Podcast: Listen to 'This Is Why'
Why do I teach? It's a question I've sometimes asked myself at this time of year.
Teaching in a physical therapist assistant (PTA) education program is by far the most challenging thing I've done in my 28-year career. The hours can be long, and my work/life balance suffers. But in the summer, I catch up on reading and running, cook an occasional meal, clean the house. I still work—answering e-mails, attending the APTA House of Delegates, picking up days in the clinic, doing research, and writing. But I get to set my own schedule. September, then, is melancholy—until the students return to campus and remind me why I'm here.
Most of our PTA students are "non-traditional"—a bit older, with previous careers, some with college degrees. They may have chosen this path, or they may have been forced by economic or personal challenges to change careers. Our institution has a mission of serving people who've faced barriers to post-secondary education. Many are first-generation college students. Most hold jobs. Some are parents. Others are caregivers for aging family members. Our students may have physical or, more often, learning disabilities. English may not be their first language. Some have survived refugee camps.
I walk into the lab to welcome back the second-year students. They're excited and loud. "I like your haircut!" "Did you have a good summer?" Someone got married. Someone else's child is starting kindergarten. From girls in their 20s to men in their 60s, they're all people who matter to me. I realize I've missed them. Our curriculum is intense and our expectations high, but they're ready to hit the ground running.
"Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans," John Lennon famously said. That's the mantra of the non-traditional student. I have students who are dealing with life-altering events such as divorce, illness, or the death of a family member. They or someone close to them may be battling depression or an eating disorder. Problems related to unemployment, lack of health insurance, and homelessness are all too common. For most of them, summer is when they complete non-PTA program coursework—and work extra hours at the job, so they can cut back slightly when they start their 40-hour-a-week clinical experiences.
The second-year students welcome the first-years with words of wisdom. "You'll do great! "You won't believe how much you'll learn!" "The year goes by so fast!" Not a word about the long days (and nights) in the library and lab. No complaints about the stress of weekly testing or the family events they've missed. Only positives. They joke about the faculty, and we tease them back. Laughter fills the room. Before we know it, class is over. "Thanks!" "Have a great day!" The chatter is high-pitched, the energy level strong as they rush to their other lives.
People often ask me if I someday hope to teach in a DPT program—just as many PTAs get asked if they'll go back to school to become a physical therapist (PT). It's as if being a PTA (or a PTA educator) isn't quite good enough, or merely is a stepping stone to something "better." But just as most PTAs deliberately choose their path, so, too, have I selected mine. When I was a full-time clinician, my favorite patients were the ones with multiple barriers to success. It's the same in teaching. PTA students are amazing people with complicated stories. They make incredible sacrifices to improve their lives, and they deserve nothing less than equally committed faculty. If they can deal with the long hours and challenges of academia, so can I.
The physician and writer John Andrew Holmes once said, "There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up." Being a positive force in someone's life transformation is the greatest feeling ever.
As another summer ends, there's nowhere else I'd rather be than in that classroom. This is why I teach.
Holly Clynch, PT, DPT, MA, GCS, is the director of clinical education of, and an associate professor within, the PTA program at St Catherine University in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
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