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Homegrown Teachers

Homegrown TeachersBy emphasizing mentoring and teaching, Tufts is confronting the looming nationwide shortage of dental faculty while yielding immediate benefits for dental students.


After "Open wide," the most important words in Tufts' dental clinics might be these: "Let me help." This summer, volunteer third-year dental students took to the clinic floors to impart their hard-won knowledge to the anxious second-years working with patients for the first time. And this fall, new postdocs in periodontology embark on a different kind of mentoring program designed to foster a cooperative spirit among residents.

This emphasis on mentoring and teaching is one way that Tufts is confronting the nationwide shortage of dental faculty that looms large as the baby-boom generation heads toward retirement. But the pre-doctoral teaching assistant and postdoctoral mentoring programs have more immediate benefits as well.

"In the pre-clin courses, there are 165 students in one room at the same time, and they all could use some help at some point," says Michael Thompson, associate professor of general dentistry. He established the teaching assistant (TA) program seven years ago as a way to keep students who meet their clinical requirements for graduation early engaged with the school and with learning new things. That first year, Thompson paired two students with less-experienced peers in the clinic and let the TAs "stand next to them and watch them step by step." Today, thanks to popular demand by faculty and students alike, some 50 third-year students are helping the D10s, who are caring for patients for the first time, get their bearings.

"Wow, I am thinking and acting like a doctor. I guess I didnít see my potential until I was teaching."

— Eric G. Piascik, D09

"I remember when I first started in the clinic I was scared and clueless when it came to the correct clinical procedure," says Whitney Carraway, D09, now a TA in radiology and in one of the school's group practices. "I remember bombarding the TAs with questions, and they always had time to help me."

Students intern as TAs over the summer. Then, once they demonstrate their interest and ability, they may become full, paid TAs in the fall. Responsibilities vary by department, depending on the needs of the faculty the TAs assist. Their domain is not limited to the clinic; TAs help out in the classroom, too. Thompson challenges student teachers to teach in the classroom and encourages other professors to have them do the same. Morton Rosenberg, D74, professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery, had his TAs lecture for the first time this year. "The beauty of it is by teaching, you figure out what you yourself don't know," says Thompson.

Or in some cases, the student teachers discover strengths they didn't know they had. "This experience has taught me that I know more than I think I know," Eric G. Piascik, D09, wrote to Thompson. "I said to myself, 'Wow, I am thinking and acting like a doctor.' I guess I didn't see my potential until I was teaching."

Homegrown Teachers

Michael Thompson, associate professor of general dentistry, observes students' work in the Simulation Clinic.

One goal of the program is that at least some of the TAs will get bitten by the teaching bug. According to a 2005 survey by the American Dental Education Association (ADEA), there were close to 300 vacant faculty positions at U.S. dental schools, most of them in clinical disciplines. An older ADEA report found that fewer than 2 percent of fourth-year dental students were interested in teaching, a rate too low to replace older faculty as they retire.

Though it's too early to know how many former pre-doctoral TAs have gone into academia, anecdotal evidence suggests the program is planting seeds that will bear fruit in coming years. After graduating next spring, Carraway wants to return to her hometown, Greenville, N.C., where her undergraduate alma mater, East Carolina University, plans to open a dental school in a few years. She's already considering teaching part-time in the clinic there some day. Piascik echoes that goal: "I never thought of myself as being a teacher, but after this experience," he says, "I will not hesitate at the thought of teaching at Tufts after I graduate."

Whether they go into teaching careers or not, the TA program has already changed the way students think about dental education. All current Tufts dental students have "grown up in this system, so they were helped, and now they want to help," says Thompson. "The experience brings the school together. It means more people are working toward a common goal. It's part of what makes Tufts unique as a school." (continued)

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Story by Jacqueline Mitchell, a senior health sciences writer in Tufts' Office of Publications.

Photos by John Soares

This story originally ran on Sept. 1, 2008.