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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The Future Project: Helping students change the world with their wildest dreams

This week’s spotlight: all things education.

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Dream Director John-Michael Parker performs with his students at the 2013 RevolutionNYC at Columbia University, a celebration of the impact and growth Future Project students created during the school year.
(photo courtesy The Future Project)

What are your wildest dreams?

That’s the question Dream Directors are asking students in 14 high schools across New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Washington, DC this year as part of The Future Project.

“We want students to be unleashed to follow their dreams. When we think of unleashed, we think of possibilities rather than potential, which is an interesting word but sounds finite,” says National Dream Director John-Michael Parker. “Our Dream Directors push students to be the best version of themselves, and help them realize that their passions give them enormous, even infinite possibility.”

The Future Project started in 2010 when Andrew Mangino, a former speechwriter in DC and John-Michael’s schoolmate from Yale, along with fellow speechwriter Kanya Balakrishna, first dreamed up the idea of giving youth the encouragement and tools to aim beyond getting straight A’s.

Their original plan was to support volunteer coaches at underperforming schools; however they saw an even bigger possibility in more directly unleashing the passions and dreams of the folks right there in the school. Now, their model is all about having paid, full-time Dream Directors at schools that, more than anything, want The Future Project there.

“There’s so much goodwill and so many good ideas that aren’t being acted on because of all the other expectations placed on schools,” says John-Michael. “We realized if we could find the very best folks to put in high schools to do a job that utilizes the incredible resources, energy, and passion that already exists, and be someone that sparks other people to act on their ideas, then that would be an effective way for the Future Project to work.”

The name of the organization is the tool Dream Directors use to help their students make their ideas happen: “future projects” are any ventures that use students’ passions to enact change, like starting a club or launching a school-wide campaign.

At Wilson High School in DC, for example, future projects so far have included everything from a dance-a-thon to an art magazine to a nonprofit that will bring baseball equipment to poor communities in Nicaragua.

Not shy about their love for Ashoka, you might think of The Future Project as a community of young social entrepreneurs in training.


Do you want to help students unleash their imaginations?

While Dream Directors are a little bit of everything—part teacher, part guidance counselor, part performer, part intrapreneur, part coach—there’s nothing stopping you from playing that role in your school right now.

If you’re an educator or school staff member, and proudly have your head in the clouds, here are John-Michael’s tips for drawing out the best in the youth around you:

1. Ask students about their dreams.

What realities do they want to create for themselves, their school, and/or the world they live in? Listen to their answers. Then ask questions to figure out what’s holding them back, and challenge them to take their next step.

2. Tell them about yours.

Share your dream to write a novel or sing in a band or make healthy food widely accessible. Shout it from the bleachers. If you can’t be an example of passion, inspiration, and dreaming, how can you expect them to be?

3. Make it okay to fail.

Let your students know that the worst that can happen from failing is that their ego is momentarily bruised; the best that can happen is they gain a newfound sense of purpose and direction.

4. Work passion into the classroom experience.

Great teachers do this all the time: they create an environment where all sorts of expressions of creativity are encouraged. Allow students to do assignments through the lens of what they love to do, whether that’s drawing, making videos, etc.

And finally, there’s no need to limit dreaming to just the classroom.

“We created something new with this character that is a Dream Director. And we don’t want that to be limited to the means and resources of our company, or the employees we can get,” says John-Michael. “As we look to the next phase, we see a vision where The Future Project offers a way for folks to be Dream Directors in all sorts of communities and institutions: prisons, companies, hospitals, and more. We want it to be an idea out in world that people can take and act on themselves.”

What are your wild dreams to make a better world? Share them in the comments below and at

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Staff spotlight: Sandy Cheiten and English education in Vietnam

In this series, we’re highlighting Idealist staff members who’ve made their ideas happen. Today’s spotlight is on Sandy Cheiten, a consultant who’s helping us develop a new project in New York. Sandy has lots of amazing stories; here’s one about how she helped turn a broad intention into a specific success.

In 1992, I was working in multimedia education at ABC News in New York. One day, I got a call from a friend who said he knew someone interested in starting an educational project and asked if I’d talk to her.

When I first met the woman with the idea, the journalist Barbara Stewart, she came to my formal, corporate office wearing a sweatshirt, sneakers, and jeans. She said she wanted to start an educational project of some sort in Vietnam, but she didn’t know what.

“Just come to Hanoi with me and we’ll meet with some people and figure something out!” she said.


Sandy, top left, and Barbara in Vietnam with some colleagues in the mid-1990s.

I was quite intrigued, as I had concentrated on southeast Asian studies in college and graduate school and had been a peace activist during the Vietnam War. Though it seemed a little crazy—I knew nothing about Barbara and we had no plan—I couldn’t turn down a free ticket to Hanoi. I had been to Vietnam during the war, but had never made it to Hanoi, and was so curious to see how the country had changed in the almost 20 years since the war ended.

As soon as we landed, we went straight to the Ministry of Education and introduced ourselves, then posed this question: if we could raise money for anything they needed, what would it be? They said they wanted English language textbooks for their schools. They knew that Vietnam was on the cusp of change in many ways, and among other goals, they wanted their children to learn English well so that they’d be ready to engage with other world economies whenever the U.S. trade embargo ended.

Now what?

When we came back to the U.S., we established BAVE, the Business Alliance for Vietnamese Education, applied for 501(c)(3) status, and hired a fundraiser. Through a number of trips over the next two years, we worked out a plan with the Ministry of Ed to produce the books; everything was decided in complete collaboration. I have no idea why they trusted us; maybe they actually didn’t. We were just so unusual, these two American women landing there unannounced, wanting to help.

For our fundraising strategy, we decided we’d form an exclusive club wherein our members—all corporations—had to donate at least one million dollars each. That might sound far-fetched, but it worked. Our fundraiser pitched to a bunch of companies that having their names on all these textbooks would introduce them to Vietnamese consumers, so that when the embargo was lifted (which turned out to be in 1994), they’d already be familiar and trusted brands. It really was a win-win.

The first order of business after we got our initial million-dollar gift was training a group of Vietnamese educators; we brought them to the U.S. for curriculum development and teacher training. When that was over, we raised more money and sent them back to Hanoi to draft and design the textbooks, and we rented a house for them all to live in while they did it.

The value of patience

It took a number of years to write and illustrate the books, which wound up being the country’s first color textbooks. We traveled with the Ministry of Ed to many regions in the country to pilot and evaluate the books in each setting. We eventually sent them to Hong Kong to be edited.

Finally, in the late ’90s, our first books were widely produced and distributed. We had a big launch event at the Hanoi Opera House. We were all over all the news. Everyone thought it was terrific because it showed the coming of a new age: the war was over, and our two countries could now work on a mutually beneficial project together.

Soon we realized that adults were using the books, too. And, with some additional funding, we worked with Vietnam Television (VTV) to produce an animated series that mirrored them.

My involvement started to taper off in the early 2000s, when the TV series was beginning. I had started a different job, and we had handed the reigns of the project off to VTV; it seemed like the right time to step away. But I had and still have a great sense of accomplishment about it, and am happy to say the books and shows continue to be produced today.

Watch this adorable BAVE video.

There were constant challenges, of course.

1. Disagreement
I love Barbara and we’re still friends to this day, but we’re very different and there were many times when we both had strong opinions—about how to work with the Ministry, for example, or what language to use in a certain place in the textbook—and we really argued.

Solution: No matter how much we quarreled over certain points, we always came to a final agreement and got back to business because, at heart, we had the same goal and intention—to see this project through and be of some help. That commitment never wavered, and it carried the day.

2. Logistics of working overseas
It would be very hot and we’d have no air conditioning, or there would be a monsoon rain or no heat in the winter, so you’d get soaked or freeze. And the language barrier, the time difference, and, back then, the absence of email… We faxed a lot of things, but that was difficult because of the money and technology restraints there. Also, sometimes people just wouldn’t show up for meetings, and it would be so frustrating because we were always working on a tight schedule when we were there.

Solution: We crossed each bridge as we came to it: hiring translators, scheduling calls at odd hours, buying people things like fax machines. Those expenditures became part of our budget. Just take obstacles one at a time, be patient and persistent, and allow that some idiosyncratic expenses might work their way into your plan.

3. Shifting cultural context
Sometimes it was just disorienting adjusting to a place where old and new were intersecting so dynamically. The country was changing before our eyes.

Solution: We just tried to appreciate it all. We got to see and make a very small contribution to these enormous changes that were bringing a country we were not long ago at war with to being an active trading partner on the world stage. It was exhilarating to witness the progress. They had a vision for their country, and you could see it taking shape everywhere.

Are you as blown away by Sandy’s story as we are? She welcomes your questions and comments below, or feel free to send her a message through Idealist.


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Launching or furthering a teaching career? Alternative ways to move forward

Amy Potthast served as Idealist’s Director of Service and Graduate Education Programs until 2011. Read more of her work at


From isafmedia (Flickr/Creative Commons)

A week after our graduate degree fair season started this fall, I went back to grad school myself—a part-time, low-residency Masters in Education program focused on adult learning and education (rather than K-12) from Oregon State. I’m a mother to two young kids and a program director at Idealist, and beginning this program has made me realize how crucial alternative format grad school options are for people at mid-career, with families and full-time jobs.

Here are some other programs worth highlighting:

Online programs
Some for-profit schools have made people leery of online education. But reputable nonprofit and public universities are offering more online opportunities all the time. For example, our host at tonight’s Washington, D.C. grad fair—George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development—offers five different online masters programs, ranging from masters programs in Bilingual Special Education, to Educational Technology Leadership. For people who don’t need the masters degree right now, the school offers a slew of online certificate programs.

Teacher residencies
Other programs around the U.S. enable people to attend graduate school for education while they teach full time in public schools. Mississippi Teacher Corps brings people from all over the country to work as teachers throughout Mississippi while earning a tuition-free Masters degrees in Curriculum and Instruction at University of Mississippi. Boston Teacher Residency and NYC Teaching Fellows offer similar programs (though the fine print varies).

Re-careering support
For established professionals from any background, programs like EnCorps Teachers Program in California can be a lifeline for starting a brand-new teaching career later in life – and putting skills in math and science to work, helping new generations of students. EnCorps is a public-private partnership dedicated to increasing the number of critically-needed STEM teachers in public middle and high schools. Teach For America, famous for recruiting top recent college grads, also enlists older professionals in the movement to end education inequity; TFA is sponsoring tonight’s grad fair and hosting a special networking event after the fair.

More resources
If you’re thinking about a graduate degree or other career transition into the education field, you might enjoy our Education Graduate Degree Overview or a visit to one of our graduate degree fairs. Tonight’s is from 5:00-8:00 p.m. in Washington, DC.

[This blog entry first appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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