This month’s Thriving Faculty interview is with Karen Gardner, Clinical Associate Professor in UBC’s Faculty of Dentistry.
Thriving Faculty is a regular column highlighting UBC Faculty who exemplify integration of health and wellbeing into their classrooms, research, departments and communities. Thriving Faculty support others in their health and wellbeing, in addition to making a commitment to their own self-care. This column highlights personal and professional stories of Thriving Faculty.
What are the central challenges you face in your role as Faculty?
As a clinical associate professor in the Faculty of Dentistry, I have been encouraged to mold my position into one that allows my personal strengths to develop. Through this, I work to develop new areas our Faculty did not previously consider such as the International Peer Review projects, which centers around dental students microblogging with other dental students in North America, Asia, Australia and Europe, or developing a multiple interview system for our undergraduate DMD admissions. Perhaps my biggest challenge is, as one of my colleagues said, “you’re different”. In my undergraduate pre-dental studies, I majored in Biology with a double minor in Anthropology and Psychology; I was interested in both the arts and the sciences. Now, in a strong science environment, my ideas sometimes seem very foreign to my coworkers which can be a challenge for them and me.
Based on your experiences, please describe the relationship between student mental health & wellbeing and learning.
The main course I teach is Basic Dental Surgical Skills Psychomotor Training. Our students are all very accomplished academically but may for the first time struggle trying to accomplish these psychomotor skills. This is difficult for them and can lead to significant stress. If students are not confident they can master these skills, it definitely affects their performance which will spill into other areas of the curriculum.
Do you implement any strategies to support student mental health and wellbeing in the classroom/lab?
Yes, we address this issue with the students from the beginning of their surgical skills training, letting them know if they find this challenging we have a number of systems in place to help them to succeed. For example we have specific faculty who are designated as remedial specialists. When we identify a student struggling in this area, the student is asked to work with the remedial specialist on a one-on-one basis allowing the specific area of weakness to be identified. Once identified, a personal set of exercises is developed to help the student overcome the challenge and continue on. We find it is usually one or two concepts that are not fully understood and once these are dealt with the student will develop at an acceptable pace. In addition, over the years and through various ways I have learned that often the way something is said can have dramatically different results on a student’s belief in themselves and how they perform in the course. For example when a student is learning a difficult skill, saying “you can do this” instead of “you have to do this” can sometimes make the difference especially when they begin to doubt themselves. In calibration meetings with the clinical instructors in my course we discuss concepts such as this – what helped a student in a situation, and what did not. In my weekly reflection of the course I will consider the student challenges and successes which guide me as I revise the course for the next year.
Please describe the role of your own mental health and wellbeing in your teaching, research and service to the community?
I have been practicing yoga for 15 years and have come to understand the importance of the yoking of mind and body for my mental health and wellbeing. I understand that to be my best I must devote time to my physical wellbeing which then fuels my mental wellbeing. Mindfulness training has made a big difference for me in my teaching as I try to be the best teacher I can be in-the-moment by letting go of negative past experiences and concentrating on trying to be best I can be at that moment. Do I still make mistakes? Of course, I am human but mindfulness has given me the ability to work through the mistakes and learn from them. Rather than research I am involved in program/course evaluation and again mindfulness allows me to have an open mind as I evaluate “how things went”, to see the entire picture, and to work with people from many disciplines leading to sound decisions for future program development and new projects.
What strategies do you use in your own life, that help you thrive as Faculty?
I know to be successful in the academic environment you require motivation, confidence, compassion and energy. In order to fulfill all of this I try to maintain a healthy weight, exercise, practice meditation and get at least eight hours of sleep every night. Achieving this while working as UBC has become easier with:
- The UBC chapter of Weight Watchers (I have achieved lifetime status)
- Noon-hour yoga – Dentistry and Rehab Medicine through a health and wellness grant were able to establish sustainable noon hour yoga classes three days a week; I attend two of these
In addition, I:
- Take long walks – I try to walk for at least 40 minutes two to three times a week
- Practice healthy eating – I plan my meals including lunches which I bring every day. I’m a long-time supporter of slow cooking and recently purchased a pressure cooker so that my husband and I have a good dinner every night. Weight Watchers has great recipes
- Meditation – through my mindfulness training and yoga I have become more comfortable with meditation – there are a number of good apps which I use when I cannot meditate with others but I prefer group meditation
- Eight hours of sleep is essential – I do not break this rule
Are they any specific initiatives and/or research you are involved in that promote health, mental health and wellbeing?
I am currently working to establish a weekly noon-hour group meditation class in our Faculty.
Are there any resources on campus that you have found to be helpful for promoting wellbeing for either yourself or your students?
Yes, for me: UBC Weight Watchers chapter, Rehab Medicine/Dentistry noon hour yoga classes, fresh vegetable market at the UBC bookstore during the growing season, water coolers throughout our Faculty, mindfulness training, UBC Human Resources Health and Wellbeing noon-hour group meditation, UBC Faculty of Medicine Faculty Practice with the supporting medical lab and imaging at the UBC hospital. For our students who are struggling, we have a Director of Students who ensures the student gets to the help they need. Sometimes we observe a student in their initial surgical training suffering from performance anxiety; counsellors on campus are very useful to guide students through this.
In your role as faculty, please describe your experience balancing work-life commitments? Is there a metaphor that depicts this relationship?
That’s interesting because to me there is no separation between work-life commitments, that is work is part of my life they are not two separate entities – I love my work. I work very hard when I am fulfilling my duties as a clinical associate professor but I work hard at all areas of what comprises my life. I do know colleagues that spend many more hours at their position in our Faculty than I do and I see the effect it has on their wellbeing – I admire the effort they put in but this is not good for them, our Faculty or UBC. I set boundaries around the amount of time I devote to my position and of course there are occasions when I put in extra time because I want to and enjoy it but I try very hard to go to my yoga class and eat properly.
If you could identify one additional service that UBC could provide, what would that be?
As clinical-track faculty, we lack representation. A person in a central position outside those faculties or departments housing a clinical track would assist all clinical faculty.
“To be your best for everyone you have to do the best for you”
Karen Gardner 2014.
Karen graduated from the UBC Faculty of Dentistry DMD in 1992 and then practiced General Dentistry for 10 years as a solo practitioner in Burnaby. In 2002 she sold her practice and returned to a full-time clinical track position in the Faculty of Dentistry. She completed a Masters of Education and the Faculty Certificate Program in 2005. She is the inaugural recipient of the U21 award for internationalization, which recognized the International Peer Review Project for Dental Students.