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Raising the Bar in Rehab

What Makes a Good Physical Therapy Instructor?

Published January 6, 2011 4:49 PM by

My first student starts this week. It's a quick two-week internship, just aimed at beginning skills and a brief experience prior to further coursework.

I am so nervous! As I await the student's arrival, I have been reviewing some old notes from my clinicals and tried to prioritize the concepts I think are most important to learn. Since this is the student's first clinical, I know the skills she learns will carry over into each other clinical and then into her professional life. While it is partially the student's responsibility to learn the necessary material, it is also very much the clinical instructor's duty to provide the opportunities and framework for growth.

So, how can I be the best clinical instructor (CI)? What traits do I need? How do I communicate feedback to the student in a way that motivates and improves skills, rather than irritates the student? With 18 years of schooling and four previous CIs, I have observed many different teaching styles; some are highly effective and others... well... they were not awesome.

I think being a good physical therapy instructor requires the same skills to make a great physical therapist, the same skills to be a good friend, parent and partner. It's those life skills - being able to listen to, respond to and challenge others to be better. I'm hoping this is just the beginning of my role as a CI. I hope each year to work with students, learn from them, teach them and remember the joy of starting a new path.

What about you? Have you taken students before? What recommendations can you give me?


If you have implemented all the wonderful things you have mentioned above I am sure you are a wonderful CI now.

I am a heartsick angry mother of a 2nd year DPT student who just returned from a terrible clinical experience witha CI.  From the get go he expressed a conflicts with her and felt she was not a mentor and used passive observation to evaluate him.  She stood by at the start of his clinical and let him make a mistakes  and then crumble. Isn't there such a thing as teachable moments and mentoring.  He is an anxious person and she did a great job at crumbling his confidence. And as Al mentioned it all snowballed! He had 3 days with another PT on her days off and the experience was a totally different learning experience. He felt he progressed but made a huge blunder and did not give himself high marks when it came time to evaluate himself. He has a 3.5 Gpa and had no problems with his first 2 clinicals. And now he may be dismissed from his program that he has put 2 full hardworking years into.  Being an RN and his dad a physcian we both understand how hard and nervewracking clinical experiences can be, and how a CI can make or break a student.  We keep trying to boost his confidence and keep telling him you will learn so much more when you are working out in the real world. I am prejudice but he is great kid, student, and caring person and will be a great Pt if given the chance, but who knows if the higher ups have that vision.  I wish his CI was evaluated !  any thoughts? Thanks for letting me vent my frustration with the unreal world of academia.  We keep telling him this will be a great lifelesson no matter what happens, and he will know what kind of a teacher he will want to be if given the opportunity.  Thanks for listening.  Jenny

jenny fagan, BSN/mother June 4, 2011 1:59 PM
st louis MO


I couldn't agree more with Al.  As I was reading your post, all I could think of was Allison's recent post about her fumbling her final exit practicum.  She knew the material, but when it came to testing, she made a mistake and then the pressure caused her mistakes to snowball.  A clinical rotation shouldn't have that kind of pressure.  It isn't a testing environment.  As Al said, it is an integration experience.  

Students should leave their rotation with you more confident in their skills, but also with a balanced view of what their true skills are, which includes being able to identify and address their weaknesses.  The important aspect of that is keeping everything in perspective.  They need to know that YOU still have weaknesses...that EVERY PT has weaknesses.  We are all always growing and learning...which means we also never quit making mistakes.  When a student knows that, it helps take the pressure off which will free them up for optimal performance.

By the way, Al, yours may be the most successful student/CI experience ever!

Jane Goude January 6, 2011 11:10 PM

Lisa - I graduated in 1971 and had my first student less than a year later and never stopped loving it. Ok, I didn't loved the paperwork. Ok, I HATED the paperwork. Just a few things...remember you are a CLINICAL instructor. You do not have to grill every student about origins, insertions, dermatomes, etc. You are there to integrate classroom and clinic in a real world way so the student can begin to put things together. You should be a calming factor to the student, but you don't have to be their Facebook friend. If the student makes an error, and they will, try to curb your sharp criticism in front of the patient. The student is very fragile. When they make that mistake, ask them how they could have done it better so the student sees that they do know the right thing. Point out their strengths as they exhibit them. I found that having the student critique their own performance EVERY clinic day helped take the pressure off you and have the "evaluation" be more of a collaborative effort between you two rather than the  Instructor to Student one-way street. Alright, I've gone on too long for a "comment", but one more thing - I hired the very first student I had and she still works with me 40 years later! Good luck Lisa

Al DiMicco, Ortho - Director, OSA January 6, 2011 9:37 PM
Bessemer AL

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