What about Us: Becoming Better Teachers Through Relationships with Our Students


Tara A. Singh, MD
Instructor in Obstetrics and Gynecology at Harvard Medical School 
Clerkship Director of Obstetrics & Gynecology for HMS at Cambridge Health Alliance
Associate Director of HMS's Cambridge Integrated Clerkship
As part of our regular clinical practice, physician educators teach. The medical culture fosters a belief that teaching is a skill that comes naturally to most individuals, whereas, studies demonstrate that it is fostered and grows from the relationships and discussions with our colleagues, self-reflection and teaching opportunities1 What I have learned from teaching Obstetrics & Gynecology (OBGYN) in a longitudinal integrated clerkship for the past 10 years is that through the relationships we build, my students become my teachers, and from them I learn the most. At the start of the year, I know very little about how my student learns and interacts with people/patients just as my students know very little about my teaching and working style.  We are blank canvases to each other. I rely on previous experience, using the tools in my educational toolkit that I have collected over the years as an educator. In the first couple of months, we swing back and forth on the teeter-totter of OBGYN, trying to find the right balance of autonomy and supervision, each of us making small adjustments until we find our educational equilibrium. At this point, we could coast along, decidedly content to continue as is. I find that even at this state, I want to continue to learn, as the relationship we are forging matters.  
One such relationship stands out, as I reflect on my student of five years ago, CC. From the outset, he was intent on a career in Psychiatry, and OBGYN was a low priority for his learning. He would present to clinic and the operating room, do what was asked, but displayed a lack of interest in the work, and lack of desire to delve into learning in the field. As we saw each other in clinic every week, scrubbed together in the operating room and stood side-by-side to deliver our prenatal patients, we really started to know each other. I came to understand that he did not realize that general principles of every discipline would be useful to him in his future pursuits. He realized that I was still invested regardless of what profession he chose.
As a teacher, our relationship encouraged me to examine how to engage a learner in OBGYN, and I became a mentor to him. We discussed the principles of good patient care, regardless of discipline, and the value of the patient-doctor relationship. CC forced me to think about my goals as an educator - to engage not just the students who are motivated and interested but also those who might appear apprehensive, or disinterested. I want to continue broadening my skill-set to reach many types of learners. Thus, the relationship I build with all learners is key not just for their learning but for my own motivation and growth.
CC taught me to reflect on how and why I teach, and fostered a desire in me to improve, in order to help the next generation of physicians with whom I will work, and who will ultimately take care of me. As both role model and mentor, I strive to emulate professional practice, and encourage student professional identity formation. I realize that my relationship with him, and with all students whom I have taught over the past 10 years, has helped me to grow to be a better teacher. In a recent correspondence with CC, he so thoughtfully wrote: "I always felt how much you cared about me and my learning and have come to realize how special that is." I would like to thank him, and all students, for those relationships we have built. What I have learned in the past 10 years as a physician educator will only benefit more students to come. I hope that this role modeling will inspire my students to continue to learn, and incorporate education into their practices, for both the benefit of other students and their patients.