Keeping the Home Fires Burning at Your Program

I have had a couple of absolute certainties in my life.

  • I was never going to be a teacher.
  • I was never going to be a program director again.

It seems humorous now that I look back on 23 years in PA education and two years into my latest stint as a program director — sometimes you just can’t predict the future. I know I am not the only one who has said “not me,” only to be surprised where life has taken me.

Over the past decade, the PA profession has reached a peak of popularity and respect not previously seen. We’ve gone from 54 accredited programs in the early 1980s to 196 programs in 2015. Current estimates from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant have at least 77 more programs in some stage of planning.

With success comes challenges, and with challenges, opportunity. In addition to finding sufficient high-quality clinical education sites, there is an unprecedented demand for faculty and the leadership for programs. Not a week  goes by without seeing multiple new faculty positions posted. As a profession that is only 50 years old, we haven’t yet quite figured out how to meet this demand. But PA and PA educational organization leadership are stepping up to fill this need — and as we all know, there is no time like the present.

Many who choose to become PAs do so because they see themselves taking care of patients, and ultimately, making a difference. Others may enjoy precepting students but don’t see themselves teaching in a more formal classroom setting where students have had five hours of lecture prior to their arrival. And the pressure in academia to produce scholarship and seek a terminal degree can be intimidating. They may be able to adeptly manage multiple patients in the emergency department but haven’t thought about how to manage the challenges in the educational setting.

So how do we develop the next generation of PA education faculty and leadership?

Think back to what brought each of us into education. Many of us have been inspired to become teachers because of a teacher who inspired us. I can’t forget my high school teacher Mr. Gierhart who taught me about the wonders of science, or Ms. Hoff who taught me how to effectively discuss the risks of procedures to patients, or Dr. Russ Bernard who taught me why good writing matters (I still hate him just a little). I echo what Rob Jenkins recently wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the four qualities of a powerful teacher –  even if you weren’t born with personality, presence, preparation, or passion, you can develop them. We all can think of people around us who have those attributes, or the seeds that just need to be nurtured. Over the years, I have been fortunate to have exemplary colleagues from many different backgrounds, and they all bring something unique to the table. So don’t hesitate to let others know that you see them as a future educator, whether a student or fellow clinician. If you don’t tell them, they may never think, “That could be me!”

Understand that we all have to start somewhere. Experienced clinicians often make great faculty. And recent graduates can as well. Keep an open mind and provide the right opportunities and mentorship, and you may be surprised at the wonderful teachers (and leaders) who emerge. Leadership opportunities such as the National Health Service Corps, the Paul Ambrose Scholars Program, or student leadership at the program, state, or national level can all help hone the skills of potential future educators. For new faculty starting at programs, what better resource than the PAEA PandoTM Basic or Intermediate Skills, or Clinical Coordinator workshops? The PAEA Leadership Development and Recruitment Council is another great way to develop future leaders.

Don’t Overlook Your Colleagues

Don’t forget to mentor and facilitate the development of faculty in your own program. You know how hard that first year can be. It can be difficult to read student evaluations for the first time or write test questions that aren’t ambiguous. For those who have already mastered the basics, find out what aspect of education they’d like to learn in more depth. Maybe it’s accreditation, program administration, or how to incorporate interprofessional research into their teacher-scholar activities. Find ways to foster development of these skills. One of my former mentors told me, “I strive to make every one of my faculty more successful than I am.” I took this to heart when I became a program director.

Along those same lines, acknowledge and give credit for the milestones and achievements of your faculty and colleagues along the way. What better way than to nominate a colleague for a PAEA award or to acknowledge an extraordinary preceptor by an honorary induction into the Pi Alpha Honor Society at graduation.

Understand that sometimes now isn’t the time. Career choices have a lot to do with whatever else is going on in our lives. Sometimes it’s not the right time to make that transition to education. But don’t let that stand in your way of asking someone to get involved in your program. Provide opportunities for them to be a preceptor, lead a small group, teach in their area of expertise, or show students how to master a new skill. You never know when that window of opportunity may open up for them to become an educator in the future!

Lastly, be willing to share. Every one of us in education has benefitted from those who came before us. Whether it’s a syllabus, teaching materials, exam questions, or a creative way to engage students in evidence-based medicine projects, sharing with new colleagues — and colleagues at new programs — is a hallmark of our collegiality in PA education. Don’t make them recreate the wheel. We all sit at the same big table — and we all want the same thing. I am grateful every day for those who came before me and who said, “Of course, I’d be glad to help you.”

In closing, that’s my two cents on the topic. Nothing magic, nothing someone hasn’t already thought of before. But sometimes it just takes doing all these things to see the results. You never know who is going to be just around the corner waiting for one of us to say, “I think you have the skills to be a great teacher (or program director). Tomorrow’s students — and their future patients — will thank you!