Not-So-Helpful Helping

Question: Kumashiro states that like many others, he began his teaching career because he wanted to “help.” Drawing on his story and incorporating your own personal experiences, problematize the notion of “helping” students.

To say that there is only one reason to choose a career in teaching would likely be false for most people; I, for one, have many reasons that contribute to my desire to teach (not the least of which is that, as an English major, most people—including myself—just assumed that I would become a teacher because career options for English majors are limited). Despite the many reasons, however, I think there is at least a small part of everyone entering teaching that has what Kumashiro calls “save-the-world idealism” (XXIX). I have seen movies like Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting enough times that I cannot help but desire to be the new real-life version of Robin Williams’ characters. Even though I know the realities of teaching are not like they are in the movies, I cannot help but maintain that sliver of hope that maybe, just maybe, I could be the right person to truly reach out to young people and to give them the best possible experience in school.

Unfortunately, in the real world, there is no script. There are no wise, life-changing lines of dialogue for me to memorize and deliver charismatically; the students are not actors, being paid to watch my brilliance; the lives of students are not caught on camera and easy for me to encounter. Like Kumashiro, who had a wake-up call after beginning his teaching career in Nepal, teachers, although they may be modern day superheroes in their own minds, are not necessarily viewed by their students this way.

I think that, ironically, what may often keep teachers from helping students is that desire to help them. We are so focused on living out this dream we have of what helping students looks like—elaborate and fireworks-inducing—that we become distracted from what it truly means to help students. In other words, we make helping students all about us (Side note: when I say “we” I certainly do not mean every teacher or future teacher—it could just be me!). Instead of focusing on what our students actually need and want from a teacher, even if that means a more traditional education system, we assume that our desire to help will provide us with every skill we need to do the job well. Kumashiro wrote that there was a “failure to critique our unspoken assumptions about U.S. superiority” (XXXII). Perhaps, in the same way, teachers themselves have an assumed superiority—likely subconscious—over their students.

The biggest problem with the save-the-world, subconscious superiority (bonus points for alliteration?) is that it causes us to dismiss, not only the help that our students actually require of their teachers, but also the ways in which students can help teachers. Students have their own expectations for their learning, and also their own experiences, stories, and knowledge that they bring to the table. When we focus on what WE can do to help students accomplish OUR, we lose sight of a world in which we help students accomplish their own goals, and one in which what they bring to the classroom—without any interference from a teacher—is valued.

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One thought on “Not-So-Helpful Helping

  1. “I have seen movies like Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting enough times that I cannot help but desire to be the new real-life version of Robin Williams’ characters” – It’s great you mention the role of the media in creating teachers’ desire to “help” and “save”. Clarissa also wrote a fantastic post on the influence of movies on teachers that you may want to check out.

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