Seeking help is a good thing! Self-reliance? Not so much. by
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Alan Weinheimer (1926-2012), my Calculus teacher in the fall of 1966

Dear Younger Dale:

I realize the only experience you’ve had of asking for help from a teacher in your entire school career came in your calculus class during senior year—and that was traumatic for you.

You’ve spent your first 17 years becoming intellectually strong and self-reliant. Now that you’re ready to start college, it would be good to start making a new habit.  Seek out help, mentoring, and guidance. Don’t try to do it all on your own. Self-reliance is over-rated, especially at your age.

You are going to be surrounded by other students who, like you, have been very accomplished in their own high school environments, so you may not zoom to the top of your classes, You may need guidance or extra support at times. It’s important to imagine that could be the case, and to think of it in a positive way.

But it is not only about seeking this kind of support because others may be outshining you. Your best opportunityto form a personal bond with a faculty member or a graduate assistant, especially given the large size of many of your classes, will come from seeking help. Forming a personal connection, even with one or two instructors per year, can really increase your quality of life as a student.

Look at it from the instructors’ points of view. Men and women who make educating younger people their life’s work want to see their students learn, grow, and succeed. They also like to think that a little extra personal touch from them can help a student gain deeper knowledge or think more critically about a subject.  You are thus doing them a favor when you ask for their guidance. They can go home to their family and talk about the “nice young man” who came to speak with them today, and how they helped you with some question or challenge. And yes—they will think you are a nice young man, not someone who is bothering them or burdening them—because you are.

To be plain, I am suggesting that even if you find yourself breezing through a course, it is still a good idea to seek out extra communication or mentoring. If you don’t need help, find something interesting or puzzling in one of your reading assignments. Go to their office hours. Ask about a passage you marked in a book or some notes you took in class.  Review your understanding of a concept or ask them to elaborate further on a subject. Or tell them your idea about a topic for your next paper: Do they agree it would be a meaningful topic? Would they like to steer you toward a better one?

I realize the only experience you’ve had of asking for help from a teacher in your entire school career came in your calculus class during senior year—and that was traumatic for you. You never even told your parents—since you assumed it would be shocking and upsetting to them and you wanted to protect them from those feelings–about the 16 out of 100 you got on a test in that class. (Charlie Bahne, the math whiz who was already taking calculus as a sophomore, got a 96. It was such a wounding experience for you that in all likelihood, you will remember Charlie’s score and your own for the rest of your life!)

But here’s the good news:  You did ask for help, and it worked out magnificently. Remember? In the period that followed calculus each day, you were assisting Mrs. Rodman in teaching the second-year French class. (You took fifth-year French with a different teacher, later in the day.)  This was a serious commitment you had made after spending the summer in St. Brieuc as part of the Indiana University Honors Program. Many days, Mrs. Rodman put you in charge of half the class and sent you into a separate classroom—so you couldn’t just skip out on her. You went to her first, so she would know not to count on you that one day, and then to Mr. Weinheimer to confirm he had some time to work with you right after Calculus class.

Mr, Weinheimer didn’t know you had never asked another teacher for help in all your years of schooling. But he was kind and respectful.  He spent time with you at the board, demonstrating a problem of the kind you got completely wrong on the test. He reviewed and explained the operations and the underlying rationale for the operations, and then he offered you a few sample problems to solve. You worked them out and talked them through on the board, just as he had been doing. In the wake of his new explanations, the lights turned on for you! You were able to solve several problems in a row and explain them to him. You regained your confidence. You began to get over the humiliation of failing the test so dramatically.

On departing the classroom and heading up to Mrs. Rodman’s class, remember how filled you were with gratitude?  You had a lump in your throat, but you were smiling inside.

When you get to college, don’t wait till you are floundering in a class—or even falling behind a little bit. Your experience will be richer, more satisfying, and more fun if you reach out for mentoring and guidance and support. Forget about self-reliance. And forget about Charlie! He’s probably going to MIT anyway.

Profile photo of Dale Borman Fink Dale Borman Fink
Dale Borman Fink retired in 2020 from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, MA, where he taught courses related to research methods, early childhood education, special education, and children’s literature. Prior to that he was involved in childcare, after-school care, and support for the families of children with disabilities. Among his books are Making a Place for Kids with Disabilities (2000) Control the Climate, Not the Children: Discipline in School Age Care (1995), and a children’s book, Mr. Silver and Mrs. Gold (1980). In 2018, he edited a volume of his father's recollections, called SHOPKEEPER'S SON.

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Characterizations: been there, funny, moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Wonderful Dale, and I know you became the kind of teacher YOUR students sought out!

    The writer EM Forster urged us to, “Only connect”!

  2. Suzy says:

    Oh Dale, if only someone had given ME that advice! I never went to talk to any professor (or high school teacher for that matter) about anything, and I’m sure my college experience would have been infinitely better if I had. The light just went on in my brain, a mere 52 years too late!

    • No one gave me this advice and I never did this either, and consequently I developed NO personal bonds with faculty or even grad students. I took the prompt very seriously and really believe I could have used that kind of advice. And I do believe it would have made a difference. (And I do see how much students who do that now gain in terms of the quality of their experience; and as Dana suggested, that includes students who came to me to talk or for help.)

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    This sounds like very sound advice, Dale. Maybe even the advice given from someone who’s had the vantage point of a being a teacher himself. And I enjoyed your last line. It gave me a chuckle.

  4. A very pointed letter about a specific topic that obviously meant and still means a great deal to you. I had never heard of mentoring when I was in school; now of course it’s widely recognized. There were a handful of teachers I both adored and admired that I wish I’d been encouraged to approach…I feel sure it would have had a profound impact on my life. (Maybe next time around.)

  5. Oh how I wish someone had given me advice like this, or any guidance at all during school, for that matter. Like Suzy, I never spoke to any of my teachers or professors, in high school because I didn’t need to and in college because of fear. How different I would be if I could do it over. Good story, Dale.

  6. Marian says:

    An enlightened and heartfelt story, Dale. I had little mentoring in high school and didn’t seek it out, and I could have used help in math (my dad did help me). College turned out to be a gift, because Mills was such a small school that many of us, including me, spent time with our professors during their office hours, and even in their homes (there was a small faculty “village” on campus where some of the professors lived). This led to close bonds that lasted years.

  7. Laurie Levy says:

    This is a great letter, Dale. Mentoring is such a powerful tool to learning. It cuts both ways and can make a profound impact on the trajectory of people’s lives.

  8. Wonderful sentiment, Dale, especially for the young gentlemen among us who still can’t even stop and ask directions until we’re “…lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s Easter time, too.” — b. dylan I did finally learn how to learn, but not until I stumbled alone through everything from love to graduation.

  9. Khati Hendry says:

    This is great advice Dale. You must have been a good educator. Like many others who responded, I had no mentoring relationships with teachers and never thought to press the matter. Maybe part of the imposter syndrome. As I continued in work situations, I also had no mentors, although I read about the benefit, and wished I had that support. Your advice might have spurred me to seek it out at the risk of rejection, instead of just wishing. Now I wonder if I have anything worth sharing with others, and perhaps the lesson is not to wonder, but just do it.

  10. Jeff Gerken says:

    My own story touches on this very topic, the need to seek help. When you have always been at the top of your class, in every class, and then find yourself in a situation where you don’t really understand what is going on, it can seem like a failure to ask for help. I wish I had realized that asking for help was OK when I went to college.

    Now, I tell my students every time I see them that part of my job is to answer their questions and take as much time as needed to ensure that they understand the material.

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