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Teacher of the Year award for Megan Thorvilson, M.D. – finding the spark in each resident

Megan Thorvilson, M.D. (PD ’16), Department of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, set out to be a pastor. After she received a Master of Divinity degree from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, she felt a call to medicine. She now uses the communication skills she learned in the seminary in her work with residents. Her approach appears to be effective: she received a 2018 Teacher of the Year Award from the Mayo Fellows’ Association in her first year on staff at Mayo Clinic.

“Everyone has different skills and gifts. For me, teaching is about finding the spark in each person around me,” she says, describing a “gifts-based” approach to teaching. “Rather than force my point of view on trainees, I try to find what energizes them and foster that so their skills and gifts can flourish and strengthen our team.

“There’s a lot of insecurity in the world. Most everybody sometimes feels they don’t belong or aren’t good enough. One of my jobs as a teacher is to affirm that you belong here, we want you here and you can be a good part of this team.”

What’s your teaching style?

I draw from education evidence about how adults learn. A lot of my approach draws from my fellowship training and, particularly, my training in a communication program called VitalTalk. It focuses on the individual learner and their emotional experiences rather than  merely communication and learning as exchanges of information.

I praise behaviors I want to see continue. If we reprimand or expose shortcomings, a spirit of shame can come over people and, then, they may not be their best selves. By showing trainees what they’re already doing well, I believe they become energized to do even better the next day.

I approach teaching with a spirit of gratitude. When I was a resident, I felt like an important part of the team and wanted to contribute more when people showed me gratitude.

I work a lot on communication skills with residents, especially those who work with me in pediatric palliative care. I model the skills and give them specific tools to use. They practice the skills, and I provide immediate feedback, complimenting them on the behaviors we talked about. When we leave a patient room, I point out to the group of trainees, “Did you hear Jennifer use this skill? What reaction did you see from the parent?” I try to offer praise when they use the appropriate skill, and highlight the desired effect on the patient’s parent.

Most people learn by watching others. When I meet residents, they’ve just had four years of medical school and are in the first three years of residency. They’re focused on accumulating medical knowledge — diagnosis, pathophysiology, prognosis, treatment. They’re in a hyper state of gathering information. So they fall back on that when talking with patient families. When families express emotion, physicians tend to respond with more medical information because we’re comfortable in the cognitive realm, thinking, “If I just give them more information, they’ll understand.” The emotion may go unaddressed or become more amplified.

What’s rewarding about teaching?

I feel rewarded when residents are willing to experiment and play — when they’re willing to try the communication skills I’ve thrown their way. When they use them and see a change in their practice because of it, that’s most rewarding. A skill I taught them strengthened their connection with a family.

Who were your teaching role models?

I had strong mentors in my fellowship program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

At Mayo Clinic, I trained with my now-colleague Chris Collura, M.D. (PD ’10, PDNE ’13, PDNPM ’13). It’s clear that education is a passion of his. He’s intentional in how and what he teaches. He teaches medical content but also how to support families in making medical decisions. I learned a lot about communication and pedagogy from him.

What does the Teacher of the Year award mean to you?

My first reactions were that it must be a mistake that I won or that I won because I was kind to the residents!

Then I thought about what I would say if someone else wondered why they received an award. I’m grateful that what I’ve been trying to share with residents has been warmly received.

My colleague Jason Homme, M.D. (MED ’99, PD ’02, PDCMR ’03), also received a Teacher of the Year award. He was my residency program director. He’s received the award many times and represents the ideal of teaching. I don’t have the same breadth of knowledge he has. I prepare medical content for teaching residents, but my strength, I think, is in helping residents connect with families in more meaningful ways. I’m grateful that approach is at the heart of Mayo’s values.

The Teacher of the Year award has awakened my identity as a teacher. When I think about the three shields of Mayo Clinic, clinical care is the one I thrive at. I want to become expert at the other two. This award helped me step up and say, “Let’s dig in and continue to form this part of your identity.” I’m claiming my gifts and skills as an educator.

Student comments:

“Dr. Thorvilson promotes a very welcoming and encouraging learning environment.”

“She has never forgotten what it means to be a resident. She encourages us and is always ready to praise, correct and make us better.”

“She is not shy to ask for advice, especially when dealing with difficult cases, and she asks for feedback from residents.”

“Dr. Thorvilson always takes the extra time to teach proper communication with families, especially in the palliative care setting. She is a rising star!”


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