TWELVE TEACHERS: Celebrating the Educators Who Helped Me Along the Way

This is not a healthcare post; it’s simply a "thank you" to 12 teachers who were especially generous with their time and spirit in my life.  These were teachers who ‘got me’ during times of my life I didn’t really “get” myself, adults who were both demanding and forgiving but who were truly educators and remained so even as our relationships became professional and personal.Despite differences of age and experience, all of them were incredibly respectful of my skills and talents, and gently, but definitively help me define my own path.   The individuals I have called out here are educators; this is not a list of mentors or others who have supported my career; my relationships with them is defined by their primary profession.I am extremely lucky and grateful for their presence my life.  

In chronological order:

1.    Mrs Gusten; First Grade PS 99, Kew Gardens NY

In first grade, I would get up from my seat in the middle of a lesson and go to the back of the room to find a book or something else of interest. Mrs. Gusten seemed to understand that I had mastered the lesson and just let me do my thing.  These days I’d probably be considered disruptive and tested for ADHD.  In later years I had struggles with other teachers around the issue of my learning style; having had Mrs. Gusten so early in my school life, I felt there was always a chance I would be understood.

2.    Miss McLaughlin; 4th grade, Bowling Green Elementary School, Westbury NY

We moved mid-year from NYC to Westbury, so I was the “new kid” in January, middle of 4th grade.  She recognized that I was in a different place in terms of the curriculum and referred me for testing; I ended up being placed in a different school in the district.  While that created its own problems (being the new kid twice in a few months), it put me in a class with kids who were more ‘like me’, some of whom are my friends to this day.

3.    Geri Schecter; English, WT Clarke Junior High School, WT Clarke Westbury NY

It was the 70’s and younger teachers had no problem blurring the traditional student-teacher boundaries, but Ms. Schecter was the teacher who managed this better than anyone else and the first who was genuine with her presence (other teachers took kids to hockey games, but we never really knew them as people).  She was a young adult who loved language, had a creative approach to teaching and who shared her ‘real’ life without it seeming remarkable.  She was the adult my high school girlfriend and I chose to come with us on a non-school-related trip to Don Imus’s radio program

4.    Gerald Baden/James Muff; Shop Teachers (Ceramics/Wood; Print/Metal), WT Clarke High School, Westbury NY .  

Just about my entire success as an adult has its foundation in shop class.  The discipline and planning required to use power tools, make mechanical drawings (accurate to 1/32 of an inch!) and tangible skills to build things were critical success factors for medical school and my subsequent careers in medicine and management.  There is a whole book to be written about shop class, but suffice to say that everything I know how to do today, I learned in shop class.  Academics gave me knowledge; shop class gave me skills.

5.     Barbara Lerner/Victor Jaccarino; Drama Club Faculty, WT Clarke High School, Westbury NY

The rest of the foundation of my adult life rests on my experience with the theater.  I use the skills of acting every day; I can also project my conversational voice – in the most intimate manner -- to someone in the back row of a 1200 seat theater, or can move in close and penetrate someone’s personal space without threat - - a critical skill for a physician.  These are the skills I learned in the theater.  But more important is I completely understand the value and connection associated with story-telling and the critical nature of dialog in every aspect of human life.

6.    Norman Roth, PhD, Former Professor of Mathematics, SUNY New Paltz NY 

I decided to go to medical school during the December break in my sophomore year in college. I had to completely change my class schedule when I got back to school in January because I had ZERO premed requirements.  I was ineligible for Calculus and I went to Dr. Roth to plead my case.  He gave me chance, telling me could audit his class and, if I got 10/10 on the next five weekly quizzes, he’d do some administrative magic to get me enrolled for credit.  I accepted (and met) his challenge, and ended up completely falling in love with calculus – concepts I use to this day to understand the interaction of dependent and independent variables in life….the mathematics of change.  I wrote to Dr. Roth – now retired -- a few years ago and he ended up sharing with me one of his own “10 teachers” stories (he also checked his grade books, which he still had, to confirm my memory of the challenge).

7.    Doug Baker, PhD, Former Dean of Students and Professor of Biology, SUNY New Paltz, NY

As a college student, I had a conflict with the Director of the Peer Counseling Center, where I was a volunteer member; the issue was escalated to the Dean of Students, Dr. Douglas Baker.  We all met in Doug’s office; he defused the conflict with ease.  I left with the feeling I was heard and that we definitely connected in some way.  Doug was transitioning back to teaching and I ended up being his teaching assistant for a new class he was teaching called the “Biological Basis of Human Sexuality”.Despite his position in the Department of Biology, Doug’s PhD is in education, and he had taught every level from elementary through high school.  He introduced me to Jerome Bruner, Bloom’s Taxonomy and ways of thinking about teaching, learning and pedagogy (and how to use a blackboard effectively). We ended up writing – and receiving! -- a NYS Research Foundation grant to study the effects of a course in human sexuality on the behavior of college students, which let me get paid to spent the summer working for him on campus.  With his support I was able to secure a position teaching the same Human Sexuality course in the schools Prison Education Program, and he and I DROVE TO MISSOURI in a State car to spend a week at a course taught by William Masters and Virginia Johnson!I spent more time with Doug that just about any other teacher, or non-related adult for that matter, in my life.  Every day, all day in the office we shared for two years, but also at his home with his family (for both work and play); we shared many, many meals together.  During these times I learned about antiques, how to point up a stone house and how to field dress a deer (well, I watched).If the foundation of my adult life is based in shop class and the theater, the framework of the structure that sits on top of it is based on my life experience with Doug Baker.

8.    Steven Shelov, MD, Former Residency Program Director, Department of Pediatrics, Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Montefiore Medical Center 

While in medical school, I started my first business.  I didn’t call it a business at the time, these things were just ‘outside projects’; some people at the medical school (including the then-Chair of Internal Medicine) had problems with my outside projects; it just wasn’t done back then.When I graduated and started my internship in Pediatrics, Dr. Shelov was the Residency Program Director and was incredibly supportive of my interests and enthusiasm.  He joined the Board of a non-profit children’s media organization I was starting and introduced me to people in his personal network to help move the project along.A few years later, we were on a panel together at the annual meeting of the National Association for Education of Young Children.  As the audience filled the room, he shared with me his personal awe at the opportunities his career had afforded him; for someone I viewed as a ‘grownup” to have that sense of humility about this own life was really important for me to hear.

9.    Michael Cohen, MD Former Chairman, Department of Pediatrics, Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Montefiore Medical Center, Bronx NY

Dr. Cohen was the Chairman of Pediatrics during my time in training.  So much of my career has been based on the foundation of the way he said 'yes' to my ideas, projects and energy during residency, while at the same time expecting me to sustain the highest levels of performance in the job at hand.  In the last 30+ years in medicine, I have met few people who are in his former position who are as open, flexible and trusting.There were few things in my life as valuable to my young, idea-crazed, energetic self than when the Department Chair said "OK, sure, that sounds interesting

10.    Carleton Chapman, MD, Former Emeritus Professor History of Medicine, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, NY

Dr. Carleton Chapman came to Einstein after retiring as President of the Commonwealth Fund (after retiring as the Dean of Dartmouth Medical School).   I believe he came to Einstein because his wife Ruth said, “You can retire Carleton, but you can’t stay home”.  It would have been impossible for him to stay home anyway; he was a man of extraordinary intellectual energy.Despite the 40-year difference in our ages, we connected as colleagues; we explored the realm of ideas about healthcare, medical education, social issues, and theoretical constructs of science, learning and policy, but also theater, music, art and humanity.  He shared drafts of papers and book chapters with me and spent time discussing my perspective and understanding of this work.  After years in medicine, at the highest levels of the profession, he was still ‘mad as hell’, pushing and demanding productive evolution of healthcare as a species.He left Einstein the same year I left residency; age 70, he told me that one of his goals was to replicate a walk across Switzerland that he took as a young man. My entire perspective on aging is based on my time knowing Carleton.

And there are two "runners-up:

The first runner up is
Dr. Gerald Nathanson, the former Co-Chairman of the Department of Pediatrics, Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Montefiore Medical Center.   At the end of my internship, I was thinking about abandoning ship and pursuing some of my very exciting outside projects. I was not especially close to Dr. Nathanson during that year, but I have a vivid memory of him taking me into his office at the North Central Bronx Hospital and sitting my down for a talk about my plans.  He gently made the case for my ‘staying the course’ and investing the two years to complete a credential I would have for the rest of my life.  Despite my drive to invest time and attention to my exciting outside life, what he said made sense to me; I am forever grateful for that talk because so much of who I am is tied to my professional identity as a pediatrician.

The second runner up is
Dr. Maynard Makman, who was a Chairman of the Department of Molecular Pharmacology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and my faculty supervisor for the Medical Student Research Program, a special program to train physician-investigators. I applied and was accepted to the program and spent the summer feeding propylthiouracil to rats and then attempting tissue analysis of their substantia nigra to see if the drug had effects on the brain.

It was quickly clear that I was a singular failure as a bench researcher.  I was good at the dissecting, but terrible at the science.  My notebook was chaotic, my bench discipline weak and I don’t think I once got anything resembling result from the dozens of attempts I made to actually analyze tissue.  I loved the idea of science and I loved scientists, I just didn’t really DO science very well.

Dr. Makman was gracious and forgiving; he never once embarrassed me or called me out for my failures.  I never returned to basic science but retained a deep appreciation and honor for those who are committed to what is can be a very unforgiving, but remarkably rewarding professional path.

Do YOU have a teacher who changed your life?  Why not send them a note thanking them and letting them know they remain a part of your life.

© Steven Merahn, MD 2015