Learner perspectives: Teaching provides surprising opportunities to learn

By Teaching in Medicine Club – Student Executives

Every year, the Canadian Association of Medical Education (CAME) awards Certificates of Merit to medical school faculty members across the country who have shown exceptional commitment to medical education at their institutions.

This year, Drs. James Ross, Laura Foxcroft and Tamara Van Hooren have been recognized from the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry for their contributions. The Teaching in Medicine Club sat down to speak with two of the award winners, Dr. James Ross, psychiatrist and program director for the General Psychiatry residency program at Western, and Dr. Laura Foxcroft, emergency medicine doctor and the assistant dean, Faculty Wellbeing at Schulich Medicine, on their journeys and perspectives on teaching.

How and why did you get involved in teaching?

Dr. James Ross: I have been involved in medical education since my second year of residency. In my residency, they had teaching fellows which provided an opportunity to teach medical students. It was a fun and rewarding activity where I got to give talks and teach clinical skills. Teaching is a great way to hone your skills and impart your knowledge to others. It’s inherently rewarding; you get to see other people learn their skills and improve.

Dr. Laura Foxcroft: My area of academic expertise lies within faculty development and support. The award speaks to the two programs I have developed and currently lead: A faculty peer support program and a faculty mentorship program. I developed a curriculum for training faculty peer supporters and faculty mentors to support both programs. The training programs I developed are asynchronous and cased based and accredited by both the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons and the Canadian College of Family Physicians.

What makes someone a good educator?

JR: There are several factors. Empathy comes into play a lot, because you have to have a concept of where others are in their understanding of what you’re teaching. We should adapt our teaching to match the level that our learners are at. Some learners are very strong in one area, but it’s important to find the other areas where they might need some work, and then be able to work with them at that level. Being flexible and having strong communication skills are important; different people have different needs and will respond differently.

LF: For me, the first thing that makes a great educator is somebody who goes into the space of teaching with gratitude. Gratitude for being in that space to teach, whether that may be post-grad, undergrad or faculty level. I think to have a high degree of gratitude is key. The second thing is a high degree of passion for the subject you are teaching. In today’s context it is important to meet the learner where they are at and take advantage of technology and asynchronous learning formats with an interactive component, including case-based simulation, which enables experiential engagement.

Where do you see medical education going in the future?

JR: There’s a direction it could go in that I’m hoping it doesn’t: If we go too far down the rabbit hole collecting, using, and analyzing medical education data, we might lose the actual learning experience that people have. I’m hoping we make sure we maintain the humanistic aspect of the learning experience. I think the Centre for Education Research & Information (CERI) at Western has been good about that. They have a balance on how we use data in case-based learning, as well as the complexities of the learning experience and how we conceptualize knowledge. I’m hoping we embrace both of these aspects of learning rather than simply collecting data.

LF: I trained at McMaster Medical school, and at that time, they taught about lifelong learning. That’s where medical education is going because things are so rapidly changing. The other concept for the future is, instead of didactic teaching, bi-directional teaching. The person that is doing the teaching should be learning equally from the student. I think from my years of teaching, that is the wisdom I’ve gained. I learn just as much from the person I’m teaching, as they learn from me.  We need to be innovative with new learning tools such as podcasts, online and flipped classroom approaches.

Do you have any role models that helped you develop your teaching style?

JR: I’ve had quite a few mentors throughout my training. At McGill, where I trained, there was Dr. Fraser who was a fantastic interview skills teacher and great clinical supervisor. He emphasized that part of good teaching is having fun and starting a real conversation to provoke people into really thinking about a topic. Also, at McGill, Dr. Casacalenda knew everything; I’ll never live up to that, but he taught me that you have to be right up to date and know your stuff to be a good teacher. Residents might challenge you on things, so you need to be able to dig down and know what you’re talking about. Starting out here at Western, Dr. Hocke showed me how to run a committee and how to share administration and teaching duties. Dr. Reiss was a great teacher and supervisor who provided me the opportunity to run committees and make decisions with his guidance. I’m probably forgetting some other key people, too!

LF: I have had many role models as teachers. When I was a medical student at McMaster University, I had two role models for teaching: Dr. Patty Vann (rural family medicine) and Dr. Ross Pennie (infectious diseases). Both of these educators where able to teach medical students in a way that was practical and engaging. In residency at Queens University, Dr. Lois MacDonald was my role model for teaching. In ER to this day, I still teach the “Lois MacDonald approach to epistaxis.”  She was an educator who was clear, direct and evidence based. Once I was a faculty member, the role model that I had for teaching at Schulich was Dr. Bertha Garcia. I was inspired by the way Dr. Garcia taught faculty about the academic promotion process. This was a topic that was often scary and vague to faculty. She taught in a way that was both supportive and clear. My teaching style has evolved over time. For me, it is very important to meet faculty where they are at and develop curriculum and innovative platforms that suit their unique needs. 

Could you give one piece of advice to medical students interested in teaching/curriculum development?

JR: I think if you’re interested in teaching it’s important to find as many opportunities as you can to teach, and the rest will come with the experience. Once you’re in something and see what it’s about, you may identify something you feel you could improve upon, and that’s when the ideas will come to you. If you think you want to teach but are not sure what you would bring to it, that’s when it’s important to get involved and then you will start getting ideas. It’s hard to think what you can bring to it if you haven’t put your feet in the water yet. Don’t turn down opportunities to things that look interesting, but make sure you maintain a balance in your life. Opportunities may lead you down surprising avenues.

LF: Teaching is really your best learning opportunity. Never shy away from it and always look for opportunities to teach, whether it may be traditional or non-traditional. When you are teaching somebody, you are also learning yourself, and this really contributes to that lifelong learning. It is important to use the networks and resources that are available to help you in developing innovative curriculum. For me, the talent in the Department of Continuing Professional Development at Schulich was helpful in delivering curriculum that met faculty where they are at.

Advice for medical students trying to find a mentor?

JR: When I first started off in medicine, I tried to do everything myself and told myself that I didn’t need help. It’s important to recognize early on that other people’s experiences can be tremendously valuable. It’s essential to reach out to people who you aspire to, can work with, or can give you advice. Mentorship doesn’t have to be formal. If you see somebody who’s teaching style you really like, or you think you can learn something from them, it’s a matter of making sure you seek out the opportunity to work with them and ask them questions. Mentors can also lead us to new opportunities that we never knew existed.

LF: Never limit yourself. Even if you think someone would be a great mentor, but they live half-way around the world. The possibilities are endless. Never limit yourself with who to ask to be your mentor. The worst that they could say is no. And then always recognize that your mentorship needs change over the span of your career. So, someone who is a great mentor for you as a medical student may not be great for you as a resident or as a faculty member, five years or 20 years in! Recognizing that is important. I’ve collected many mentors over the years, all for different aspects of my career.

The Teaching in Medicine Club is a student-run group with a focus on developing passionate medical educators through career exploration and skill building. Teaching in Medicine Club – Student Executives contributing to this piece are Schulich medical students Dhuvaraha Srikrishnaraj, Class of 2025; Dan Wilsdon, Class of 2025; Josh Jesin, Class of 2024; Laurel McGillis, Class of 2025; Brianna Ananthan, Class of 2025; Alexandra Welten, Class of 2026, Veronica Grad, Class of 2026; and, Aisha Mohammed, Class of 2026.