Student Perspective: “How my time teaching transformed my outlook on patient care”

Joseph Nathanson, OMS II (back left), taught middle school science on Chicago’s south side before pursuing medical school.

By Joseph Nathanson, OMS II
Reprinted with permission from The DO magazine

As a teacher, I learned that serving others starts with being a coach instead of a fixer. As a future physician, I’m holding on to that perspective.

Before medical school, I taught science to over 100 middle school students at O’Keeffe School of Excellence on Chicago’s south side on behalf of Teach for America. Teaching challenged me in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Little did I know that during my time as “Mr. Nathanson,” I would come to love my former students like family.

My students always made me laugh:
“Mr. Nathanson … I love you and all, but do you realize that your clothes don’t even match right now?”
“Mr. Nathanson … is Drake realllly your cousin?”
“Mr. Nathanson … you give me a headache.”

And sometimes the things they said shook me to my core:
“Mr. Nathanson … do you think anyone would care if I was gone tomorrow?”

I couldn’t have predicted how this tough experience would drastically shape the way I plan to practice medicine.

Becoming a coach

More than anything, I wanted my students to succeed academically, socially and emotionally. But life for my students was much more complicated than what I knew life as a middle schooler to be.

Teaching middle school science has impacted Nathanson’s outlook on patient care. (Photo provided by Joseph Nathanson, OMS II)

I gave 100% to the job. I created differentiated lesson plans to hit each student’s sweet spot, I called home to report to parents nightly and I researched innovative lesson plans. No matter how hard I worked, my students’ grades slipped, standardized test scores dropped, and my mental health plummeted.

One of the school’s most beloved and revered teachers saw how badly I was struggling. She pulled me into her classroom and I went on and on about how I had been working so hard and failing even harder. She stopped me and said, “Find your value to yourself and your value to your students. Stop trying to do too much for these kids.”

Her words made an immediate impression on me. I stopped working 16-hour days and started learning more about my students. Instead of obsessing over full-page critiques on homework assignments, I spent time telling my students that I believed in them and trusted in their potential. This subtle shift from fixer to coach changed everything. My students felt that I was in their corner, and trust grew on both sides.

My duty to my future patients

I still speak to many of my former students and brag about the big things they are achieving as they wrap up high school.

My time in the classroom taught me that in order to most efficiently and effectively serve others, you have to first realize your own value rather than blindly work hard because you might feel like that is just the right thing to do.

I wasn’t there to rescue or save my students. Instead, I came to understand that I was hired to nurture their development and help them recognize their potential.

As a second-year student at Rocky Vista University School of Osteopathic Medicine, when I get the familiar text messages, e-mails, or Facetime calls from former students, I’m reminded of just how impactful serving others can be. Getting calls from students who cursed at me, or missed class more than they turned in homework, who are now bragging about their report cards or asking me what they need to do to go to medical school like me makes me smile.

As I turn the page on teaching and serving students, and look ahead to medicine and serving my future patients, I feel grateful to have had the opportunity to learn several lessons that I can draw on when I’m navigating my role as a physician.

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