another starfish, he threw it into the water and then turned and said to the man,
“I made a difference to THAT one.”
Teen years can be trying times. Parents may be fighting, separating, dating and remarrying, which means the teen now has to not only deal with a break up of a foundation in his/her life, but often now has to live in multiple households. Some have to adjust to step-siblings, job losses, financial struggles and more. Then, there are the complexities of school with seemingly unending pressures to perform, trying to get through the dating games, often without an anchor or example to follow. Influenced by increasingly negative social standards, or lack of standards….. teens can get caught in the rise and falling tides. Most learn how to negotiate life’s trying currents, but can turn the wrong way, make a miscalculation or poor decision — and find themselves high and dry on the beach…..and they need help. Not every student needs, wants or will accept a teacher’s help. Sometimes the teacher’s effort is both unappreciated and unsuccessful.
But try we must…because we CAN make a difference “to THAT one”.
Ten ways to make a difference:
- Be real. You can’t fake it with teens, they will see right through you. If you can’t be real, you should not be there. Please leave education.
- Be available. How easy is it for a teen to say to YOU, “Can I talk to you?”? What if it is not during class or immediately after school? In how many different ways are you available and do students know and understand that? Do they know if it is ok to email, call, text or instant message you? When a teen says they need to talk, somebody needs be available. Be that person. Consider your use of texting and social media.
- Be there. Yes, you’re “on duty” at school. What about when a student is in the hospital, at the funeral home, pitching in the softball/baseball game, getting baptized, being awarded Eagle Scout status, or when their garage-type band is playing at the coffee shop? Take your spouse or your kids and just be where you can when you can. They will notice.
- Trust them. If you want trust, you need to give some. I have a periodic discussion about trust, abusing it, losing it and the difficulty in earning it a second time. Read: “I WANT To Trust You“. Teens make mistakes and the trust area is one of those places where they can mess up. But help them learn. Take a reasonable chance. Yes, you’ll get burned some….but you will also empower leaders to rise up.
- Respect them. There is a good chance they will recognize and return it.
- Advocate for them. Of course you have students who are financially challenged and could benefit from music lessons, a better instrument, participation in a select ensemble or some other training. You won’t always succeed, but try to find funding to help. Call the employer to help him get that job. Write a letter to help her get that scholarship. Help them with college applications their parents can’t (or won’t).
- Listen, really listen. Teens typically think that people don’t listen. They think adults are quick to lecture, criticize and correct, but are slow to listen. You don’t always have to have the answer. Sometimes there isn’t an obvious answer. Sometimes listening is the answer, because in allowing them to share, you enable them to find their own answer. Unless they are sharing something illegal, dangerous, hear them out. Don’t argue. Don’t interrupt. Don’t pre-judge. And when you can, share your wisdom, experience, expertise and advice.
- Expect and Encourage Excellence. Students will complain when the load is heavy and the challenge is significant, but they know, even when they won’t admit, that achieving excellence requires work. They want to achieve and succeed. Being there for them doesn’t mean lowering your standards. Make them stretch. They’ll appreciate you eventually, even if not today.
- Don’t assume. A question I ask often is, “You okay?” Simple question….and sometimes they shrug it off, but there have been many times for me that this gives them the opening to ask for help.
- Don’t give up. It can be difficult, disappointing and even deflating when teens mess up. Don’t give up on them. That’s what the rest of society wants to do sometimes…. They will be disappointed that they disappointed you, but your unconditional support (not approving what they do) is vitally important to them.