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Table of Contents
BRIEF REPORT
Year : 2022  |  Volume : 5  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 76-79

Creating a teaching technician team for support of veterinary student training laboratories


Department of Veterinary Population Medicine, University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, Saint Paul, MN, USA

Date of Submission09-Jun-2022
Date of Acceptance06-Jul-2022
Date of Web Publication09-Sep-2022

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Erin D Malone
Department of Veterinary Population Medicine, University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, Saint Paul, MN
USA
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None


DOI: 10.4103/EHP.EHP_13_22

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  Abstract 

Veterinary technicians play valuable roles in most veterinary colleges and have particular strengths in coaching new learners. We moved to a teaching technician ‘float team’ model to provide teaching support to core pre-clinical laboratories in our DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) curriculum. The teaching technician team model has enabled us to better utilize staff skill sets and training, created efficiencies and expanded support provided to core laboratory courses, provided skill development and advancement opportunities for team members, and improved our ability to recognize and mentor our teaching staff. This model also allowed us to effectively adjust to the rapidly changing structure and increased numbers of laboratories brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic without increasing numbers of staff involved in laboratory teaching.

Keywords: Laboratory staffing, laboratory teaching, veterinary education, veterinary technician


How to cite this article:
Malone ED, Brown AL. Creating a teaching technician team for support of veterinary student training laboratories. Educ Health Prof 2022;5:76-9

How to cite this URL:
Malone ED, Brown AL. Creating a teaching technician team for support of veterinary student training laboratories. Educ Health Prof [serial online] 2022 [cited 2022 Dec 3];5:76-9. Available from: https://www.ehpjournal.com/text.asp?2022/5/2/76/355836




  Introduction Top


Veterinary technicians have valuable roles in most veterinary colleges with most clinical technicians involved in teaching.[1] We have also found technicians to be very useful in laboratory teaching for multiple reasons. Often the technicians are the ones who are actually performing many of the procedures being taught.[2] Teaching technicians are more likely to develop relationships with students early in the program and relatability has been shown to have a positive impact on motor skill acquisition.[3] Compared to faculty, technicians also tend to be both less intimidating and more willing or able to accurately assess student performance and provide constructive timely feedback.[1],[4],[5] A recognized teaching role might also improve technician wellbeing and mitigate burnout.[6] However, we are unaware of any publications on the most effective use of veterinary technicians in veterinary student teaching, leaving programs to develop their own models.[2]

We have restructured our teaching laboratory support staffing to create a centralized “Teaching Technician Team” (TTT). We were able to expand capacity without additional personnel or financial support. The advantages have been numerous. This paper is designed to describe the TTT structure to enable others to replicate it.


  Background Top


Prior to the restructuring, we had four different teaching support groups with a total of ~ 5 FTE (full time equivalents). These people supported our clinical skills program (1.5 FTE), the anatomy laboratories (2.5–3 FTE), physiology and microscopic anatomy laboratories (0.75 FTE) and our diagnostic laboratory course (~0.35 FTE). Other laboratory courses had no technical support staff and were manned by faculty. Faculty were also assisting with laboratory set up when a technician was not available. Some staff were routinely over utilized, accruing maximum levels of overtime and/or compensatory time. Others were underutilized, being pulled into undergraduate teaching assistant type positions. An absence in one area could not be readily patched with surplus effort in another area as skill sets did not match. Each team worked in isolation from the others and had its own supervisor. Job classifications were varied - some positions were unionized, others were not. Only one staff member was in the educational support job classification family; the rest had various classifications as Veterinary Technicians, Lab Services Coordinators, Principle Lab Technicians or Researchers. Individuals were paid from a myriad of budgets, with no two team members paid the same wages or from the same budgets. Positions were gained or lost each year, due to budgetary constraints and departmental priorities. Most teaching support staff were not in secure positions. Some were in dead-end positions with no promotion opportunities.

The goals of the restructuring were to:

  1. Create a teaching support ‘float team’ that could more efficiently serve the needs of all core laboratory courses in the preclinical years of the DVM curriculum.


  2. Enhance utilization, recognition, mentoring and advancement opportunities for teaching support staff.


  3. Save money or at least be cost neutral.


The process involved several steps (outlined below) and a communication balancing act that required approval at many levels while maintaining confidentiality to minimize stress among staff.

  • Step 1. Identify the scope of activity


Before we could identify budgetary, personnel and supervisory needs, we needed to focus on a well-defined mission. After discussions with college leadership, we decided to initially provide support for core (required) laboratories in the non-clinical years. We would only be able to assist in elective laboratories, undergraduate courses or in clinical rotations if effort was available and if compensated appropriately for technician time.

  • Step 2. Identify the budget plan


Our tuition model typically distributes money to each of our three departments to cover teaching costs with funds based on course structure and enrollment. Each department has at least one core laboratory course. Due to the likely logistical challenges involved with dividing effort equitably among the departments and courses, a separate budget line was created at the centralized (college) level for laboratory support; funds were allocated for the TTT prior to distribution of the remaining budget/tuition to the departments.

  • Step 3. Create job descriptions


Supervisor

In our original model, faculty were supervising the current teaching staff members. Due to the complexity of our staff positions, including union roles, this was challenging and often ineffective. For the new model, at least one individual familiar with the staff roles was deemed necessary for personnel management, identification of teaching needs, and oversight of the program. We wanted this person to be part of the TTT and cross-trained to be able to fill the various technician job roles during sudden illnesses or emergencies. Based on conversations with other technician supervisors in our program, a full-time supervisor could be expected to manage up to eight technicians. As the supervisor would be continuing with other job responsibilities, the team needed to be commensurately smaller and/or the supervisory position shared.

Team members

After carefully reviewing the core laboratory needs, we identified a set of job roles that were consistently required or requested:

  • develop educational materials (clinical skills training modules, anatomy demonstrations, active learning activities)


  • provide course support (feedback and grading, exam set up, learning management system assistance)


  • laboratory preparation (set up, clean up, supply ordering, inventory management)


  • provide in-lab teaching and support (direct instruction, supply and animal management)


  • As part of the float team model, we felt all TTT staff had to be able to flex between at least two different teaching support roles (e.g., anatomy and pathology laboratories or clinical skills and diagnostic laboratories).

    After discussions with our human resources (HR) team, we also decided all team members needed to have at least 51% effort dedicated to laboratory teaching. This was to ensure TTT members were managed by only one supervisor.

    • Step 4. Hire the team supervisor


    By identifying and hiring the TTT supervisor early in the process, the team supervisor was able to take on many of the subsequent tasks and provide reassurance to administration.

    • Step 5. Develop a transition plan


    Due to the complexity of the original structure, our transition required multiple layers of communication under fairly confidential circumstances. Nothing moved rapidly. There was always a gap between the communication and the reality, creating opportunities for stress, rumors and other shifts that impacted plans. Our old organizational structure had been in place with only small changes for over a decade. The related expectations, particularly who was doing what, were very hard to adjust for all involved. Expanded opportunities for assistance for some courses were balanced by difficult conversations and saying “no” to other responsibilities. Having a well-defined activity scope was imminently useful.

    We did not want to cause unnecessary panic among our teaching team or our instructors. We worked with our HR department to identify lines of reporting and started at the top of the hierarchy. As concerns were identified, this often required restarting those top level conversations. We attempted to be very clear about not only what we would be doing but what changes would happen related to job shifts. For instance, our identified supervisor would not be able to continue in her current course support role to the same level. It was very useful to map out related FTE changes as the budgets were generally a high priority.

    The second major issue was the anticipation of possible responses to personnel changes. Not all staff originally providing laboratory support had the skill set to be part of the TTT and we were not sure if all of our staff would want to transition to the TTT. To avoid resistance related to concern for the people involved, we worked on two fronts. The first was to develop very clear documentation about the job needs and current effort. The second was to provide reassurance to supervisors about repercussions. At this stage, we kept the conversations with the teaching staff at a very high level but did begin to introduce the concept.

    Our identified TTT supervisor began by interviewing our teaching staff to determine how satisfied they were in their current positions, how well they were able to utilize their current skills sets, and any desires they had to change or maintain their current efforts. This was compared to the TTT job needs description. We identified that at least three of the current teaching team staff would easily transition, three would not fit the new job description and one was not readily classified.

    We again worked closely with our HR department to determine how best to map out the transition and to identify the repercussions on those that would not fit or might not be interested in the new position. These conversations included the current faculty supervisors who provided follow up information to flesh out the current workload and performance levels for each of the staff members. HR was also able to outline the repercussions of nonrenewal and union member bumping rights. Furthermore, HR helped us with our transition option. We could (1) have everyone apply for the new position or (2) we could reclassify everyone to the new position (with or without a probationary period) and allow them to accept the job or reject it and move on to something else as the next step in their career.

    Having everyone apply for the new position would level the playing field but would also be the least reassuring, as it would also involve terminating the current roles without any guaranteed job placement. Reclassifying everyone would mean there was no return to the old status; those ‘old’ positions would no longer exist. Our identified team supervisor was able to discuss the options with the current team members. Due to the lack of promotion abilities in the current roles and the overall suitability of the team, we elected to proceed with moving everyone into the new roles rather than requiring reapplication. This put the transition more in the hands of the staff, rather than the administration. The team members could elect to move on if they did not like the new role versus being forced out. Two of the original staff retired, one as planned and the other related to both the discussions and personal issues. A third was shifted to a temporary role until her planned retirement.

    • Step 6. Set up the new positions


    This step was the most time consuming with our HR structure. The University job classifications did not include all of the levels needed. The Education job family started at the level of an Education Program Associate 2, which required three or more years of experience; not all of the eligible team members had that much experience and hence could not be reclassified into the Education job family. With the union involved, job reclassification at our college is a complex process to ensure equity in all areas and to demonstrate that we were not attempting to decrease union numbers but had a valid reason for the adjustment. During the process, we also identified that our team supervisor was already in the wrong job class for both her current and future roles. We were able to transition three of the five members to the appropriate job classification levels. One (that lacked the necessary years of experience) was moved laterally to enable promotion until we could further readjust her classification, and one had to be kept in the current role due to lack of an equivalent position at the time. Over time and with added experience, we have been able to reclassify all but one member into appropriate job classes within the Education job family.

    • Step 7. Fill in the gaps and clarify roles


    We mapped out the teaching needs and budget remaining and identified the need for an additional TTT member focused on large animal skills/training. However, COVID-19 hit and everything had to change. Budgets were tightened and laboratory offerings increased. Staff roles were altered college wide. Having the TTT in place to fill the gaps was invaluable.

    Repeated conversations were held and calendars created to depict which labs were being supported by the TTT and which were not. As described earlier, the TTT focused on core pre-clinical laboratories, leaving to others the support of rotation related laboratories, elective courses, and undergraduate courses. Typically, the rotations and elective laboratories were supported by hospital technicians. As many hospital staff did not have a good view of the curriculum and were unsure how laboratories connected to particular courses, it was important to ensure no labs were left unsupported. During the transition year, the TTT supervisor worked closely with other technician supervisors to balance the needs. We had the option to “hire” technicians from outside of the team as needed to fill specialty gaps. These technicians would be paid from the TTT on an hourly basis. This option was rarely used; however, swaps were relatively common (use TTT for this rotation laboratory and the hospital technician for this core laboratory). Swaps were particularly useful for laboratories that were complicated or for which the change was more challenging for various reasons. These swaps decreased stress levels for faculty and staff and provided important training opportunities as well.

    • Step 8. Review and revise


    We are currently in this stage. Despite COVID-19, the laboratories have been very successful and the TTT has generated goodwill and many kudos. Some TTT staff are struggling with the expanded role, larger team, and less ownership of particular laboratories. Others are flying and are taking on more roles more efficiently and effectively than ever before. The TTT supervisor has completed a supervisory development course and has implemented several team building and feedback mechanisms that will help strengthen the team as we move forward. There are weekly check in meetings that include all members of the team, as well as monthly 1:1 check ins for the supervisor to meet with each team member individually. These meetings provide the opportunity to give and receive feedback, talk about goals and progress, what support may be needed, and address challenges team members may be facing. Though most meetings are held virtually, via Zoom, the team gathers in person once a month for a social event of some kind to help strengthen the team mindset and make personal connections with each other. More transitions were managed as we navigated the past year with continuing uncertainty over COVID-19 impacts and changing restrictions. We have struggled through team member injuries, FMLAs and departures for other opportunities but have come out better than we would have with our original model. We are now starting discussions on how to support laboratory training more fully in the clinical year.


      Summary Top


    We moved to a teaching technician ‘float team’ model to provide teaching support to core pre-clinical laboratories in the DVM curriculum. This model allowed us to adjust to the rapidly changing structure and increased numbers of laboratories brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The TTT model has enabled us to better utilize staff skill sets and training, allowed staff to expand their skill sets, created efficiencies and a backup plan for laboratory needs, expanded the support provided to core laboratory courses, provided advancement opportunities for team members, and improved our ability to recognize and mentor our teaching staff. We are currently applying this model to create a course manager role that would assist non-laboratory courses in a similar manner, focusing on the numerous processes needed to move courses forward successfully and smoothly.

    Financial support and sponsorship

    Nil.

    Conflicts of interest

    There are no conflicts of interest.



     
      References Top

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    2.
    Echols MS, Fisher P, Fordham M, Tibbetts L, Topor S The role of the avian/exotic animal technician. J Avian Med Surg 2009;23:64-8.  Back to cited text no. 2
        
    3.
    Gonzalez DH, Chiviacowsky S Relatedness support enhances motor learning. Psychol Res 2018;82:439-47.  Back to cited text no. 3
        
    4.
    Weimer M Teaching Students Specific Skills [Internet]. Faculty Focus. 2017. Available from: https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/teaching-students-specific-skills/. [Last accessed on 2022 May 28].  Back to cited text no. 4
        
    5.
    Duvivier RJ, van Dalen J, van der Vleuten CP, Scherpbier AJ Teacher perceptions of desired qualities, competencies and strategies for clinical skills teachers. Med Teach 2009;31:634-41.  Back to cited text no. 5
        
    6.
    Hayes GM, LaLonde-Paul DF, Perret JL, Steele A, McConkey M, Lane WG, et al. Investigation of burnout syndrome and job-related risk factors in veterinary technicians in specialty teaching hospitals: A multicenter cross-sectional study. J Vet Emerg Crit Care (San Antonio) 2020;30:18-27.  Back to cited text no. 6
        




     

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