“How Can I Help?”

“How Can I Help?”

Written by: Angie Wiggins

November 29, 2023

In the pilot episode of the NBC television hospital drama, New Amsterdam, Dr. Max Goodwin arrives as the new medical director at a large urban hospital. Like public schools, New Amsterdam Hospital is busy, underfunded, staffed by stellar professionals, and packed with people who need help. Amid daily (or hourly!) crises, the hospital, like a public school, is full of opportunities to improve lives. On his first day on the job, Dr. Goodwin begins his tenure by asking his staff, “How can I help ?” This question becomes his trademark as he seeks to serve his employees and patients well. 

He begins, not by assuming that he already knows their needs, but by wanting to learn them. Dr. Goodwin discovers that much of what people need can be easily achieved once identified. 

Rarely, however, do people ask teachers what they need. Instead, parents, legislators, and the general public throw unsolicited suggestions and mandates at them, convinced they know what teachers need.

As an Instructional Assistant (with admittedly far less power and prestige than a Hospital Medical Director), I have the opportunity to learn teachers’ needs and try to meet them. I have adopted Dr. Goodwin’s approach as my mantra. When I walk into a teacher’s classroom, I greet them and ask, “How can I support you today?”

This open-ended question reminds me my function is to help the teacher with their actual needs, not their needs as I may perceive them. One day the teacher may need my administrative help or want me to work with students in small groups. And the next day may find me as a wandering presence among the students while the teacher presents new information. Frequently, it means me anticipating students’ needs by delivering tissues or pencils to their desks with as little classroom disruption as possible. Listening to the teacher’s answers to my question directs my role.

“If I do my job effectively, my efforts will help create a smoothly functioning classroom, but will hopefully go beyond that.”

If I do my job effectively, my efforts will help create a smoothly functioning classroom, but will hopefully go beyond that. For example, my being a support to the teacher can produce a collaborative relationship allowing us to bounce ideas off each other to make instructional time more valuable or help individual students. And perhaps most importantly, the teacher and I will both have more time and energy to develop relationships with students. The students will have two supportive adults in the room who are their cheerleaders!

A teacher and a student going over a book together.
Photo by Ben Iwara on Unsplash+

While it is vital for me to listen to the teacher when they describe the help they need, it is also my responsibility to try to anticipate the teacher’s needs before they speak. I can do this by looking ahead at the curriculum and the teacher’s Canvas page to become familiar with upcoming assignments and concepts. When I see a teacher about to hand out papers, I can do that so that the teacher can deliver the lesson plan without interruption. When I see a student struggling with self-control, I can stand near the student or give them a little extra attention, hopefully preventing behavioral issues.

Developing this type of working relationship may come easily, but in most cases will require some time and some missteps. While one teacher may consider it supportive when I hand a student a pencil, a different teacher may view that as me enabling the student. Some teachers may love me being at the door helping to greet students, but that may feel like overstepping to other teachers. If my true goal is to be a support, I will need to make sure the lines of communication are open. When I get to know a teacher, I ask questions and observe the teacher’s preferences and priorities. Being open to the teacher’s feedback to me, even if it stings, can only strengthen the relationship.

“While having two professional adults in a classroom will inevitably come with some clashes, the potential benefits are well worth the effort.”

While having two professional adults in a classroom will inevitably come with some clashes, the potential benefits are well worth the effort.

Everything I do in a classroom should be with the aim of helping a busy teacher make the most of the time they have with their students. The teacher should always know I am on their side, ready to support them anyway I can.

Like a busy doctor in a large hospital, teachers manage the needs of countless people every moment. As an Instructional Assistant, I hope to make their job easier by asking, “How can I help?”



Please login or register to claim PGPs.

Alternatively, you may use the PGP Request Form if you prefer to not register an account.


  • Angie Wiggins

    In her 28 years of education, Angie Wiggins has held roles in public schools, private schools, homeschool settings, and alternative education. Currently, she is an Instructional Assistant at North Central High School and serves as a coordinator of educational programming for students in local refugee communities. She’s a wife and a mom to 3 fabulous teenage young women.

Send this to a friend