Tony Danza, Starfish and Making a Difference

classroom with teacher and childrenI just finished listening to Tony Danza read his new book: “I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High.” Tony, known by many from his TV sitcom days, originally graduated as a teacher, but had never used his teaching license until 2010 when he spent 1 year teaching a high school English class at Northeast High, Philadelphia’s largest urban high school.  While his year was filmed as a reality series, only 7 episodes were ever shown.  The book, however, was a delight that I would recommend to anyone in the education industry.  I think he did a very good job of accurately portraying the difficulties and culture shock of a first year teacher.  It is clear that he is very passionate about the importance of education and does everything he can think of to encourage his students to take advantage of the time in school to help them prepare for tomorrow. I loved his honesty, his vulnerability and willingness to share the bumps and successes of his year.

I felt upbeat at the end of his book, even though he doesn’t sugarcoat a happily ever after.  The kids he had in class still had immense challenges ahead of them, as did the teachers and administration as they continued to deal with low standardized test scores and pressures from above.  I was sad that Tony decided to not teach after that year.  I think he would have been a good influence on the children of that school.

So why am I talking about this book on a PKM site? I think because his book really started me thinking about how the difficulties that high school and elementary school teachers are experiencing in trying to prepare students for life will be directly effecting us in higher education more and more as students from these environments become a part of our student bodies.  As an academic reference librarian, I do one-on-one consultations with students, but often I only see these individuals once or twice in their career.  We have tools and knowledge that could significantly enhance their research experiences, enrich their learning and make their work easier.  But how do we present this knowledge in a way that the students will hear it, will seek it out, will even try to use it? How do we position ourselves in our academic community so that we can identify the “teachable moments” where we can insert ourselves and offer a tool, a research strategy, an idea that could make a student or a faculty member’s life easier or more productive?

At our school, students, faculty and researchers alike are all dynamic, creative, and often driven individuals.  Their plates are more than full.  Even if they could do a job much easier a different way, the sheer process of learning that new way may be the straw that breaks the academic camel’s back at that particular time.  I teach a one and one-half hour workshop on productivity tools for graduate students at my library.  I have reasonably good attendance, but what strikes me as most significant, my companion LibGuide is consistently ranked in the top five of all LibGuides at my school in terms of hits.  They are finding the guide, AND they are looking at pages other than just the first one.  They are making a clear statement.  The need is there.  The interest is there. Yes, they want to magic bullet, when we know that does-it-all product doesn’t yet exist.  But they are motivated to at least search for it.

Like Mr. Danza, I don’t have the answers.  I don’t even know all the questions. But I resonate with his passion to reach another individual and offer them something that might enrich at least one aspect of his/her life.  Tony ends his book with a description of a story that he was given, inscribed on a plaque from one of his teaching associates as a parting gift at the end of his year of teaching. I had heard the story before, but it is fitting for us to remember, nonetheless.

After a storm, a man is seen walking along a beach littered with starfish that had been blown up on shore.  He would stop ever few feet and pick up a starfish and throw it back into the ocean.  An observer asks, ‘why do you bother?  There are so many other fish that it hardly makes a dent in the problem.’  He responds, ‘True, but it means everything to the life of that one I touched.’

Maybe that is our message as well.  Someone asked me, why do you spend so much energy writing the blog posts when you don’t even know if they are being read?  Perhaps for the one person for whom that particular post might impact just at their point of need.  We need more starfish throwers.

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