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Why every medical student should also be a teacher

All medical students should have the opportunity to teach, writes fourth-year medical student Nathaniel Fleming.

One of the perks of spending an extra year in medical school – in my case, to pursue a master’s degree in epidemiology – is that I have extra time to devote to teaching. This year, I’m working as a teaching assistant for two of the required courses for the first- and second-year medical students. This has been a great opportunity, and I wanted to share a few of the reasons why I think that all medical students should have the opportunity to teach.

Teaching establishes a culture of mentorship within the MD program

Because all of the required pre-clinical classes are segregated by class year, one of the best ways to establish connections within the medical school is via the teaching assistant program. Navigating medical school is a huge undertaking, and having fellow students as a resource for advice and support makes all the difference. I’ve relied on my former TAs for help and advice many times, and the strength of the culture of “near-peer” mentorship is one of the things that sets Stanford’s program apart.

Getting a fresh look at the material

It’s one thing to know course material well enough to pass a class, but to teach it to new students requires a different set of eyes and a deeper understanding. After having spent over a year on rotations, coming back to some of the pre-clinical course material has been a great challenge. I’ve reviewed and solidified a lot of material, but more importantly have learned many new things as well. More importantly, having real-world context for how we apply our knowledge in the clinical setting shows the material in a completely new light.

Preparation for a future career

For anybody going into academic medicine, this is a no-brainer: We’ll all end up teaching students or residents at some point, and establishing strong communication and leadership skills early in our training is invaluable. Even for those going into private practice, there’s no doubt that teaching skills translate well into some of the leadership qualities and team-building skills that are critical to success in the medical field – after all, medicine is always a team sport.

Teaching allows you to leave your mark on medical education

Medical education and curriculum design is notoriously challenging. There is relatively little agreement about the best way to disseminate a massive amount of material to students in a relatively short time period – or even what material is worth disseminating. As many medical schools undergo curriculum reforms, serving as a teacher is one of the best ways to get involved in the process and advocate for current medical students. As students ourselves, we understand better than anybody the student perspective; this is especially important in the digital age, which has brought a new set of learning methods and resources that were not available to previous generations of medical students. As such, teaching assistants have an unparalleled opportunity to serve as the bridge between students and faculty to help to close this gap and bring medical education into the 21st century.

Stanford Medicine Unplugged is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week during the academic year; the entire blog series can be found in the Stanford Medicine Unplugged category. 

Nathaniel Fleming is a fourth-year medical student and a native Oregonian. His interests include health policy and clinical research. 

Photo by Wokandapix

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