Progress notes: instilling a legacy of learning

August 5th, 2015

Dr. Kay Mash instructs students It might just be that Dr. Kay Mash is a natural-born teacher. She started her career in private practice in Little Rock, Ark., but when the time came for her family to move to Texas, she made the transition to academics and joined the faculty at Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry. That was in fall 1981.

The years since have been filled with teaching opportunities in dentistry and beyond.

In 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Mash went on her first trip to Russia to visit administrators at dental schools in Moscow, at the recommendation of then-dental student Dr. J. Moody Alexander, who had just returned from the region.

“I was shocked to learn of the Soviet promise of universal health care: no gloves, no masks, no sterilization equipment, no restorative materials, no antibiotics,” Mash recalls. “Small children sat unflinching on their mothers’ laps while old, belt-driven handpieces were used to remove decay without the benefit of local anesthetic or filling materials other than dental cements.”

Much has improved since that time, but there is one constant: Nearly every year, Mash returns to Russia. And since 2001, when the Moscow Medical Academy formed its dental school, she has served as an international judge in dental student competitions each spring.

A different European connection originated when Mash volunteered to teach art history for her niece’s fifth-grade class two decades ago — an hourlong commitment each week — having no idea it would turn into a volunteer venture lasting to this day. The curriculum often culminates with a trip to Europe to see some of the world’s greatest artistic works in person.

Back in Dallas, teaching at TAMBCD for more than three decades gives her the chance to get to know multiple members of the same family.

“Being here so long makes you stop to think a bit about your legacy,” says Mash, course director for the preclinical operative lecture and lab. “I would hate for a student who’s home for the holidays to share some hurtful remark I’d made or to complain about how unreasonable or uncaring I was as a teacher, only to have the older generation jump into the conversation to provide compelling evidence of their own.”

Now, this two-time Teacher of the Year recipient talks about her longstanding work with the Moscow Medical Academy’s dental school, the traits that inspire her to rise to her personal best as an instructor and the legacy she hopes to impart to students.

NewsStand: You mentioned in a 2011 service awards profile that you learned early in your teaching career the negative interactions you sometimes had with your professors don’t necessarily have to be repeated with the next generation of dentists. How have teaching styles and philosophies in the dental school setting in general changed since you were a student?

Mash: One of my biggest fears as a student was looking like an idiot in front of the instructor. If a student asked a question, the teacher’s response was often, “I explained that in class” or “Go read your textbook.” Consequently, I tended to wait for others to ask my questions for me, which certainly wasn’t a very efficient way of learning. As a faculty member I hope I encourage students to be bold enough to ask the “stupid” questions — especially when they are treating patients in the clinic. The really important questions often don’t occur to you while you’re reading a textbook or listening to a lecture, but rather when you’re attempting that procedure for the first time on a patient.

NewsStand: For those students of yours who go on to teach, which of your characteristics do you hope they pass on to their students?

Mash: I hope that students who go into teaching do it because they genuinely love sharing what they know with others, and that they love the idea of building relationships with future colleagues. As a teacher, you possess what these students aspire to have: a dental degree. Your job isn’t to create hoops for the student to jump through. You are the professional they want to be. As a dentist teaching in a dental school, I hope the next generation will understand that it’s both a responsibility and a privilege to teach and will do it for the love of the profession and the love of their students.

NewsStand: On a similar note, what student trait inspires you to rise to your personal best?

Mash: Honesty. The student who comes to me and says, “I need help. I don’t know what to do next.” I like to work with students who recognize their limitations but are willing to do the hard work to learn and improve.

NewsStand: As a two-time Teacher of the Year recipient and faculty member with more than three decades of teaching experience, you must love what you do. But with this in mind, what kind of student interactions are the most challenging for you? Namely, what situations present the most opportunity for you to grow as an educator?

Mash: When I realize that what I’m trying to explain to a student is just not getting through. Maybe I try to draw a picture or demonstrate a technique, but I’m just unable to get my point across. As a teacher it is sometimes difficult to accept that there may be another person — even the student’s classmate — who can better explain a concept in a way that is understandable for that student at that time. Learning is not always a linear process. In learning to practice dentistry, it’s often two steps forward and three steps back before things “click.”

Dr. Kay Mash, bottom right, during one of her annual trips to the Moscow Medical Academy's dental school

Dr. Kay Mash, bottom right, during one of her annual trips to the Moscow Medical Academy’s dental school

NewsStand: For more than 10 years, you have spent part of your spring closely involved with dental education half a world away, serving as a judge for the Moscow Medical Academy’s dental student competition, in which students demonstrate their artistic skills through music, theater, painting and sculpture, all with a common theme: dentistry. How does such an event stand to enrich a dental student’s education?

Mash: The student competition I judge each year consists of students preparing and restoring teeth on either a typodont in the sim lab or on actual patients in the clinic. There also is an exhibit of works of art created by the dental students: embroidery, beadwork, paintings, drawings and sculptures related to tooth anatomy, physiology or histology. Sometimes students arrange elaborate theatrical or musical productions about tooth decay or a day in the life of a dentist.

In the same way that TAMBCD students have organized a talent show in the past, these productions and art exhibits allow fellow students, faculty and staff members to view students from a different perspective. No longer is the student regarded by faculty simply as the one who struggled in histology or had trouble cutting a Class II prep; he is now also recognized as the dental student who is a gifted painter or concert pianist or opera singer.

I think it’s very healthy for faculty members to know more about a student than class rank and for students to know more about a faculty member than just what appears on a course syllabus. When you really get to know others, understand what makes them tick, appreciate their unique skills and talents, then teaching and learning are enhanced, and ideas are exchanged more naturally and freely.

— Jennifer Fuentes