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The little boy and the starfish – or why I am a teacher

Clare Campbell finds inspiration for action in a powerful children’s story.


Our children do not need a perfect teacher or a perfect parent: there is no such thing. They need a compassionate parent or teacher. One who smiles and makes them enjoy coming to school each and every day. One who gets them excited about their learning. We should never underestimate the difference a caring adult can make in a child’s life.


The best way we can help children is by being a compassionate adult or a compassionate teacher – one who listens with their heart to the children they encounter every day, and so  becomes a trusted adult for that child. We may not always be as patient or as enthusiastic as we should be, but if we are consistently compassionate we will be doing an amazing job. I truly believe that working in a school is a vocation.


Teaching is an art, not a science or a formula; it is a work of heart, a true vocation. 

When I was a student teacher I heard the story of the little boy and the starfish. I will retell it here for those of you who haven’t heard it, but for those of you who know it well, please bear with me. It has been told often and in many different ways, and I will do my best to stay faithful to the story.


A man was walking along a beach when the tide had gone out. 


In the distance, he saw a little boy, who appeared to be dancing.  


As he got nearer to the figure, he could see that the shore was littered with starfish who had been washed up by the waves and stranded on the shore. As he approached further, he could see that the boy was not dancing, he was reaching down, lifting the starfish up and throwing them back into the sea, repeating this task over and over again. 


The man spoke to the little boy as he came closer to him. He was astonished by the overwhelming task, and he exclaimed: “There are miles and miles of shore and hundreds and hundreds of starfish, surely you can’t think that your actions will make a difference?”  


The little boy looked at the man, thought for a moment, and smiled at him. He reached down and lifted another starfish to throw into the ocean,  “I have made a difference to this one.”


I love that story and I have shared it with my teacher friends and colleagues and my pupils many times over the years. But, by far the most memorable time that I have shared was when a good friend of mine was at a loss because her beautiful daughter, who was born with a disability, was hospitalised due to mental health issues, aged only 15.  


For years Sarah had lived with chronic pain due to her disability. Over the years she had had more than 30 operations on her feet and legs, and was left with only two options, to live with the chronic pain, or to have her feet amputated.  

As you can guess, for a 15 year old girl this was an unimaginable choice. Sarah was exhausted, physically and mentally and after missing terms and terms of school due to her condition and her repeated surgery, this all became too much for her and her mental health began to suffer.  


My friend, Sarah’s mother, approached me in despair; she was so upset for her daughter and felt that she had nowhere to turn. I asked if it would be OK to call and perhaps visit Sarah and she agreed.  


I rang Sarah that night in hospital and I listened to her, I listened to her fears, her concerns and her worries. She was feeling so low, she honestly couldn’t see the point in going on anymore now that she was faced with the terrible choice of a life with constant pain, or no feet to walk on.  


I started to visit her and in between visits, I would write to Sarah, sending her books that she might like, recommending films to her, and sharing the starfish story. Something about the story really connected with her, just as it had connected with me all those years before.  


I started to send her starfish pictures, jewellery and cards and it became a bit of a motif for her, so much so that years later when she turned 18, I designed her a starfish tattoo (I don’t think my friend has ever forgiven me for that!) 


In reaching out and connecting with Sarah, I now have a lifelong friend. I am delighted to say that Sarah recovered, she is now 24 and is currently doing her MA in education after successfully achieving a degree and a Postgraduate Certificate in Education. She wants to be a special needs teacher and I know she will be a fantastic one, because of her great compassion and empathy for those with disabilities.  


It may be hard to comprehend, but I believe that God has a purpose for our pain, a reason for our struggle and a reward for our faithfulness.

Trust in Him and don’t give up! 


I love this quote from the author Roald Dahl and use it regularly with the children in my school.  


“I think probably kindness is my number one attribute in any human being. I’ll put it before any of the things like courage, or bravery or generosity, or anything else … Kindness, that simple word. To be kind – it covers everything, to my mind, if you’re kind, that’s it.”  


This quote is like a mantra for us. As a head teacher I try to ensure that we are a kind school above all else. Yes, we learn to read, write, count, we study religion, science, humanities and we learn about art, music, languages and PE.  We develop our skills in all areas of the curriculum, but we are so much more than that.  If we are truly kind to one another, if we treat each other with compassion, we will be the best school we can be.


Every year I like to think that, as an educator, I throw many little starfish into the sea by making a difference to many children’s lives. Supporting their parents as the primary educators, I help their sons and daughters swim in the sea of life to achieve their potential, and not stay stuck on the shore. 


I know it’s up to them to swim and that there are many dangers and predators in that big sea, but at least I give them a chance and set them on their way. Helped by the work of their teachers, children can launch out to explore oceans and develop their potential. I don’t think there are all that many jobs you could say that about.


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Dr Clare Campbell has been a teacher for 22 years and a Headteacher for 12 years in schools in the UK, she is the author of A Year of Mindfulness: Guided Meditations for Christian Schools, Drawn to the Word, Be the Change and two children’s books. She is also an artist and draws and paints in her free time. You can see her work at @coloursofkindn1 on Twitter or www.coloursofkindess.co.uk

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