Tuesday Aug 13, 2013

From Classroom to Med School and Back: Why I Love Teaching

I recently started a job that combines two things that I love: teaching and medicine. Although I've known for a long time what I wanted to do, it took me a while to get here. 

More than 13 years ago, I decided to leave graduate school at the University of North Carolina to pursue admission to medical school. At the time, I was three months into a master's degree in linguistics when I realized pursuing my doctorate in the field just wasn't for me. Although I needed the opportunity that graduate school had afforded me to be analytical and thoughtful, I didn’t see myself sitting in an office pouring over transcriptions of computer-mediated communication (i.e., Internet chat -- the topic of my master's thesis) for the rest of my life.

I was ready to turn around and head back to Kentucky when my mother, in that way that parents do, mentioned that medical schools might be less likely to admit a student who already bailed out of graduate school.

Best advice ever. Not because I loved linguistics, which I did, but because it made me stay at UNC. During my second year there, I became a teacher, and it changed my perspective completely.

The first time I stood in a class of my own, in front of 22 college freshmen, I sweated bullets. I felt insanely underqualified and unprepared despite hundreds of hours of education pedagogy and at least three weeks of completed lesson plans. Considering that I was teaching English composition, one of the classically hated requirements of college, the great triumph of that first day was capturing the attention of every student by correctly identifying that the Nigerian student in my class spoke Yoruba.

I loved spending that first semester learning to disseminate information, but also being a part of the development of my students' lives.   

After realizing that my teaching style really could include me sitting on a desk in the front of the room, answering students' cell phones that rang during my lecture and confiscating anything that didn't explicitly pertain to that day's subject matter, I never questioned that teaching is where I belong. 

But I did question what I should be teaching.

I started medical school, four years after finishing that master's degree, knowing that I would graduate looking to return to education. So, this past year, when the job search was finally upon me, I looked exclusively for academic jobs. 

I had been bombarded by countless job solicitations beginning in my first year of residency promising no call, no weekends, no OB, no inpatient, exotic parts of the country, the possibility of loan repayment. And, believe me, a future of no late-night awakenings and uninterrupted Saturdays had a certain appeal, but by the end of residency, I loved the hospital, labor and delivery, late nights, early mornings and the satisfaction of the breadth of what I can do.

The search began late for me; it was November before I started looking and March before I interviewed anywhere in person. I know many residents who did substantially more interviews than I did, who cultivated contacts for years, keeping up with hometown doctors who might be their ticket to a perfect job. I went to three in-person interviews, having done a few more phone interviews, but I knew I was not the right match for those places. I found two really wonderful job possibilities in interesting places, both very different from Milwaukee where I had been living.

I'm excited to start anew, finished with medical school and residency (and any other degree programs for a while!) as an assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. I’m excited to be able to continue in as full a spectrum of practice as I can and to teach and learn from medical students and residents.

Sometime close to the end of my intern year, I was contacted through Facebook by a young man who had been in one of the last English classes I taught. He wanted to tell me that he had decided to become an English teacher based, at least in some part, on his experience in my course. He added that he was still in contact with many of those classmates and that during a number of years of discussion, they all felt that my classroom had become a community. That conversation, and the hope that someday I might be honored with another like it, is why I continue to teach, to help students find that community, whether in medicine, linguistics, or life.

Sarah Tully Marks, M.D., is the resident member of the AAFP Board of Directors.

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