For nearly two decades, I have been in medical education, teaching students, residents, and faculty. I spent years honing my skills—practicing facilitation, using new technologies, and enabling respectful bedside teaching. I spent years listening to feedback to improve these skills. Skills. I had simplified teaching to just that—a set of skills to complete a task. Often, we, as teachers, forget that real teaching occurs in the space created where learning actually occurs (versus where we presume it occurs). Subsequently, new spaces for further teaching and learning are created. And teachers commonly learn right alongside learners. Now my learners are usually faculty, as I have given more than 400 workshops in the past 10 years. I was recently reminded how we, as teachers, wrestle with personally difficult subjects and create a space for bidirectional learning, regardless of learner level.
I was working on a workshop called Overcoming the Gender Gap. I was scheduled to deliver this workshop eight times in five months to probably more than 300 various faculty in eight hospitals. Borrowing a slide deck from a trusted colleague, I thought, “This will be a breeze.” I merely had to update the slides with my knowledge and reorganize the deck. After looking at the slides, though, I had a visceral reaction: I wanted to do a good job. No, I wanted to do a fabulous job! It was an important topic. One that needed to stir learner conversation.
Initially I approached the workshop objectively to make it evidence based and nonoffensive, safe for the audience and myself. But my own reflection on the subject was causing me angst. Would real learning about this topic occur if I was safe? How would I manage the discussion? I went back to the task, to my practiced skills. I was here to deliver information to my learners. I researched. I timed. I perfected PowerPoint. Yet I was still struggling. What was my issue? I had taught on multiple subjects with which I had personal experience. But this was personal, emotional. It all came flooding back to me—working 36 hours straight while being 38 weeks pregnant, performing a D&C the night after my own miscarriage, the jobs I didn’t take, feeling guilty for being at home, feeling guilty for being at work, making sure to not be too confrontational, and on and on. Then came the credibility concerns—am I a good-enough role model for young women physician–educators? If I don’t strive for the top leadership position, am I being weak, or is it that I can’t do it, or am I role modeling choice? Then I panicked about the potential audience questions. For a moment, I thought about canceling and coming up with something easier, such as how to write narrative comments or bedside teaching.
During this time, I happened to be reading Parker Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach.1 I had momentarily forgotten that it wasn’t really my teaching skill that was critical, but the learners’ actual learning. Teachers connect students with a subject using their authenticity and vulnerability. But I wanted nothing to do with being vulnerable when it came to this topic. I kept reading the book because it ignited parts of my heart I had forgotten existed. I realized my real objective for this workshop was to get people talking, interacting with the subject so their curiosity would take over. The idea was that the learner (the faculty) and the teacher (me) would be learning together. I completely changed how I approached the workshop. I decided that, even though I wanted to be factual, I needed to remind the learners how their personal backgrounds and values would influence, and be almost inseparable from, this topic. I added many sociologic aspects, such as commercials, mottos, and television characters, to connect people with the issues. I also gave a tangible example of how one family, with three generations of women, may have evolved in the workplace over six or seven decades.
I was still anxious the first time, not wanting too much discussion. I wasn’t sure how people would react. But it was surprisingly fun. The banter between faculty was thought-provoking. Often, I did not have the answers to questions. No one did. After every session, I received at least one e-mail, and often more, thanking me for creating conversation. Faculty also sent me videos and articles or told me a story I could use next time. I definitely learned as much from my students as they did from me. It was a reminder that teaching is not about the teacher, and it cannot be minimized to a set of skills. Subjects can be challenging for us as individuals, and that is acceptable and even needed in medicine. Teaching is about learning, curiosity, and community. I just needed a reminder from my students.
1. Palmer PJ. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. 2017.20th anniversary ed. Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass.