Joseph Cass, M.D., receives final Teacher of the Year Award as he retires

joseph cass

Joseph Cass, M.D. (right)

Joseph Cass, M.D. (OR ’83), is retiring after a 34-year career. It’s fitting that he received a Teacher of the Year Award in the twilight of his career — the award is his seventh. He’s been in the Teacher of the Year Hall of Fame at Mayo Clinic since 2008.

Dr. Cass is a consultant in the Division of Orthopedic Trauma Surgery and Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. He joined the staff in 1983 and left in 1986 to practice in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for 14 years, during which time he completed a six-month spine fellowship at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. He practiced in the Twin Cities for three years and returned to Mayo Clinic in 2005. He’s an assistant professor of orthopedics.

Dr. Cass also received Teacher of the Year Awards from the Mayo Fellows Association in 1986, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2013. In 2008 he was inducted into the Mayo Fellows Association Teacher of the Year Hall of Fame.

He teaches primarily orthopedic surgery residents. Typically the team consists of one PG2 or PG3 fellow and a PG4 or PG5 fellow. The practice mostly deals with orthopedic trauma, with hefty doses of orthopedic hospitalist patients with varied types of infections or other extremity problems.

Dr. Cass retires at the end of May 2017. The Mayo Clinic Alumni Association wishes him great happiness, relaxation and contentment in this next phase of his life.

joseph cass

Joseph Cass, M.D. (right)

What’s rewarding about teaching?

Teaching is the primary shield for me. As I have contact with eight residents every day, I am given an opportunity to have a broader reach. I enjoy patient care and educating. I’m not much for bench research or committee work. Mayo has allowed me to work to what I think are my strengths.

My motivation is pretty transparent: someday the trainees we teach are going to take care of us. I hope they’ll be good at it.  I so  enjoy seeing them light up when they ‘get’ something — that’s the reward.

What’s your teaching style?

I think of myself as more of a coach than teacher. A coach doesn’t care as much about self-esteem; rather, it is about performance improvement. This is important when teaching the physical and emotional skills that are required in orthopedic surgery.

I call things out — I’m frank. I correct the residents and give direct feedback, and they appreciate it, or at least they say they do. They know I’ll always say what I’m thinking and know where they stand. I affirm they’re doing it well or they’re up a creek and need to do something different.

I tell them I have a way of doing things that mostly works for me, but it isn’t the only way — they have to find what works for them. I encourage them to steal whatever they can from their mentors to be better.

I try to be aware of what’s going on in the students’ lives. In general, the practice of medicine doesn’t allow time to sense what people are going through.  We’ve all gone through hard times. Often I can understand their hurt and am happy to listen and let them vent. In this process I try to help them develop resilience because being a surgeon is a hard job. I try to help them sort out how to live with failures and continue to be resilient on a daily basis. Regardless of whether they are in distress or not, they are sort of colleagues now, and someday they will be our colleagues. So I try to interact with them accordingly.

How has your teaching changed over the years?

I don’t think it has. We’re privileged to teach orthopedic residents who are bright and really want to learn. I’ve learned how stupid I once was when I thought I was smart. Now I think of myself as somewhat wiser — but not as smart as I used to be. It is a good perspective, I think, to keep as an educator.

Who were your teaching role models?

Some of my athletic coaches had a passion for learning, imparting it and caring for those they taught. I also had many mentors throughout my career — some as positive examples and some as negative examples.

What do teacher of the year awards mean to you?

It’s a nice honor. This award validates the importance of the education shield to the Fellows’ Association.

Student comments:

“He makes continuous effort to challenge norms in teaching and find new ways to push residents and cement their knowledge.”

“Dr. Cass is always enthusiastic about teaching and ensuring that the residents leave the program well trained.”

“He comes in early, stays late and sets the standard for the other trauma consultants for establishing dedicated education time. There are very few mentors who care so much about the residents in their orthopedic careers as well as in their lives. He is one of the few faculty who will notice and act when residents are going through rough times in their personal lives. This is extremely rare and much appreciated.”

“I will no doubt model my practice after him and strive to keep his level of dedication and care to peers, students and patients. He will leave a hole in our resident experience when he retires.”

Fast 5 with Dr. Cass

joseph cass

Joseph Cass, M.D. (right)

1. Why did you leave Mayo Clinic in the 1980s?

I was quite unhappy in my career. I didn’t know if I hated medicine, orthopedic surgery or Mayo Clinic. I had a certain amount of immaturity at the time. I had three young kids and wanted to be a better dad and husband. I couldn’t do research, teach, operate and be the family man that I wanted to be. I tried to work it out there but, after three years, decided to gamble that elsewhere would be better for me and my family.

When Mayo asked me to come back in 2005, I was a person with different goals. I felt I had something different to offer in teaching. And Mayo wanted help setting up a trauma surgery program. It has been an extremely enjoyable end to my career. The department is vibrant and collegial, and our orthopedic trauma division has been particularly tolerant of me.

2. Was it helpful to get a perspective by practicing at other places?

Yes, it was great. I also spent several months volunteering as an orthopedic surgeon in Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana and Saint Lucia. You can’t help but be changed by those experiences.

3. What are you most proud of in your career?

Being a surgeon is a tough business but one that society rewards very well. I have tried to remain passionate and intellectually curious about what we do. I guess that navigating this maze with most of my grace and dignity intact is a worthwhile accomplishment. If that in turn has helped me set an example for those who follow us, then I am most proud of that accomplishment.

4. What does retirement hold for you?

I’ll be chasing other rainbows. As long as I’m learning something, I’ll be content.  My wife and I are moving to northern Minnesota. Mostly I will putz around, do some welding and woodworking and take some flying lessons.

5. Any parting thoughts as you retire?

Mayo Clinic has been a wonderful place to work. It allows its physicians to do what they do best. The physicians need to recognize that there are few (if any) places that reward us this well but with relatively little personal financial risk. Mayo does need to better recognize in-house education and its importance as one of the three shields.

While national and international fame of its physicians are important to the institution as an entity; it cannot forget that its primary responsibility in education is to its currently enrolled students. Because the Teacher of the Year Award is resident-decided, it helps to validate in-house excellence. From a career advancement standpoint, the institution does not seem to put much stock in it. I think that the “powers that be” should in some way recognize in-house educational excellence as a path to professorship, or at least as a significant boost to the process. I will leave the weightier issues to the poohbahs.


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