Teachers who get an A+

What makes a great teacher stand apart from the pack?
Compiled by Nicole Endres

Enthusiastic. Knowledgeable. Funny. Organized. Passionate. Available.

When asked to name the qualities that make good teachers great, University of Minnesota Medical School students, professors, and administrators alike rattled off this list without hesitating.

And many also agreed that great teachers of medicine, specifically, must have an additional set of attributes to truly excel:

They’re patient. Compassionate. Great listeners. Able to provide context and relevance to real-life scenarios. Approachable. They’re simply good doctors — and good human beings.

“Everyone’s challenge is to make sure we’re producing humane, professional, mindful, good listeners who also have skills and the ability to think critically,” says Kathy Watson, M.D., senior associate dean for undergraduate medical education for the Medical School. “But a great clinical teacher can bring the patient’s story into all the discussion of the pathophysiology and statistics and science that weave that person’s story in skillfully, just by listening and having a conversation at the bedside or in the clinic.”

James Nixon, M.D., sees hundreds of students’ critiques of faculty members per year in his job as the Department of Medicine’s vice chair for education. And he has seen three common themes emerge from evaluations of the most highly rated teachers: they’re good with patients, they’re good diagnosticians, and they’re available.

“Part of it is just taking the time and making the time to realize there are students with you and that you were a student yourself not so long ago,” Nixon says. “It’s because someone took that time with you that you chose this field and were able to become a good doctor yourself. It’s the way we can all give back to the next generation, and, ultimately, they might be who’s taking care of us, so it’s to our benefit to make sure they’re good doctors as well.”

What makes someone a great teacher?

“A great teacher is inspirational. Teachers must love their subjects and must love to teach. Great teachers care about and respect their students and are passionate about helping students fulfill their potential.” 

— J. Brooks Jackson, M.D., M.B.A., Medical School dean and the University’s vice president for health sciences

“They ask you to take what you have learned and actively apply it to the world around us. They push you to tie together all the pieces, so that you have a fuller understanding and can think on your feet.”

— Brian Berglund, fourth-year medical student

“They’re role modeling all of the pieces of being a physician. So they’re nice to the patients, they’re nice to everybody who works in the hospital, they’re nice to the students, they’re pleasant to be around. The student could look at them and say, ‘Oh, that’s someone I want to be like when I’m done with my training.’”

— James Nixon, M.D., vice chair for education in the Department of Medicine

“I like a teacher who can incorporate some humor into their lecturing. No matter how interesting, every subject can get dry throughout the course of a semester. A great teacher, every once in a while, will land a good joke to keep students paying attention. Humor can relieve the tension in a room full of stressed-out, confused students.”

— Nate Juergens, second-year medical student

What stands out about the best teacher you’ve ever had?

“He was this person who just kind of seemed bigger than life. It seemed like he knew everything about everything related to being a doctor and had just this limitless knowledge. And not only did he have this limitless knowledge but he would teach you—however much time you had to learn, he would teach. He was great at the bedside with the patients and seemed to know everybody and could make a personal connection with them. He was very energetic and enthusiastic, and loved being a doctor and loved being a teacher. It just came through in everything he did.”

— James Nixon, M.D., on Dewayne Andrews, M.D., whom Nixon met on his internal medicine rotation at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, where Andrews is now executive dean

“He’s truly inspiring. He is so well read and has such fundamental knowledge. I always thought Dr. Severson could teach anything.”

— Interim Duluth regional campus dean Alan Johns, M.D., M.Ed., on Arlen Severson, Ph.D., a Medical School Duluth campus faculty member since the school opened its doors in 1972

“It’s the intangibles. She’s a brilliant surgeon. She just has phenomenal relationships with her patients. She is so empathetic.”

— Fourth-year medical student Maddy Lenhard, on Julie Switzer, M.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery

“They are super excited about their respective topics and have sharp senses of humor. Weinhaus has a pretty dry wit, almost to the point where you don’t know when he’s joking until a few months into the course, but it keeps you paying attention, waiting for a little gem. Katz is more theatrical, with each lecture like a one-man Broadway show. I found him hilarious; who knew that the kidney has so much built-in comedic material?”

— Second-year medical student Nate Juergens, on anatomy professor Anthony Weinhaus, Ph.D., and kidney physiology professor Stephen Katz, Ph.D., both in the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology

“George loves medicine. He loves talking with patients. He seems to have not forgotten anything about science. He meticulously and systematically applies scientific reasoning individualized to every patient, and he does it with fun and laughter. Mirth. He’s the best teacher I’ve ever seen.”

— Kathy Watson, M.D., on George Sarosi. M.D., whom Watson describes as having “won every teaching award ever” and who was chief of staff at the Minneapolis VA Health Care System while Watson was chief resident there in the early 1980s

“I had this kind of lengthy write-up about all these different things about what I thought was supposed to be in the write-up, and he said to me, ‘Well, what do you really think is going on?!’ He brought me front and center to the point.”

— Department of Family Medicine and Community Health professor Sharon Allen, M.D., Ph.D., who now poses the same question to her students, on her surgery rotation preceptor in medical school

Teaching tips from the pros

“As one of my own mentors once told me, I like to ask questions in a gentle Socratic method. What do they know about the problem we are seeing? What don’t they know about the problem we are seeing? What information do we need to search in the literature? I think asking questions engages the learner, helps them (and me) know what information they do not know, so then we can discuss the topic in further detail, emphasizing what is important to know and what else can we hope to learn in this situation.”

— Anne Blaes, M.D., an assistant professor of hematology/oncology and a recipient of the Medical School Year 3 Distinguished Clinical Teaching Award and the Educational Excellence Award for the Department of Medicine, among others

“Every good teacher says this: You have to be prepared to learn from and with the students.”

— Kathy Watson, M.D., a recipient of the All-University Distinguished Teaching Award and the Parker J. Palmer Courage to Teach Award from the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education

“You want to get to [your students’] level of understanding, which is sometimes a challenge because it’s comfortable to stay at your own level. Be flexible and be tuned in to where they are. And be responsive to them. Be willing to learn and be a student yourself.”

— Sharon Allen, M.D., Ph.D., who has received the Herz Faculty Teaching Development Award and the Outstanding Medical School Teacher Award in the Clinical Sciences and is a 2014 Harold S. Diehl Award winner

When you’re hiring new faculty members, how do you know you’ve got a great teacher in the room?

“I think a lot of the qualities are the same ones you look for when you admit a medical student. Really. You’re looking for someone with an intense curiosity and who is driven and focused on improving health and health care for groups and individuals and has a demonstrated track record. Who is a good critical thinker but original and open to new ideas. Adaptable. Someone who, above all, wants to teach for the patients and about the patients. Someone who is a good listener and really believes in the dynamic interaction that goes on. Someone who wants to keep growing.”

— Kathy Watson, M.D., senior associate dean for undergraduate medical education for the Medical School

Is there such a thing as a born teacher?

“That is one great question. Maybe a little bit. But I think we always overestimate how natural teaching is. Good teaching is a lot of hard work. If you a see a teacher [for whom teaching] seems like it’s pretty effortless, that person has put in a lot of hard work.”

— Alan Johns, M.D., M.Ed., interim Duluth regional campus dean

Published on March 24, 2015