One thing I didn’t learn in school: How best to help

This week’s spotlight: all things education.

When I was in middle school, I had the annoying habit of giving my friends advice they didn’t ask for.

Eventually I learned that forcing my opinions on others was not the best way to help them. But then the question shifted from, “What’s the best advice I could give this person?” to “If I’m not going to give advice right now, how can I best help?”


How should you help? Sometimes the answer is clear-cut; sometimes not.
(photo courtesy Shutterstock)

I pursued this question throughout college and thought I found some answers. After I graduated, about a year ago, I looked forward to further exploring the concept of help when I joined an intensive yearlong program that prepares recent college graduates for working in urban schools.

When I started the program, I knew three things: 1) I loved all my past teaching experiences, 2) my teachers had shown me how transformative education could be, and I wanted to pass that on, and 3) I believed every person should have access to the high-quality education I had been blessed to grow up with.

What I didn’t know was how I could best help if I became a part of the education system. I didn’t know all its rules, contours, and controversies, and how I could best help from within it. The program I found seemed like a great opportunity to work in the field, help while I learned, and learn how to help. But…

Maybe here you expect a “I was horribly wrong!” confession. And maybe I half-expected the same.

But actually, the surprise was more subtle. At first, I thought I had everything I needed to launch into a perfect, meaningful career. I had teachers who knew the field inside and out, with experience teaching in and managing public, private, and charter schools; I identified intellectually with the mission of the program, and really wanted to be there—I really wanted to fight the good education fight. And yet, even with all the pieces in place, something didn’t fit. It dawned on me that no teacher, no theory, no discourse, no trend could answer my question of “how best to help.”

It would always be a question I’d have to answer for myself, case by case.

So many factors come into play: what’s “best” depends on what my skills are and what type of work I find fulfilling, as well as what are perceived to be the best methods of affecting change with any given issue. Plus, there are so many noble, legitimate, necessary ways to help—there’s no need for us to force ourselves into one way or another because that’s what we’ve been convinced is the “best” role.

So right now, I am no closer to answering my “how best to help” question than I was a year ago. But now I know I’ll never answer it once and for all—and that’s the lesson I really learned in school.

That’s also what makes finding one’s niche in the world such a wonderful, confusing, soul-poking challenge. I didn’t discover that education is not, and will never be, for me. I didn’t even find out whether teaching might be my career true love—I still don’t know!

But I do know that no matter what I wind up pursuing, I’ll ask myself “is this how I can best help?”, instead of hoping for someone else to answer.

How do you determine how you can best help in any situation? Share your thinking in the comments.

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Comments (1)

  1. Reardor writes:
    September 20, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    One factor that I consider is negative impact. Making sure my contribution’s positive impact outweighs or reduce any set-backs. Also truly listening at the problem to feel the pain & frustration verses letting your inner celebrity Dr Ego advise is always helpful.

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