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“How can I help?” – where New Amsterdam gets it wrong.

Updated: Oct 8, 2021

If you’re like me, you’ve probably been up into the early hours of the morning binge watching. My latest fare, New Amsterdam. The series follows Max Goodwin, the newly appointed medical director at New Amsterdam hospital in New York. It is pretty clear from the outset, Max intends to do things a little different, firing every cardiac surgeon and asking his signature question “How can I help?”.


New Amsterdam is built on the premise that the employees of hospital are agentic. It is easy to ask, “How can I help?”, when you have a suite of doctors ready and willing to take agency in their own department. What the doctors in New Amsterdam are actually asking for most of the time is not help but rather support in the work they are already doing. This distinction fundamentally changes our understanding of the interaction and allows us to learn from it.


Recently I attended a session on educators using restorative justice. One of the key tenets of restorative justice is McCold and Wachtel’s (2003) social discipline window (pictured below).



The social discipline window was adapted to illustrate the fundamental shift needed for restorative practice to take place. Wachtel’s hypothesis maintains that the punitive and authoritarian TO mode and the permissive and paternalistic FOR mode are not as effective as the restorative, participatory, engaging with mode (2005).


Restorative practice argues that practice should be participatory, that we are working WITH people. Simply put, we aren’t telling people what to do (Authoritarian), we aren’t leaving them to their own devices (Neglectful) and we are not doing it for them (Permissive).


This is why ‘How can I help?” is a terrible question. The northwest and southwest corners of the social discipline window are easy to spot. It is often clear when a leader is neglectful or punitive. It is the permissive nature of some practitioners that is so often conflated with the restorative model. It would be like the medical director running the E.R. or cardiology, whilst the heads of those departments took a holiday. The conflation between permissive and participatory is what leads many to believing that restorative is a ‘no consequence’ model. Whilst it is true, that restorative focuses on restoring the relationship, that does not equate to people getting off scot-free. Each participant has a role to play in this framework.


The question teachers and leaders need to be asking is not “How can I help?” but rather “How can we work together to support change?” When we do this, we encourage agency from our students and staff, leading to meaningful shifts that are owned by the participant. When we operate in the north-east corner, we encourage real change.


So what stops us from operating in this corner?


Firstly, it is difficult. We are hardwired in the language of other modes of leadership. We revert to punitive and authoritarian practices under the guise of ‘delegation’ and ‘management’. In these models, our language focuses on competency as opposed to growth. We need to realign ourselves to a growth model, both for ourselves and those we lead.


One reason for shifting into the permissive space is that of time. You may be all too familiar with phrases like “if you want it done right, do it yourself”. In the interest of moving quickly, we will often take on the load of others, creating resources for them and in some cases doing the thinking for them. We then get frustrated that no one seems to do any work. This can sometimes be fuelled by a mentality that those in leadership are ‘paid’ to do this work. The same applies to the students we teach, how often do we feel as though we are doing the work for them? We need to reconsider the purpose of leaders and teachers, not as people who do the work but that enable and support others to thrive.


Lastly, working together is not something we’re necessarily rehearsed in. We often confuse collegiality as collaboration. Collaborative conversations about connections between the specifics of practice and what students know require a conversational shift from sharing to inquiring. When our conversations are about sharing activities, information and anecdotes as opposed to raising questions about learning goals and practices, we’re still operating in a silo (Nelson et al, 2010). We’re neglecting each other’s need for collaborative growth. We are working parallel to each other, as opposed to WITH each other.


We need to become aware of when we are operating in a neglectful, punitive or permissive manner. If we want to see real growth in our staff and students, we need to ask, “How can I work WITH you?” When we do this, we have a hope of building a New Amsterdam culture, one in which “How can I help?” becomes synonymous with change.



Helpful resources that helped inform this thinking:

In Pursuit of Paradigm: A Theory of Restorative Justice.

Nelson et al, (2010). Leading Deep Conversations in Collaborative Inquiry Groups

https://www.nzcer.org.nz/nzcerpress/books/teaching-north-east


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