Cleaning House

I thought I would sit on the beach, read a good book, and relax. Instead, a little creature made me pause and consider how its behaviors can be an example of what I need to do in my teaching practice every year.

Earlier this summer, while on a vacation to the Outer Banks, I spent some time observing these little guys. They both fascinated and horrified me, all at the same time. They’re so well camouflaged that it’s easy to miss them in the sand, and a night walk on the beach with a flashlight will quickly reveal one is surrounded by them. They’re also amazingly quick and fun to watch. A quick Google search shows they are called Ghost Crabs.

What fascinated me the most was how they “clean house.” This crab spent its morning climbing down into its burrow, coming back up, peeking over the top edge of its hole, and when it decided I wasn’t going to pounce on it, coming all the way up and flinging one claw full of sand off to the side. It did this repeatedly.

It struck me that much of what we do in teaching is like this Ghost Crab’s efforts at cleaning house. We take a look around our classrooms and decide what needs to go. This can be a literal cleaning, where we finally get rid of those dusty, untouched books from 1982 that a well-meaning, retiring colleague handed over with the words, “These are just wonderful, and I know you’ll make great use of them.” But it can also be a metaphorical cleaning, where we consider what our students know and can do, and see all the “baggage” they bring with them, and bit by bit, we clear away the “sand” so we can get at what we need to help them learn.

The Ghost Crab doesn’t quit its cleaning until it’s satisfied with the results. The persistence is impressive. I was sitting not even five feet away, and it just kept at the task, watching me repeatedly to see what I was doing. If something looked amiss, it waited or ducked back into its burrow, but it never quit. Do we have that persistence in our teaching?

Something else I observed about the Ghost Crab: on occasion, one would scurry down toward the surf. I later learned that they don’t swim, but one of the reasons they do this is to get a bit of water to refresh their gills and make it easier to get the oxygen they need. We can learn from this, too. How often during the school year do we take time to pause and refresh so that we can work more efficiently? In the Ghost Crab’s case, it’s an essential step to take: without the right moisture in the gills, it can’t get the oxygen needed for survival. It is just as essential for us teachers to do the same thing: we need to pause to refresh and recharge, so that we can not only work efficiently but also survive.

Little did I know how much the Ghost Crab had to teach me.

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  • Adam

    The Ghost Crab

    Nice article, well written! Everywhere we look….connections to teaching and learning.

  • T. Summers


    Nicely put. Just what I needed to remind myself to take time and recharge. I am teaching summer school this summer. I am having to find little creative ways to recharge my mind. 



    • TriciaEbner

      Care to share?

      What are some of the creative approaches you’re taking? I really struggle with taking time for me during the school year–would love to hear ideas I might be able to apply to the traditional school year. 

  • MarciaPowell

    The Power of Reflection and Belonging


    I love the fact that you are taking time to rejuvenate and reflect on life in general.  That’s a great skill, and one we don’t always take time to do.  Cleaning house is a task driven process that is necessary to eliminate clutter.  And I sometimes find myself wishing that we could clear away the clutter from school mindsets as easily as we can chuck books or move in the sand.  I think the problem is that the mindsets can fill up again almost as fast as we clear it out.  That’s something to think about in terms of cognitive dissonance for all of us.


    A second thought comes to mind with the little ghost crab, and that is the wetting-your-gills rejuvenation strategy.  It made me think of school, and the role it plays with middle school students.  Because kids come to school and they want to be rejuvenated in that moment.  Some come because their social group is there, others are focused on the academic ides, and others find inspiration in an activity time.  And what happens if they don’t find that spark, that little bit of coolness to refresh them so they can reflect on what education has to offer?  Like the ghost crab, do they go further and further afar, or even worse, hunker down in the sand?


    • TriciaEbner

      Oh wow . . .

      Marcia, I love how you always have a perspective that sparks more thinking for me. That is some saltwater for my gills!

      I’ve been toying for some time with the idea that we teachers tend to be hoarders sometimes, both figuratively and metaphorically. We have those favorite lessons/units we just refuse to give up . . . we just keep collecting more and more and more for them. And we do the same with our mindsets, and I think it can be even harder to give up those ideas than it is the concerete. 

      But what really has me thinking is your observation about how our students can be so much like these ghost crabs, and what happens when they don’t get that freshment they want. I’m going to be mulling this over in my mind today as I do a literal housecleaning. How can I do a better job of keeping that refreshment closer at hand for them?

      Thank you, my friend!