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Careers
Learning to teach

Abstract

In the third year of her PhD at Cambridge, Myfanwy Hill dipped into her skills toolbox to see what competences she has and what she still needs. So, with one eye on the newly fashionable ‘portfolio career’, and one eye on the unachieved goals on her bucket list, she signed up to teach undergraduate veterinary and medical students

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FOR my first teaching role, I was assigned first-year physiology and took on a group of 10 veterinary and medical students from my college for weekly small group teaching sessions.

If I had thought teaching a subject I had already passed (with reasonable marks), and that was closely allied to my general area of PhD study would be easy, I could not have been more wrong.

The knowledge that teaching was a very distinct skill should have been obvious to me; I come from a family of teachers, and like almost all of us, I recall with great clarity some of the best and worst teachers and lecturers I encountered throughout my long career in formal education.

I had, somewhat naively, assumed that if I knew the material, my good communication skills would be sufficient to explain and guide bright young minds through the minefields of the functioning organism.

Unsurprisingly, this was not the case, and I realised, thankfully very rapidly, that I would need to work much harder if I was going to help transform the blank, and all too frequently baffled, faces in front of me, in to expressions of trust and understanding.

Fortunately the university provided some formal training, but it didn’t really extend much beyond the basics, of ‘please make sure you turn up’, ‘don’t spoon feed them’, and ‘please make sure you actually mark and return their work in reasonable time’.

Armed with these most rudimentary of maxims, and some basic safeguarding information, it’s not surprising that I was a bit nervous during my first term of teaching. It was when I found myself standing on a table in a seminar room attempting to demonstrate the differences between passive and active muscle contractions to four perplexed first years that I really started to appreciate all the clinicians and lecturers who took the time to teach and explain things to me, both formally and, most importantly, informally during EMS. Not until this moment had I really recognised the skills necessary to explain things in a variety of different ways in order to work with different learning styles.

‘Until you’ve actually had to start teaching, it is impossible to appreciate what a specialised skill it is’

Teaching colleagues is fundamental to the structure of a veterinary education; the expectation that clinicians will help support and teach students is central to the structure of EMS, but until you’ve actually had to start teaching, it’s impossible to appreciate what a specialised skill it is, and it’s all too easy to presume you’ll be good at it, just because you’re good at the thing you’re teaching!

Thankfully I am surrounded by other young academics in a similar position, and through a variety of courses, a plethora of YouTube videos, and a lot of peer observations and discussion I have started to develop this new skill set.

I won’t profess to be a great teacher yet, but I’m learning, and importantly I really enjoy it. The experience of starting to teach formally has been incredibly rewarding, I’vefound enormous satisfaction in both the process of teaching, and in learning to teach; it’s an aspect of my academic career that I now love and hope to continue. Previously I had always seen teaching as a necessary evil in the pursuit of a career in academia, now I see it as an essential part of my own career fulfilment.

Myfanwy is writing a series of articles for Vet Record Careers about her experiences as a PhD student. Her previous articles are:

  • ‘Embarking on a PhD’ (VR, June 13, 2015, vol 176, pp i-ii, doi:10.1136/vr.h3171);

  • ‘Getting to grips with science’ (VR, November 7, 2015, vol 177, pp i-ii, doi:10.1136/vr.h5877);

  • ‘Challenges of a PhD’ (VR, February 13, 2016, vol 178, pp i-ii, doi: 10.1136/vr.i749);

  • ‘Getting on with a PhD in a changing political climate’ (VR, July 2, 2016, vol 179, pp i-ii, doi:10.1136/vr.i3560); and

  • Ups and downs of life as a PhD student (VR, October 22, 2016, vol 179, p i-ii, doi:10.1136/vr.i5608

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