Excellent question. Do not feel like an idiot for asking this. I remember my first EMT course. The instructor kept stressing the importance of maintaining and airway but it never seemed like he talked a lot about how to do it.
This might be as simple as positioning the patient in the optimal position to promote air exchange. If the patient is conscious, unless you need to insert an assistive device or assist ventilations, allow them to assume a position that will maximize their ventilatory effort. This will typically be sitting upright and probably leaning forward in what is referred to as the tripod position (they will lean forward and support themselves with an outstretched arm).
If they are unresponsive or unable to support themselves in a sitting position you will more than likely need to lay them supine to manage their airway.
If you need to support their airway, your first intervention should be a manual airway maneuver, of which there are 2 that I usually use: the head tilt - chin lift or the modified jaw thrust. Although most references recommend using the head tilt - chin lift in the absence of known/suspected trauma, I prefer to use the modified jaw thrust on all unresponsive patients.
Regardless of which maneuver you use, after you open the patient's mouth, look inside for and clear any foreign object that you find. The patient might require suction, manual removal of a foreign body, or even the application of sub-diaphragmatic abdominal thrusts to clear a foreign body obstruction.
At this time, if the patient is still unresponsive I will usually insert an airway adjunct - either an oropharyngeal airway if there is no gag reflex or a nasopharyngeal airway in the presence of an intact gag reflex. If I place a nasopharyngeal airway I usually place one in both nares as well.
I know that breathing comes after the airway, but while all you are taking care of the airway try and provide supplemental oxygen by blow by to support any spontaneous respiratory effort that the patient might have and be prepared to assist ventilations with a resuscitation bag after you have established an airway.
I have included a link to the 2002 Airway Supplement to the 1994 USDOT EMT-Basic Curriculum Module 2/Lesson 2-1-2:Airway
. While this module was developed for EMT Basic instruction, it is important to remember that basic airway maneuvers are the same regardless of level of training/education or certification.
Good luck in your future career, and don't ever become afraid of asking questions.