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3 Ways Teach For America Prepared Me for Medical School

Teach For America alumna Gen Guyol (Chicago '11) shares how her classroom experience has been instrumental in her ability to excel as a third-year medical student.

By Gen Guyol

July 31, 2015

Earlier this week, I introduced you to the issues facing my former students that I witnessed firsthand as a first- and second-grade special education public school teacher in Chicago with Teach For America.

I’ve recently started my third year of medical school at Boston University, the first year in which we spend most of our time in the hospital and clinics instead of in the lecture hall.  As I hear patients' stories and work with the rest of the medical team to decide on how to provide the best care possible to our patients, I understand even more how my teaching experience affects the way in which I approach a career in medicine.  My time in the classroom inspired me not only to become a change agent but also to think about more concrete ways to achieve that goal.

Here are three reasons why I feel my TFA experience uniquely prepared me for the rigorous challenges of medical school:

1. The guidance and support I received from TFA was tremendous in connecting my classroom vision to my personal vision and views on social justice.

I taught at a traditional public school on the south side of Chicago and was part of Teach For America’s Values-Based Leadership Collaborative pilot. This program pushed us to consider how our classroom experience inspired our thoughts about what type of broader systemic change would benefit our students and to execute small projects to test these theories.  I set out to connect my students and their families to summer opportunities.  I learned that in my neighborhood, there weren’t too many that were tailored to their specific needs.

As a future doctor, I am motivated to work to fill this void and help ensure that appropriate programming is available to help kids achieve their full potential.  Last fall, I helped hold focus groups so that the voices of parents, neighborhood residents, and community partners could inform the direction of early childhood education in Boston.

Gen Guyol (Chicago '11) believes her classroom experience has been instrumental in her ability to excel as a third-year medical student.

2. I was prepared to take on the challenges—both expected and impromptu—that come with medical school.

In medical school, it is easy get wrapped up in the minutiae of what goes on day to day. Often studying for the next test seems to be most important.  Of course, you have to master the medical concepts that will afford you the privilege of caring for patients as their doctor.  But you also can't lose sight of what motivated you to come to medical school and the unique interests that will define you as a physician.

For me, developing that sense of balance has a lot to do with my years with Teach For America. For one, I had to learn how to prioritize my time as a teacher. In that first year, when you’re making lesson plans and building relationships with the students, parents, and school community for the first time, you don’t have a choice but to organize your life. You learn what fuels you. You figure out how to make it work.

Moreover, you’re in the real world gaining real world experience. It’s not just burying your head in a book all day. It’s a job that requires you to have a presence, and most importantly, as an educator, you truly feel what it’s like to have other people’s lives in your hands. Also, as my fellow TFA alumni know, things aren't always going to go your way, especially in the beginning, and you learn how to cope and deal with both success and failure—while growing in the process.

My experience creating lesson plans to meet the unique needs of each student has influenced how I approach my role as a learner. I understand that this is my education and that I need to drive my medical school experience so that it's catered to what I really want and need to get out of it. 

Additionally, being a great teacher requires that you are constantly reflecting on your practice and are finding internal motivation to improve each day—even when challenges appear insurmountable. One of my supervising physicians recently commented that success in medical school comes from approaching learning experiences as an opportunity to become the best doctor possible for your future patients.  This attitude is intrinsic after teaching because it is analogous to the ways in which excellent teachers are driven by the needs of their students to refine their practice. 

3. I’ve learned how to build relationships within the medical field as well as the local community.

When you go through Teach For America, you become a part of your school community. I will never forget the students, parents, faculty, and staff in the South Side neighborhood school where I taught, and I’ve made sure to stay in touch and visit. To watch my students grow from first- and second-graders into middle childhood has been awe-inspiring, especially when you realize you have been as much a part of their journey as they have been in yours.

At the start of medical school, one of the things that I missed most from the classroom was the energy that I received from being around kids and people who are dedicated to helping children grow into their best selves. Through one of my mentors at Boston Medical Center, I have become involved with the Vital Village Community Engagement Network. This is an interdisciplinary group of neighborhood residents, community organizations, and healthcare professions who are committed to improving child well-being in Boston neighborhoods where kids have reduced access to the opportunities that they need to excel. 

I love attending monthly meetings and talking with network members about projects because it reminds me that the work of doctors must be responsive to the needs of the surrounding community. Building relationships with community partners has also helped me understand the realities facing the neighborhoods around Boston Medical Center and connect with patients during my time in the hospital as a third-year medical student. I'm no longer teaching, but the mission of Teach For America and lessons I learned in the classroom inform my work as a medical student every day.