• Defining Moment

    They're Number One

    A PT and an inaugural PTA class experience personal and professional growth.

    Listen to 'Defining Moment'

    Author Defining Moment

    I imagine the scene.

    Graduation finally is here. Excitement, anticipation, and pride fill the room. The students fidget, exchange war stories, take quick peeks now and then to see if their special guests have arrived and are properly seated. Having successfully navigated their intense 2 year-program to become physical therapist assistants (PTAs), they're perhaps nervous that a well-intentioned relative or loved one will embarrass them after the ceremony by pinching their cheek or hugging them a little too long.

    During the event, their thoughts bounce in a million different directions—from "How long is this guy going to talk!" to "I wonder if I'll ever see that classmate again" to, finally, "Soon I'll actually be helping patients and clients!" As program coordinator of a brand-new PTA education program and 1 of this inaugural class's instructors, I'm sure my own thoughts will turn to the journey, the moment, and what lies ahead for the graduates and for me in this happy incarnation of my career.

    Now, back to the beginning. It all started when local health care officials participating in college "visioning" meetings in 2012 identified the need. Once all of the surveys, meetings, and investigations were completed, the decision was made that the community wanted and needed a PTA program. The local news media got the word out. The response was strong and immediate from potential candidates interested in the prospect of rewarding and good-paying jobs in a field with a bright future.

    Bursting with enthusiasm, they converged on faculty with endless questions, hoping they'd have what it took to make the cut. We watched their faces as reality set in: "Are my grades good enough?" "What else do I need to do to be selected?" And, last but hardly least, "How in heck am I going to pay for this?"

    On November 7, 2014, the names of those who had been accepted into the inaugural class were announced. Most of those on the list quickly accepted the offer. Two months later, the "Number Ones," as I called them, began their odyssey.

    On orientation day, they were ready to get down to business and looked the part: well-groomed and crisply dressed. Most arrived early. Their postures were straight. They were attentive to every sight and sound. We, the faculty, were excited by what we saw. (But, like them, we also were a little nervous.) As the ice broke over the ensuing hours, this group of strangers began to develop supportive and lasting relationships. While they would continue to ask themselves questions ("Am I good enough?" "Can I do this?"), worries faded as they realized they were all in the same boat.

    These Number Ones were a diverse group. The gender mix was typical for this type of program—4 times more women than men. The ages ranged from 21 to past 50. Two of them were new mothers, with infants less than 3 months old. Several had children at home and also had to work part-time jobs to make ends meet. One had decided to change careers. All of them had put in the required time and effort and came to us with a strong academic background.

    As the first semester progressed, it was clear to me that this group was special. Their determination was sometimes challenged, but it never broke. Most had made good grades before, but even the 1-time "A" students foundered at times as the depth, breadth, and intensity of the coursework sank in. We faculty members read shock, frustration, and confusion on their faces and in their body language. We saw self-doubt and sometimes anger. The skill checkoffs and practical examinations began, and the dreaded words "Failed; you must retake" were uttered. But instead of folding their tents and conceding defeat, the Number Ones rallied to one another's sides, confronted the barriers together, and knocked them down. By semester's end, 100% of them were successful.

    The next challenge was their first clinical rotation: going into the world, working with actual patients, and handling a full-time schedule—all while paying for the "pleasure." As we faculty members visited students at the clinics, though, we were deeply impressed by what we heard. It turned out that our physical therapist colleagues—who, like me, know from their own school days what it's like to grope and stumble through that first rotation—were highly impressed with this group of first-year students from a new program. "Very professional," I heard from one. "Knowledge and skills that match those of second-year students I've had," another told me. And then this, from a third: "Your program's off to a very strong start. We're proud to be associated with you."

    This entire time, we were toiling under the pressures of completing the accreditation self-study while we did everything possible to ensure the personal growth of our students and the growth of the program itself. We were all humbly aware of, and deeply gratified by, this opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of students, the vitality of the profession, and the health of our community. It reignited the passion and drive that fuels us as educators.

    Before we knew it, the Number Ones returned from their rotations for their second and last "book and learn" semester. The intensity and depth of the content ratcheted up, as did our expectations of these students. By the third week, exhaustion was setting in. Emotions flared. And then it happened. It was time for "The Talk."

    What I wanted to tell them was "Stop whining and complaining!" Or, "Pull up your big boy and big girl pants!" Or, more succinctly, "Suck it up!" Or, even more pointedly, "Really?!" But that would be just my emotion talking—or, rather, not talking, because I said none of those things.

    I believed in these students. So, I entered the room with the entire faculty and dean in tow. We sat in front of the Number Ones and had an adult, respectful conversation with them that was both entirely truthful and utterly devoid of finger-pointing. We told them what they needed to hear, and what they needed to do to get past this bump in the road. We treated them with the respect they deserved and had earned.

    Once again, as has been the case so many times before, they did not disappoint us. They listened intently. They responded with acute self-awareness. They acknowledged what needed to be done and assured us that they're all about moving forward, not backward.

    And I thought I was proud of them before this moment! I'm reminded of a quote by noted educator and instructional coach Sean Junkins: "So often you find that the students you're trying to inspire are the ones that end up inspiring you."

    This group will graduate in spring 2017. Which brings me back to my vision of that day.

    Yes, I'll feel pride and satisfaction. I'll be a little sad, too, as I watch my Number Ones leave the nest. I'll pray for their continued success, and will thank each of them for their role in my own professional and personal growth.

    I'll no doubt reflect, too, on how my late-career turn to academia renewed my fire for this great profession and deepened my appreciation for all of my PT and PTA brothers and sisters.

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