​In this series we find out about our people’s passion for educating the next generation of healthcare professionals. Dr Andrew Ong, Associate Consultant in Singapore General Hospital’s (SGH) Department of Gastroenterology & Hepatology, talks about how being a good teacher means being humble.

What role do you play in medical education?

As a clinical lecturer in NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, I am actively involved in teaching Duke-NUS students of all levels. I am also involved as a paces cadence tutor for medical officers and am also actively involved in improving gastro education amongst junior doctors.

Can you share with us who has inspired you to be an educator?

Professor Umapathi Thirugnanam, Senior Consultant at NNI’s department of neurology, made me appreciate that teaching is not a mere exercise of imparting knowledge but requires technique, finesse and dedication.

When I was a Resident under his tutelage, the daily ward rounds practically turned into a Neurology PACES (a clinical exam to enter higher specialist training) session for us, as he often quizzed us on our clinical knowledge.

We were anxiously on our toes, hoping to give the right answer. But if I looked back at how he taught us, he wanted to be thorough in understanding our approach and thinking process, regardless whether we got the answer right or not. His main aim was always to find the root of any mistake, correct it and improve our skills day-by-day.

Although Prof Umapathi was harsh when we didn't meet his standards, he never failed to praise and encourage us immensely when he sees us improving. Until I started teaching purposefully, I never realised how much his teaching methods have shaped my own till this day.

Since you’ve been an educator, what was that one moment that made all the hard work worthwhile?

When you see someone that you once taught embrace the same teaching philosophy you believe in, and teach someone else the same way, you know the chain reaction has started and hopefully, continues to pay itself forward.

How do you teach or mentor someone who is not motivated to learn?

I believe that there are very few genuinely unmotivated people in Medicine, whether students or doctors.  For those who are, there must be a reason behind the behaviour.  There's no easy way around this and my duty as a teacher or mentor would be to spend time with them and get to know them better, to know what drives them or discourages them. Without that first step, it would be hard to make any progress in teaching.

How has teaching made a difference in your own medical career?

Some people feel that teaching makes you feel high and mighty because it puts you on a pedestal over others.  However, I believe the opposite is true: that teaching keeps one humble. 

Often, when I teach I'm reminded of what I do not know enough about, especially when it is about a topic beyond my specialty, and that prompts me go back to read more. 

The desire to learn is often preceded by the realisation of how limited one's knowledge is, and it is this approach which I try to share with my learners too.  Being 'teachable' is as valuable a trait in our profession as other traits like integrity and resilience. 

I would not have realised this, and I wouldn't be reminded time and time again about this, if I was not given the opportunity to teach.

How would you describe your teaching philosophy?

My teaching philosophy is to be like a greenhouse. I believe a safe learning environment is a precursor to effective learning. Just like how a greenhouse can provide a safe haven for plants to grow at their own pace and away from a hostile environment, that's what I hope to do for my students.

If you had a magic wand, what changes would you make to improve teaching/learning?

I would use it to make every word that comes out of my mouth funny and entertaining such that my students will never lose attention when I'm teaching!