Teaching as a Habit


Part 1 of Teaching Trilogy

Doctor comes from the Latin word “Docero”, which means teacher. Being a doctor is being a teacher. Teaching is a significant part of what we do every day. Teaching patients how to live healthier lives. Teaching trainees how to be better clinicians. Teaching colleagues how to better care for patients. We as clinicians encounter numerous teaching moments every day in clinic, on the wards and in the operating rooms. Even an act of changing a bandage dressing is a teaching moment for the patient and the trainee.  When you give a patient their diagnosis and management plan, that’s the most critical teaching encounter in that patient’s journey.

It is a myth that teaching only occurs in the context of lectures or tutorials. It is a myth that teaching only happens at medical schools or conferences in auditoriums. It is a myth that teaching only takes place on Grand Rounds or Professorial Teaching Rounds. Those platform-based podium-delivered teaching sessions are often held up as the epitome of teaching, but the doctor-teacher knows that they are merely one of many tools of teaching in his/her armamentarium. We spend so much more time on the job and less time on the lecture platform that we need to learn to utilise each day’s teaching moments effectively. I know that some of my most important life and surgical lessons were not learned from a lecture, but through a discussion over coffee (or beer) or before a procedure.

Apprenticeship used to be the way we learned medicine. We lived with a Jedi Master and learned their Art. In today’s modern business-centric Key-Performance-Indicator-focused world of Medicine, we don’t have the luxury of full immersion in a Master’s life, because there are 17 faculties and 15 trainees, etc. But at least we can maximise the use of any brief teaching moments we have with our teacher and trainees. Coffee time, surgical case turn-around time, ward round, delayed appointments, and many other spare moments that often do appear in our days, use them for teaching.

When others tell me “I’m not good at teaching”, they often really mean “I’m not comfortable doing public speaking” because they equate teaching with a lecture. Well, most of us are not born public speakers. Public speaking is a common fear. We need to be trained and to be taught some simple methods to overcome that fear and be comfortable with teaching in a group setting. But that is not necessarily where a lot of teaching happens. Even if you have true glossophobia (fear of public speaking), you can still be an outstanding teacher everyday on the wards, clinics and operating rooms. Some of my best teachers do not do public lectures, but they have taught me so much as I work alongside them.

So how do you become a teacher? How do you make teaching a habit? In my mind, the primary role of the teacher is as a learner who shares his/her discovery. A teacher is first of all a learner, a student. The best teachers are the best students. They have a curious mind. They are always learning. The great teachers are not the ones with the right answers, but the ones with the right questions. With their curious minds, they learn and digest information, and they share it with us their students in a way that is understandable. Simplified, but not simplistic. I have found that those I call great teachers are the ones who can simplify complex matters into concepts I can grasp and apply, because they themselves have digested and mastered those complexities.

When you think about an issue, when you are learning and comprehending a new topic, consider asking yourself “How can I teach this topic to my trainees?”, “How can I make this topic understandable?”, “What principles can I derive from this?”, “How can I summarise and simplify this?”, “What’s the big idea here?”. Once you start doing that as a habit, your mindset shifts into being a perpetual learner-teacher. The next time a trainee asks you a question about that topic, then you will be able to share what you have learned. You are a teacher.

Remember that the focus of teaching is neither the teacher nor the lesson. The focus is the student. The goal of teaching is to move a student forward from one place to the next, from a place of unknowing to knowing. When the teacher is the focus, it’s called self-marketing. I wanted to title this post “Teaching from the Heart” because the good teacher teaches from an altruistic place of sincerely wanting their students to succeed. The deepest satisfaction of the teacher is in seeing their students succeed.

We need to stop thinking of teaching as a monologue from a pulpit and start thinking of teaching as a regular conversational daily habit. Not a 30-minute lecture in the corridor, but a 5-minute conversation on a topic relevant to the trainee or patient or colleague. Let’s start developing some learner-teacher habits. Let’s turn learning and teaching into a perpetual lifestyle. Let’s see what we can do to help the people around us succeed. Don’t give them fish. Teach them how to fish so they can teach others how to fish.

In part 2 of this Teaching Trilogy I will outline some simple tips for Teaching on the Run while in Part 3 I shall discuss some general ideas around Teaching from a Platform.