HOS Blog: May I Help You!

Matt Green
So perhaps it is better to say, we are here to help you help yourself.

Though my fellow fifty-somethings and I came of age in the 1980s, the music of The Beatles was still very much a part of the soundtrack of our childhood. Recently, in the midst of busily preparing for the coming school year, I have found myself humming John Lennon’s urgent and rollicking “Help!” 

For those inclined to offer a hand, no need to worry; we’ve got things under control here! No, I think this little earworm of a song has set up shop in my brain because, to a large extent, being helpful is our business. This summer, we’ve taken a number of steps to communicate to our families that we are here to help: an earlier summer mailing that included a “Parent’s Guide to FA,” and a “Whom to Contact When Guide,” a clean, bright user-friendly website complete with a parent portal, a hard copy directory, and our first annual Summer Parent Garden Party, attended by over 75 of you, are just a few steps we have taken to “Help!”

But, as is my bent, I’d like to shift the focus to our students. I recently had the opportunity to review several year’s worth of alumni surveys, and noted that our alumni tended to cite three distinguishing features of an FA education that set them apart from their college classmates: 
  • they could write better than their peers
  • they could budget their time and plan out their projects better than their peers, and
  • they were not afraid to speak in class or to their professors outside of class
In short, they were not afraid to ask for help.

In an article in Psychology Today, entitled “What Makes It So Hard to Ask for Help?” psychologist Joan Rosenberg opines that asking for help is “an essential aspect of emotional health. Being resourceful...takes feeling vulnerable, courageous, and comfortable enough within yourself to recognize when you need help. When you are able to do that, you are more apt to openly and genuinely acknowledge your specific needs and limitations.” 

The Beatles, I think, recognized the irony that the older we get, the more help we need but the less inclined we are to ask for it. They sing:

When I was younger, so much younger than today
I never needed anybody's help in any way
But now these days are gone, I'm not so self-assured
Now I find I've changed my mind and opened up the doors

In fact, in singing,
And now my life has changed in oh so many ways
My independence seems to vanish in the haze
But every now and then I feel so insecure
I know that I just need you like I've never done before

Don’t they capture a central challenge of being a teenager? That tension between independence and dependence, between wanting to manage things “all by myself,” and asking for help? 

In an Edutopia post entitled, “5 Tips for Teaching Students How to Ask for Help,” Jennifer Sullivan writes, “They fear that asking for help signals weakness or failure in their character, though adults could tell them that asking for help is instead a sign of maturity and strength. Teachers can help students understand how they learn best and empower them to be advocates for their own learning by teaching them how to ask for help.”

Falmouth Academy students are not afraid to ask for help. Perhaps it’s the small class sizes, the availability of our teachers outside of class, all-school meeting, our ever-improving advisory program, or the fact that their teachers are often also their coaches and directors, but students just trust their teachers; they know they want them to be successful, that they want them to learn. 

But I think, “God helps those who help themselves,” the familiar proverb, variations of which pop up in Greek literature, Aesop’s Fables, the Bible, and the Quran, applies to our academic climate as well. I sometimes wonder if we modern parents and teachers (perhaps along with the internet?) have been a little too helpful to our children, conditioning them to employ, “Will you help me?” as a clever stand-in for, “Can you give me the answer? Getting it myself is awfully inconvenient, and I am not in the mood for heavy lifting at the moment.” 

Teachers who intentionally design struggle into their assignments, who answer questions with questions, who speak just above their students’ heads, or who design problems just out of reach, are sometimes unfairly criticized as not being helpful. I have heard students and parents say of such a teacher, “He doesn’t teach.” Indeed, I recently came across a study that suggests just the opposite: that there is actually an inverse relationship between math teachers who are perceived by students as helpful and the long term math retention of those very students! 

So perhaps it is better to say, we are here to help you help yourself. It was not The Beatles but The Four Tops who sang, “I can’t help myself.” We respectfully disagree. When asked for bread, the best teachers offer bread crumbs, thoughtfully laid out clues that, with a little effort and creativity, lead, eventually, to the solution.

And so, the best school not only teaches its students how to ask for help, perhaps, more importantly, it teaches them when.