Developing Your Education Style

When I first started practicing in the emergency department after PA school, I had a physician mentor who would frequently remind me that it will take time to develop my “style” regarding patient care. While I had spent the last 28 months of training familiarizing myself with the standards of care for numerous disease processes, applying my healing approach to my patients — or my “style” — would require additional time and tweaking.

My first months transitioning into academia were no different, as I worked to appose my approach to interacting with students as I had my patients. I also found myself reflecting on my own experiences with professors over the years as a student. Who challenged me? Who inspired me? What traits made the ones I remembered most stand out?

We have all had teachers or colleagues who fall on a spectrum, from rigid, firm, tough, and authoritarian to flexible, nurturing, approachable, and encouraging. What kind of PA educator did I want to be? What was going to be my education style? Here are a few strategies that helped me find my footing during my first few years in education.

Where to Start

It’s important to remind yourself that there is a reason you chose to enter PA education — maybe you even felt “called” to be an educator. Not only do you have the opportunity to share and build upon your prior experiences, but you also bring fresh energy and new ideas and can make an immediate contribution to your program. I began by taking a self-assessment or inventory of my strengths and weaknesses. Although some of these characteristics are inherent in personality, background, and experiences, I focused directly on things that I thought I could improve.

Then I reflected upon some my favorite teachers and mentors over the years and how I could emulate certain characteristics that allowed them to make a connection with me and stimulate my desire to learn. I also reached out to my peers; I observed them in the classroom and in their student interactions. I asked questions, listened, and took mental notes of what worked best and how I could inspire and connect with students.

Teaching Matters

Most of us would agree that we gravitated toward education because of the desire to teach. We find great fulfillment in being valued as a teacher and advisor by our students. It isn’t, however, one size fits all. We all need to find that mix of what works for most students, but still allows us to bring in our unique style. We also have to be receptive to feedback. Teaching evaluations are a vital component at academic institutions in the determination of promotion and tenure, and most of us find we become a better teacher with experience. Although repetition and experience will ease anxieties related to developing into an effective teacher, feedback from your peers and student evaluations of teaching, especially those that are constructive, are beneficial.

I also found that reflecting upon and writing a teaching philosophy was a great way to start. Most of us are grounded in how we were taught in PA school, and from that base we can build our own style. It was helpful for me to think about how I could use that foundation while also looking at innovative ways to relay large amounts of complicated medical information to my students.

Finally, as painful as it can be, I found that recording a few of my own lectures with observant critiques from myself and others was an invaluable tool to help me shape my approach. Ultimately, everyone has a different style in the classroom, and it takes time and feedback to become a highly effective educator.

Putting It All Together

It will take time, self-reflection, trial and error, feedback, and focus to find your “education style,” but you will get there. Like medicine, teaching is as much art as science. Every student is different; they have different degrees, backgrounds, and learning styles. Over time, you will build your skill set, try new methods, consider feedback, adapt your style, and build confidence while earning the respect of your students and colleagues.

So where do I fall on the spectrum of education style? I would say somewhere in the middle, with the perception of being more “mentor-like.” When a student enters our program, my approach has been to do whatever I can to provide that student with the necessary tools to be a competent and compassionate clinician. I believe in challenging students academically while establishing a foundation for professionalism and firmly adhering to departmental policies and procedures. I have also found that demonstrating fairness, expressing empathy, and advocating for students helps them succeed. PA students are savvy enough at this level to know when a faculty member cares about them (and their education); this is often reflected on teaching evaluations.

When I was starting out, a mentor at another PA program gave me some sound advice that sticks with me to this day: “Always be the person who encourages, motivates, and supports.” I remember this in my daily encounters with students as these interactions are a reminder as to why I became a PA educator in the first place.