The surprising ways that being a teacher can help fuel a successful healthcare career.
January 28, 2020
At Teach For America, we know it takes leaders working in all sectors to change the inequitable systems that prevent all children from receiving a high-quality education. After working as teachers, our corps members go on to many different careers, continuing to impact children’s lives from any number of industries. In this series, we explore the skills corps members gain from the classroom that help them succeed and deepen their impact as they pursue a variety of careers.
Teaching may not be the most obvious step to take prior to entering the medical field, but for many Teach for America corps members, their classroom experiences and skills they gained while teaching led to successful healthcare careers. Here are some of the skills that helped propel them from the classroom to medical school.
Teachers and medical professionals can’t always rely on what’s been proven to work before. They often have to develop and follow through on innovative solutions for the problems they face.
Gen Guyol (Chicago ’11), now a third-year med student at Boston University, equates the two roles: “As an educator, you truly feel what it’s like to have other people’s lives in your hands. 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.”
The ability to pick oneself up from failure shows resilience and is crucial to success when challenges arise. Just like the body and mind are dynamic forms that can be unpredictable, so, too, is the classroom.
Careers in the medical sector are known for their intense work commitments. It becomes a challenge to manage all aspects of life when it feels like there is no time for anything outside of work.
The same can be said for teaching: It permeates your life. You spend time outside of class planning and engaging with the greater school community. This includes:
- Creating engaging and fun lesson plans that meet your district’s standards
- Spending hours completing administrative paperwork, including grading and analyzing student outcomes
- Participating in activities outside of the classroom, like coaching a student sport or serving on faculty committees
“When you’re making lesson plans and building relationships with the students, parents, and the school community for the first time, you don’t have a choice but to organize your life,” Gen says.
It can be difficult to explain new concepts to others, especially when the ideas are complex and individuals have different backgrounds and different styles of learning. However, this is a daily exercise in the life of a teacher.
Students come from many different backgrounds, and each has their own unique learning style.
Annie Dotson, MD (Houston ’07), who now works as a physician and primary care research fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, credits the cross-cultural communication skills she honed in TFA to her success in medicine. “As a clinician, I have to be an educator to my patients and convey often really complex topics,” she says.
In the corps, Annie taught high school science at Lee High School in Houston, and her students taught her a life lesson in return.
“It was actually my students who encouraged me to go onto pursue something medical,” Annie says. “They encouraged me to use my skill set in a way that would still impact their communities, just in a little different way.”
Students are much more likely to absorb classroom material if they know they can trust their teacher and feel that their perspectives have been taken into consideration. Likewise, patients are more inclined to stay in good health or recover faster when their doctor builds trust in a compassionate manner.
Dan Tilden (Eastern North Carolina ’08), currently a Medical Resident at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, agrees. “Everything from knowing the social context of my patients to different teaching strategies I used in the classroom helps me to be a better doctor,” he says.
Anthony Sawyer (Mississippi ’10), now an anesthesiology resident at Stanford Health, recounts how the classroom prepared him for a career in medicine. “It takes creativity. It takes innovation. It takes failing and trying again. It takes getting feedback,” he says. “And it takes being vulnerable and asking for help sometimes. You need those traits if you want to succeed in medicine, public health, or any field.”
Medical professionals and teachers alike are often forced to think on their feet. Whether in the classroom or the clinic, unpredictability can be the norm, so being able to consider situations from multiple perspectives is critical to success.
At the heart of both education and medicine is the desire to serve people. Your ability to connect with people and inspire them to be the best they can be, whether in their studies or their health, will take you far in your career.
To learn about more Teach For America alumni who now practice medicine, visit our Medical Careers page or
It's not just medicine! Teach For America alumni are excelling in other industries as well. Learn more from our alums about how they took the skills they learned in the classroom and transformed them into successful careers in business, nonprofits, education, media, tech, and policy.
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