I am a firm believer that one of the most effective ways to learn is through stories. Whether conveyed verbally, in writing, or in another way such as through film, narrative accounts offer a powerful way for us to learn.
I have been working on creating a list of multimedia materials centered around the stories of individuals with conditions addressed by occupational therapists. Here's a link to my list, to which I'll continue to add as I discover other sources in this category:
When I interviewed for my first job as an occupational therapist just after I had graduated from college, I was introduced to an OT who worked at the facility where I was hoping to land a position. "She has 20 years of experience in the field of OT," the rehab director told me as the OT and I shook hands.
I remember being awed by that number and by the expertise and mastery I felt certain she must have developed in that amount of time. From my perspective as a brand-new graduate, she seemed like a rock star, a clinician at the top of her profession with everything figured out in her career.
In what has seemed like the blink of an eye, I am that OT practitioner now, the one with over two decades of clinical experience under my belt. I've learned so much in my years as an occupational therapist, including - contrarily to what I thought back at the beginning of my career - that I'm not ever going to have everything in my career figured out. There will always be more to learn, other paths I can take, further professional development to pursue.
Looking back at the path of my career from this vantage point, there's not much I would change. I loved working as a school-based OT and feel that it was a natural development for me to move into the speciality area of assistive technology and, more recently, academia. One thing I would do differently, though, is to be more strategic in my approach to professional development. In the position I work in now, professional development is handled in a very organized manner, one that is tedious in nature but very beneficial, and I wish I had had that sense of direction much earlier in my career. I'm curious to know if other experienced OTs feel the same way. This is a topic I want to talk with the OT students I teach more about: How can an OT practitioner whose job doesn't require the development of an annual plan that includes goals and objectives for professional growth go about devising a strategy that can be implemented and monitored so as to direct the trajectory of the learning path? AOTA's Professional Development Tool is one way, and I'm sure there are others too. I keep thinking about this quote that comes from the title of a book on mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn and wondering (mostly tongue-in-cheek) how that relates to having a well thought out game plan for where one wants to end up.
Working with individuals receiving occupational therapy services, their caregivers, and others as an occupational therapist for the past 25 years has allowed me to be in the position of an educator almost on a daily basis, often in individual or small group formats. I feel that these experiences, along with my training as an OT and my studies as a doctoral student working towards my Ed.D., put me in a good position to teach students in an occupational therapy program. My mission as an OT educator is to lay the groundwork for students by instilling in them a sense of empathy; showing them the importance of follow-through; making sure they always remember that the consumers of OT services are individuals with varying backgrounds, values, motivations and dreams; conveying to them the message that it’s ok not to always know the answer – as long as you know how to find the answer; and promoting a sense of compassion, resourcefulness, self-confidence, and capability as they prepare to enter the field as occupational therapy practitioners.
My goal as an educator is to continue to strive to learn how to be most effective as a teacher and to never lose focus on the fact that I am always going to be a learner as much as I will be a teacher. As I have come to view things, not only is the instructor not always the expert on a particular subject, but it is perhaps the person who takes this idea to heart who is most effective as a teacher, as there is always more to learn and room for improvement in everything we do. I see the benefit of experiencing the gamut of emotions that comes from teaching, and I plan to keep my heart in the mix as much as I do my head. To teach, I realize – and to care as deeply as I do about teaching and about the students with whom I am fortunate enough to have in my classroom – offers many opportunities for vulnerability. Just as our students talk about the anxiety they feel as learners, we as instructors often experience the same emotions, maybe even on a larger scale. What we are doing as we stand at the lectern doesn’t translate into a grade that figures into a GPA: it has the potential to become part of the thread that is woven into the fabric of what makes up the lives of our students. As author Parker Palmer says, “Small wonder, then, that teaching tugs at the heart, opens the heart, even breaks the heart – and the more than one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be” (p. 11).
One thing that I have learned in my years of practice as an occupational therapist is the distinct value of tapping into the motivations of each person with whom I work as a way of respecting the uniqueness of that person as an individual. I strive to be transparent in my thinking process as I go about planning and executing OT interventions; I have come to think of this practice as out loud'ing and have found it to be helpful in establishing a connection with consumers of OT and their caregivers.
One of the things that has drawn me to into the arena of teaching as an OT educator over the past few years is the many similarities I have discovered that teaching has with the practice of occupational therapy. As such, it has become a goal of mine to out loud in my practice as an OT educator just as much as I have done over the years in my work as a clinician. My hope is that this site will provide insight into the out loud'ing process and to serve as a platform for an exchange of information related to the field of occupational therapy, clinical work for OT practitioners, and teaching and learning associated with education in occupational therapy and other healthcare professions.
Palmer, P. J. (2007). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Stephanie Lancaster, MS, OTR/L, ATP, CAPS is an occupational therapist with 25+ years of clinical experience. As an assistant professor, Stephanie trumpets the value of teaching and practicing in the field of OT in an "out loud" manner.