A Career of Teaching the Teachers

A Career of Teaching the Teachers


Dr. Kelley Skeff

Dr. Kelley Skeff is the George DeForest Barnett Professor of Medicine at Stanford and Codirector of the Stanford Faculty Development Center for Medical Teachers, which was established in 1985. He has received numerous awards and honors throughout his career.

What inspired you to develop a career around education and teaching?

The inherent gratification that I had as a teacher. I have an insatiable desire that if I know something, somebody next to me is going to learn it. I believe that the teaching process satisfies some core value of humanity. Given the opportunity, people love to share, and they love to tell, and they love to know that they help others.

What is something that has changed because of your experiences in teaching?

When I began, I was an advocate of the student. And maybe, in some ways, a remediator of the teachers. I have since become an advocate of the teachers, in order for them to become a remediator of the students. At the beginning, I didn’t truly understand what the average teacher faces in what they do.

Does learning the process of teaching affect one’s inclination toward teaching?

I believe so. People naturally like to help others. Some may not necessarily want to teach because they’re not so good at it, for one reason or another. But, in our program we see that people become more enthusiastic about teaching when given the skills needed. Participants state that they can’t wait to get back and try these techniques.

That is a generalizable finding-- people may change their attitudes after they change their skills. This is not necessarily intuitive. If someone does not have a positive attitude toward a task or a role, many of us may try to first fix the attitude. People have spent a lot of time with that approach. However, work done in the Stanford Psychology Department suggests that in some cases, giving people the skills to accomplish a task can improve the attitude toward using the skills. We capitalize on that in our program, hoping to give people not only the skills but also the rationale for using those skills. When they see approaches work, they become enthusiastic about their impact.

What challenges do you face in working with experienced faculty?

The challenge that we have as faculty developers is making sure that what we have to offer is useful, because the people we get to work with are really, really bright. When you work with really bright people, you can have several issues. One is that they may become very quickly judgmental about the utility of how they are spending their time. The challenge is how to take people who are quite successful in their field of work and have them reexamine one aspect of their work-- the aspect of teaching.

Faculty at Stanford receive lots of rewards for their work. There may or may not be any incentive or stimulus for them to look at teaching because they may be doing quite a decent job. Our data suggests that the faculty with whom we work are already committed. We are trying to help them become even more effective. The challenge is to take very bright people and give them a range of activities and views, such that it is useful to one hundred percent of them. We aim for 100%. We’re probably in the 90% range.

Are there different challenges with new teachers, like medical residents or TAs?

The least experienced teachers can possibly be the most confident and least open to reviewing and thinking about what they are doing, likely because they haven’t come up against times when their belief in their actual skills has failed. The most experienced teachers have failed. They know that the job of teaching is extremely hard. They have had success one week but not the next. The receptivity is often higher for the most experienced and most skilled than for the least experienced. If you haven’t had a whole lot of experience, things may look pretty straightforward.

Any closing thoughts?

I think that teaching is one of the most gratifying things that people will do in their lives. Be aware that the reward system may or may not foster that activity. In this country and in academics, we may or may not foster it to the same degree that we foster discovering new knowledge or the practice of one’s field, like in medicine. So I’ll just share that the gratification of helping people become better at what they do can be as fulfilling, if not at a higher level, than doing the task for oneself.