A Teacher's Dilemma

Submitted into Contest #102 in response to: Write a story about someone losing faith in an institution.... view prompt

19 comments

American Creative Nonfiction Contemporary

“Should we get started?” the principal suggests in a cheery, singsong voice, tapping on the microphone. “People? Please take your seats. Excuse me, people?” Her smile is brittle as she grips the microphone a little too hard. She stands alone on the Cafetorium stage, a space that doubles as both a lunchroom and a theater—and permanently smells of soured milk.

The throng of veteran teachers summarily ignores her, continuing to talk more loudly to one another, mainly about expected retirement dates. They help themselves to off brand cookies and lukewarm coffee, drinking copious amounts in cheap environmentally-unfriendly styrofoam cups. Next to the coffee table , a colorful sign—"Recycling Begins With Me!"— is posted over a trashcan full of used plastic bottles and crushed Red Bull cans. No amount of caffeine or sugar prepares anyone for the 7:30 a.m. first faculty meeting of the school year. 

The new teachers sit in the front row on cold plastic chairs, dutifully prepared to take notes. Most have not brought a sweater or jacket and shiver in the subarctic chill of the school’s overactive air conditioning. They’ve already introduced themselves to each other, separate and apart from their colleagues. They wonder if they’ve chosen the wrong profession and are secretly horrified at the bovine creatures mooing behind them. How am I stuck with 9th grade remedial when these cows all have upper level honors classes?

“People? The sooner we start, the sooner you can work in your rooms,” the principal begs. The new teachers will unload a dozen boxes of supplies and room decorations from their two-door hatchbacks, invariably parked in the wrong car lot. The veteran teachers will staple faded, crumpled posters—“The Best Way To Predict Your Future Is To Create It!”—that they’ve stored in the back of their classroom closets for years. 

Fifteen minutes after the alleged start time, the principal’s secretary enters the Cafetorium with an armful of handouts, still warm from the photocopier. As expected, the various papers are unstapled because no one has bothered to replace the photocopier’s staple cartridge, empty since the preceding June. 

“Girl, hand me the duty roster. I am not supervising Hallway B after school. I’ll talk to my union rep about that.”

“Sixth period planning? That’s the worst. Why do I even have a planning period, then? I need to get this changed.”

“No one said they were moving my classroom. I’ve been there for four years! I’m not even in the same building. I have a bad backmaintenance is going to have to move all those boxes.”

“I never agreed to a third prep. I don’t even teach social studies.”

The new teachers look over their shoulders, hearing the hue and cry of their colleagues, now whispering to each other—in jest—that they’ve definitely chosen the wrong profession. Ha ha.

“People, there have been some changes this year with the new state standards. Please find page eight in the packets—if there were packets—well, just look at the top of the page that reads BEST Standards,” the principal says, clicking through a PowerPoint slideshow that has far too many words in an unreadable microfont.

“I don’t have page eight. I have three page nines . . .”

“What happened to the FIRST Standards or the COMMON CORE Standards or the SUNSHINE Standards—”

“Whenever a new governor gets into office, they suddenly know how to fix education.”

“Or his wife does.”

“Does this mean the FIRST Standards tests in March are out?”

“No, the state will still give the FIRST Standards tests, but they will use the BEST standards to score them holistically.”

“They’ll score them to show that the new governor’s standards are ‘highly effective’ in ‘educating the whole child’ and ‘preparing them for the 21st century workplace’—”

“I’m sure there will be a graph showing the ‘learning gains’ of ‘critical thinking skills’—”

The entire row behind the new teachers bursts out into cynical laughter.

“People? Please, people, there is a lot to go over. Please turn to the four-page list of drills this year. Understand what is required of you for fire, tornado, hurricane, chemical spill, and active shooter drills. We have added three week-long units on mental health awareness and social-emotional health issues. We will also have four bullying assemblies, one per quarter.”

“When do we get to teach—”

“At least there are no more nuclear bomb drills—”

“I don’t have a list of the drills—”

“Couldn’t this meeting have been an email?”

“Before we leave, I want to share something with you,” the principal wistfully sighs. “This is something very meaningful to me, and I hope you appreciate the spirit in which I share it with you.”

Please, not the starfish story.”

“You know it is.”

The principal continued. “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?’”

“I literally can tell this story backwards.”

“The ocean threw the starfish up on the beach in the first place. What makes the boy think the ocean isn’t going to do it again?”

“The youth replied, ‘If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.’” The principal gives a dramatic pause. A few of the older teachers simply walk out. 

“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.” The principal takes a deep breath, rises to her full height of 5 feet, 6 inches, and squares her shoulders. “Then, smiling at the man, the boy said . . . ‘I made a difference for that one.’”

The new teachers wipe teary eyes, jotting down the words “Make A Difference” and drawing a starfish next to the principal’s directive. I knew this was the right field for me. I am here to transmit culture, to help the next generation achieve their dreams, to make a difference, and to stay out of the faculty lounge. 

The remaining veteran teachers continue to scroll through their phones. 

“Have a great year!” the principal calls out, as the new teachers remain seated, unsure of what to do next or who to follow. 

⟶⟷⟵

Author’s Note: The following is taken verbatim from the State of Florida’s BEST English Language Arts Standards for the 2021-2022 school year. (BEST is an acronym for “Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking,” which really should be BFEST, but that wouldn’t be as catchy.)

  1. The implementation of these standards will encourage schools, districts, and educators to adopt and build a rich, deep, and meaningful curriculum that “uplifts the soul.” 
  2.  The goal of these standards is to restore teachers to their true calling: educating the hearts, souls, and minds of their students, bringing them “into the glorious light of truth.” 


(Oof. Do I need a theology endorsement now?)

Good luck with the starfish this year, fellow teachers!





July 14, 2021 18:33

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

19 comments

Beth Connor
23:37 Jul 19, 2021

Okay- I'm looking at all the comments saying hilarious as I ugly cry lol... One- I'm a sucker for the starfish story- it's a bit of a mantra for me. Two-My father taught middle school for 30 years before retiring and never lost that new teacher idealism. He passed away a couple years back- and we had a reception for him at his old school. It was the most touching thing to see all his "starfish" from over the years. You did a beautiful job writing this cynicism and all haha. PS- the ever-changing bureaucracy and red tape, is why I neve...

Reply

Deidra Lovegren
02:18 Jul 20, 2021

I completely understand why teaching is not a very appealing occupation today. State and district demands are constricting and onerous. Teachers are like artists and need a lot of autonomy to be happy. I love your father for teaching the "hard years." He must have been a paragon of patience and wellspring of creativity. All teachers -- no matter how hard bitten and sarcastic -- believe in the Starfish story. We see it every year and it keeps our souls alive. It's why God created LinkedIn, so we can see where all the Starfish go, making us...

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Laura Clark
20:51 Aug 09, 2021

I miss you - I came in here to read some of your stuff because I miss you and this has made me miss you more. Your voice - both cynic and hopeful optimist - shines through. I hope you’re well and that life is doing right by you x

Reply

Deidra Lovegren
01:09 Aug 10, 2021

Laura!! Oh how I've missed you. Jonathan Blaauw is alive and well, safe from the recent South African troubles. Katina is still writing away. So much to talk about -- maybe a phone call is in order? Very productive summer for me: Made a website - https://sites.google.com/view/deidralovegren/home Working on a podcast with an Aussie and a couple of other cool projects. I need a long Laura update!

Reply

Laura Clark
07:03 Aug 13, 2021

Definitely a phone call - I will text you to arrange! Love that the gang is doing well and that you are too. I’ve mostly been moving into my new house and discovering that I quite like DIY. Writing has fallen to the wayside sadly but I did make a wedding cake recently so some creative pursuits are still happening.

Reply

Deidra Lovegren
17:03 Aug 13, 2021

Not surprised you are Queen DIY. Creating order out of chaos is your specialty, that makes you a great mum! This has been the best school year -- I taught the same group of kids as juniors last year; happily have all these big brains back for senior year and get them ready for college. We are doing resumes and college application essays and reading Beowulf & trippy John Gardner's Grendel (the monster's take, using 2500 years of philosophy/theology to understand the purpose of life.) Having a blast and wishing there were more hours in the da...

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
19:12 Jul 17, 2021

Wonderful story, Deidra! Really enjoyed it and it made me laugh. Great job!

Reply

Deidra Lovegren
02:19 Jul 20, 2021

Thanks, Bella :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
14:50 Jul 16, 2021

This was hilarious. Also, did i note a touch of personal cynicism there, Deidra? A lovely stort, nevertheless. I have submitted mine for this week. I would love you to read and critique. After all, aren't we writers all fans of one another!

Reply

Deidra Lovegren
09:02 Jul 17, 2021

Of course 😎

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
14:28 Jul 15, 2021

This was awesome and really funny. (I heard one version of the starfish story, but instead of starfish it was crabs) Loved it!

Reply

Deidra Lovegren
02:20 Jul 20, 2021

Starfish, crab, eels -- pick a sea creature. They all swim in schools. (I couldn't resist. Sorry.)

Reply

11:49 Jul 20, 2021

😝

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
02:53 Jul 15, 2021

This was hilarious from a students perspective, honestly. The new teachers, and the clASsIc starfish story? On point. I loved this one :)

Reply

Deidra Lovegren
10:56 Jul 15, 2021

⭐️🐟

Reply

15:29 Jul 15, 2021

Lol, tho your pfp is a mood-

Reply

Deidra Lovegren
16:27 Jul 15, 2021

I kinda like it. It’s both arrogant and insecure. Total mood. Bet.

Reply

02:55 Jul 16, 2021

Yup. Love it.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Ruth Porritt
05:23 Aug 08, 2021

Hello Deidra, Hope your summer has been great. :) I loved this story. :) I grinned when I read the description of the 9th graders. Everything in this tale is familiar and likeable to me, even when the principal tells the starfish story. (I had a principal who also told this story, and on more than one occasion. I wonder how many administrators, world-wide, tell this story. I am genuinely curious.) Have a great weekend, Ruth

Reply

Show 0 replies