How Fish for Schools Changed My Life and Saved My Teaching Career

How Fish for Schools saved my teaching career

How it all began with Fish for Schools

I began teaching 3rd grade. Have you ever taught 3rd grade? It’s fun. The kids are adorable. I mean, they are seriously cute. Like you want to take them all home with you cute. (I’m aware that time may have blurred my memories here, so if you currently teach 3rd grade and it’s not like that, chalk it up to the passage of time.)

Then I got moved to high school. No need to tell you the horrible story of why one year February 29th found me facing 9th graders instead of 3rd graders. Well, I’ll have to tell you a little bit so you understand why saying that Fish for Schools saved my life is not hyperbole. Not even close.

So, I came into this classroom, and there had been no grades taken. Not one. It was the last day of the grading period, and there was nary a grade to be found. The students had never actually learned anything. Well, they’d learned stuff, but not what you would have hoped they’d learn. I had a couple of months to get them ready for 10th grade, and friends, they weren’t that happy about it.

I wish I could tell you everything about it, I really do. Here are some highlights from Ms. Swmnbn (She Who Must Not Be Named)’s legacy:

  • The students had literally done no work. Zilch.
  • She told them she was allergic to flourescent lights and just used lamps, standing in front of them in sheer clothing lacking proper foundation garments.
  • There were porn magazines in the room.

You know, I’ll just stop there. I think you get the picture.

Two weeks into it, one student told me, “You’re not as fun as Mrs. Swmnbn, but I like how you don’t sit on the boys’ laps.” Huh. Thanks?

It all comes to a head

That student was pretty much alone in her praise. Mostly I got hate with a little defiance thrown in for variety. Mostly I got so discouraged that after every class period I would put my head down and cry for six minutes and thirty seconds until the passing period was over and a new group of students would come in.

I was the “before” in movies like Freedom Writers. 

It was so fun. In the sense that 30 hours of unmedicated labor is fun.

I was so mentally exhausted that it affected everyone around me, including (perhaps especially) my poor family.

Finally, the day came when it was just too much.

I hated to admit defeat, and I hated to break the trust my amazing principal had in me, but I was broken. I was defeated. I couldn’t do it anymore.

It was a Wednesday, and I decided I would teach out the week, and then I would not go back. I would find some other job that was less stressful, like keeper of the keys to the briefcase with the nuclear codes or trauma surgeon.

Enter Fish for Schools

And then I opened my email.

In it was a newsletter from Library Services saying that they had all of the materials for Fish! for Schools, including something called an Expedition Pack that would lead teachers in how to implement it. (They don’t have that anymore; now, they have this.)

Fish! for Schools was based on the manner and methods observed at the Pike Place Fish Market. My parents lived in the Seattle area at the time, and I had been to the market many times, watching them throw fish and generally have a great time.

I was intrigued. I mean, they were throwing around dead fish, and my classes pretty much resembled something dead-ish.

After school, I drove over to the building that housed Library Services and checked out the Expedition Pack. I drove home, put in the DVD, and within an hour I knew I was on to something.

The next step: implementing Fish for Schools

After watching and re-watching the videos and reading and re-reading the information, I had a plan.

I knew that the four-pronged philosophy of

  • play
  • be there
  • make their day
  • choose your attitude

was powerful. I knew I wanted to try it.

I prepared through the weekend, and when Monday came around, I was still in a classroom. I was ready. I’d bought a bunch of inflatable fish, along with other fishy stuff, and I redecorated my classroom.

We were now a school of Fish!.

It sounds ridiculous and impossible, but it literally transformed my teaching experience overnight.

As I shared the Fish! philosophy with my students, they miraculously got onboard. I went from wanting to quit to wanting to shout about Fish! from the rooftops.

I used it as my core classroom management strategy, and I spent a lot of money on fish-themed goodness for my classroom!

I never looked back, and it never let me down.

If it had not been for that email on that day, I would absolutely have quit teaching. There is no doubt.

The rest of the story

Eventually, I started facilitating professional development, and I was so excited to share some of the ideas I’d learned with my district colleagues.

I recommend it to everyone I know, and now, after training literally tens of thousands of teachers all over the place, I still share Fish!.

A couple of years after this harrowing experience, I visited the Pike Place Fish Market. I got to meet the people in the video that changed my life.


This is me with Justin, a particular favorite from the video.

When I saw him, I literally started to cry.


Here’s me with another one of those amazing people. It was like meeting Winston Churchill (hey, I’m an English and Social Studies teacher). It was truly amazing.

Even my personal children got in on the act. They knew what this had done for me.

This son is thirty-three years old now, but I remember this day like it was yesterday.

Here’s a short clip where Justin tells all of my students to do what I say. (I wish!)

The Fish! takeaway

Friends, you will have a hard year of teaching, if you haven’t already. You will have a year that makes you Google “alternate careers for teachers” during your conference period. If it hasn’t happened yet, it will.

But have I got an idea for you!

Explore a little bit of what Fish! has to offer. See if you think it may transform your classroom in the way it did mine.

I don’t work for Fish!; I only love it. I think you’ll love it, too.

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