Academy of Educators focuses on faculty professional development

Mary Klingensmith’s passion for medical education began in 1992, when she was a surgical intern directed to close an incision on a patient who had undergone a mastectomy.

“As was common in those days, my attending physician left the room,” recalled Klingensmith, MD, the Mary Culver Distinguished Professor and vice chair for education in the Department of Surgery at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “It was my first time closing a wound independently, and I felt horribly unprepared. Fortunately, the patient’s mastectomy scar ended up looking good, despite the anxiety I had knowing she’d live with the result of my handiwork. But it was on that day that I vowed to myself that I would find a better way to teach those who would come after me.”

Along with her work as a general surgeon at Barnes-Jewish Hospital (BJH) and the John Cochran VA Medical Center in St. Louis, Klingensmith has played key roles in reviewing and strengthening the university’s medical education programs. As a Loeb Teaching Fellow for four years, she helped develop a component of the medical school’s curriculum in which medical trainees practice clinical and communication skills in a hospital environment with sophisticated mannequins that simulate patients. Currently, she is the associate director of the Wood Simulation Center in the school’s Farrell Learning and Teaching Center. She has served as director of the general surgery residency program at BJH for 12 years and twice has acted as an interim associate dean for the medical school.

On a national level, Klingensmith has served as president of the Association for Surgical Education and chair of the American Board of Surgery. In the latter role, she spearheaded major revisions to national recertification requirements.

Her latest role involves leading the School of Medicine’s newly launched Academy of Educators, which aims to build a community of educators and train faculty in new, innovative and inspiring ways to teach in an academic medical setting.

“One of the challenges in academic medicine is that the majority of physicians, health professionals and scientists have no formal training as educators,” Klingensmith said. “The academy will help remedy this.”

The academy also dovetails with the School of Medicine’s ongoing efforts to revise its curriculum. “The academy is a key component of the overall plan,” said Eva Aagaard, MD, senior associate dean for education and the Carol B. and Jerome T. Loeb Professor of Medical Education. “Faculty professional development is imperative to the growth of our medical school. We are in good hands with Mary’s leadership.”

Klingensmith discussed the academy in more detail.

What is your vision for the Academy of Educators?

The academy aims to nurture a culture of excellence in education on the Washington University Medical Campus, across all departments and programs. My goal is to help all learners, from a first-year student in the Division of Biology & Biomedical Sciences program in a large lecture-based core class, to a second-year medical student accessing the latest technology for classroom instruction, to senior students, residents and fellows navigating the clinics and operating rooms. Academy fellows — the first of whom will be named this summer — will network with each other, promote educational excellence and assist in providing faculty development activities such as technology training or seminars on the latest, research-backed practices in medical education.

How is medical education changing for faculty instructors?

Our world has been transformed by changes in technology and scientific discovery. At the same time, there has been an explosion of knowledge in the science of learning and teaching. We know so much more today about how students learn than ever before. Yet many of our faculty are not equipped with the latest knowledge or the skills to teach effectively using creative and high-yield methods. At the same time, there is so much our students and trainees must learn and apply to achieve excellence in the care of patients and scientific discovery. By having a network of faculty who can provide instructional development to other faculty, we expect to see more innovative teaching methods across the medical school campus. The academy also will reward ingenious faculty with small grants to implement new curricula and programs.

What has the academy accomplished since its formation this spring?

The academy had a soft launch this spring with the Teaching Scholars Program, a certificate program for faculty who wish to develop themselves as better educators by taking a deep dive into curriculum design, assessment methods and leadership. This program is directed by Steve Taff, PhD, an associate professor of occupational therapy and of medicine.

We also have been planning a fall launch of Foundations in Teaching Skills, a certificate program primarily for instructors who are one to three years out of medical training. It will include a strong mentorship component. This program will be spearheaded by Dominique Cosco, MD, an associate professor of medicine who has led a similar program with Dr. Aagaard at the Society of General Internal Medicine. Dr. Cosco conducted several faculty development workshops this past spring, and we hope to expand over the coming year.

How does the academy fit in with the curriculum renewal efforts?

The medical curriculum renewal process will require an even greater number of innovative and knowledgeable faculty in the coming months and years. While a great number already have gotten involved, we realized we have a passionate and engaged faculty and many of them want to be more current on best practices in curriculum development, assessment methods or innovations for classroom and small-group learning. Through the academy, we will be able to strengthen and expand the number of passionate, excellent and engaged educators.

I’m happy because the academy supports much more than curriculum renewal efforts. For instance, the Graduate Medical Education program will benefit because of the great deal of learning that occurs at our partner hospitals, Barnes-Jewish Hospital and St. Louis Children’s Hospital. The tailored instructional programs for faculty in the Division of Biology & Biomedical Sciences are another example. This aims to improve teaching in classrooms and small groups and fosters mentorship in a research setting.

We’ve set an ambitious agenda, and we are looking forward to engaging with faculty in years to come. We also are interested in feedback and new ideas about what the academy can and should do to support our education faculty.

Why is academic medicine a passion of yours? 

It is for many reasons. First, I love the cycle of academia. It was such an inspiration to put on my academic regalia and participate in Commencement last month. I’m so proud of our students and what they have accomplished. I also am looking forward to celebrating our chief residents in our Graduate Medical Education programs when they graduate in late June. But before they leave, we will welcome all the new interns. I love this time of year because we celebrate both the incoming and the outgoing learners.

Education is a specific passion because I have seen how I can have a positive effect on the lives of my learners, who, in turn, impact our patients. When I finished my medical training in 1999 and landed at Washington University in 2000, I helped to develop a surgical skills laboratory where trainees could learn and practice things like closing incisions outside of the high-stakes, high-pressure environment of the operating room. I was fortunate that my idea was supported by Timothy J. Eberlein, MD, the Bixby Professor of Surgery and head of the Department of Surgery. The rest, as they say, is history.

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