What's a Good Teacher Worth?

January 25, 2011

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By A. Gordon Smith, MD, AAN.com Education Editor

Why did you become a neurologist? Odds are pretty good that a teacher drew you to the field. I can certainly recall several professors and residents over the years who guided my career and led me to where I am now.

Good educators not only impart content knowledge, they inspire us. Those of us who practice in academic settings are charged with fulfilling three missions: patient care, research and teaching. While on the surface these are equally prioritized, most recognize this isn't true.

In the university setting, there is little doubt that research acumen is prioritized. Research success is of particular value because individual advances may affect innumerable patients. Funding, of course, supports faculty salary and departmental expenses, and high profile publications elevate individual and departmental stature. In a similar way, a single gifted educator impacts many students, and in turn, their patients and students. Yet unlike research, the "university system" does not recognize excellence in education.

A recent article in the Education Forum of the journal Science authored by a distinguished panel of Howard Hughes Medical Institute researchers argues, "Universities must better recognize, reward and support the efforts of researchers who are also excellent and dedicated teachers."

There are several barriers to achieving this goal. Unlike patient care and basic or clinical research, education does not generate revenue. It is also much harder to measure, unlike research where levels of funding or publication numbers provide easy to follow metrics. Development of educators is limited by a failure to teach junior faculty and students about the literature on teaching methodology. It is easy to see how these and other hurdles compound one another.

The authors propose a number of solutions including education of faculty about the education literature, creation of awards and named professorships for outstanding teachers, requirement of teaching excellence for promotion, ongoing support for effective science teaching, and engagement of chairs, deans and presidents.

I am proud to say the American Academy of Neurology has recognized this problem and is actively trying to support development of excellent Neurology educators in a number of different ways.

For example, the AAN has a developed a successful education research grant program which provides several awards each year. However, much more is needed on a system wide level to foster education research and develop and support excellent teachers.

Are you a "professional" neurology educator, or where you taught by one? What can we do to rebalance the value of research versus teaching?