Guest Column with John Morris

December 10 / 51

Dr John Morris is a Consultant Anaesthetist at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and a Clinical Teacher for the Medical School at the University. His teaching interests include Resuscitation and Advanced Airway Management and he is an examiner for the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists. He is enrolled in the Centre for the Sctudy of Higher Education's  Graduate Certificate in University Teaching.

We Can Be Heroes

It has been said everyone has an interest in education because everyone has experienced it, for good or ill. Everyone can remember educational experiences which were powerful and lasting and those which simply passed one by without touching or affecting the person we are; without talking to the inner us. We might think this is all down to the effects of a single, great teacher or conversely a parade of pretty useless ones, but can this really be true if learning is about what the student does and not what the teacher does?

There are two teaching heroes in my past who are primarily responsible for me being an anaesthetist today. One is my secondary school biology teacher and the other is a consultant anaesthetist with whom I spent a week as a final year medical student.

To get to medical school I needed high grades from a school which was not renowned for achieving them. To do it, I needed help. It came in the form of my biology teacher. In my mind, over the years, I have idealised him as a fantastically talented teacher and a charismatic man who pulled kids along to achieve good grades while filling them with knowledge. As I reflect on him now I realise I don't have a single recollection of his 'teaching'. Nothing.

What I do remember is he knew every single one of his students. He knew their backgrounds, their aspirations and what motivated them. I remember he took a keen interest in me, encouraging me to study and showing me what was coming next in classes. He pushed me to start reading for my A Levels before I had taken my O Levels. He did not accept poor performance in our assessments and he oozed enthusiasm for his subject. The learning habits he taught me in biology carried me through subjects I liked less and was less good at – he taught me the generic skills which I still rely on today. Without his guidance I could not have made it to medical school.

The anaesthetist who I spent a week with in final year med school had similar qualities. He simply loved his work and his enthusiasm was infectious. He used to say “there’s lots of science in anaesthesia – very exciting”. He had a fantastic relationship with all of his surgeons, nurses, technicians and indeed everyone he worked with, which allowed the whole team to function well. He took a keen interest in me, always questioning me about what we were doing, always including me in discussions about the patients. He sparked an interest in a subject I had not previously considered as a career as he went about his business, quietly modelling professional behaviour which I have yet to see bettered.

The University of Melbourne’s Nine Principles Guiding Teaching and Learning describe the conditions under which quality learning can happen and it was interesting for me to see how well my two educational heroes complied with this document. They fostered intellectual excitement, set clear academic expectations, encouraged experimentation (or creativity), provided feedback and re-assessment but above all they had the “explicit concern and support for individual development” which I consider to be the hallmark of a good teacher and a high quality learning environment.

A key factor in my formative years was the time and interest afforded to me by my teachers. This is hard to achieve in a busy clinical department when everyone has 'stuff' to do and is often neglected when it comes to course design. When speaking to students who came through our department, a frequent comment was that they thought they were "in the way" or a "nuisance". They were not getting the opportunity I had; that of an extended period with an enthusiastic professional demonstrating what their professional life might be like and showing just how important this anaesthesia stuff was.

The curriculum design exercise set as an assessment task in the Graduate Certificate in University Teaching course this semester led me to propose a raft of changes to my own course, but I believe fostering an environment where individual learners are welcomed and supported is the most important, and often the most difficult, change to make.

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