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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Ask Ero: Answers for baffled and confused Idealists

In this series of blog posts, I’ll try to answer all your questions about anything and everything regardless of how ridiculously unqualified I am to answer them. Consider me sort of a tech-literate, bearded, Ann Landers or a work-safe Dan Savage.

Ero is Thoughtful Adjusted Cropped3Hi, I’m Ero. I’m’s tech support guy. I love answering questions from people who use our website. And I’m here to help you when you’re helpless and confused.

There’s a pretty good chance you’re feeling helpless and confused right now. I know, because I get phone calls on a regular basis from people who want me to rescue a lost cat.  Or who’d like to send me a large pile of used medical equipment. Or who think I’ve just personally rejected their resume for a teaching job in Canada.

As a garden-variety computer nerd who happens to love nonprofits and the people who work for them, I’m incredibly ill-equipped to answer any questions other than “How do I use the Idealist website?” I’m actually pretty good at answering that question, which is why I have a job answering questions about the Idealist website.

I can tell you, for instance, how to sign up, reset your password, add or remove your organization, pay an invoice, and much more.

But you call and ask me how to help the sea turtles, or what the tax rate is in New Jersey. Normally I’ll answer back that I’m not really qualified, and try to point you in the right direction if I can. But in these blog posts, I’ll answer any question you ask.

Until I get your first questions, I’ll try to shed light on how the website works. I’ll start by explaining two things that people don’t always know about Idealist:

1. Everything on our website comes from you.

We maintain a great website full of useful tools, but aside from our blogs, every single bit of content in it is made by our user community, the amazing Idealists around the world. Yes, I’m talking about you.

If your nonprofit has an account on our site, it’s because someone at your organization made one. If you’re getting email alerts, it’s not because we stole your identity; you signed up for an account with us.

We do our best to keep the website up-to-date, but we only built the playground, we’re not the parents.

2. We’re here to bring people together.

We’re not a corporation trying to sell your personal data, and we’re not really interested in ripping you off. We’re a nonprofit, too, and our mission is to make the world better by helping people be effective at doing good.

We want the website to work as well as it can, so that you can connect with others, copy good ideas, take advantage of our resources, and find organizations who you know would love to have you as an employee or volunteer. We couldn’t do it without you.

Have questions about anything I’ve said? Or about anything else (and I really do mean anything)? Ask me.

Ask Ero anything (anything anything anything) at 

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