The road to becoming an EMS educator

As you advance in your EMS career, sometimes the path you’re on leads you to teach those who are just starting out

By Jessica Ward, PNCCT, CCEMT-P, NRP, AAS

What happens when you spend almost half of your life as a field provider and then, due to an abundance of opportunity, you have the chance to become an educator?

Yikes! Are you scared? Are you petrified? Or, maybe this was the path you were being led to all along.

At 18 years old, Jessica Ward took her first state certification test in Illinois and became a practicing EMT. (Courtesy photo)
At 18 years old, Jessica Ward took her first state certification test in Illinois and became a practicing EMT. (Courtesy photo)

The stepping stones to becoming an EMS educator

At 18 years old, I took my first state certification test in Illinois and became a practicing EMT. I spent the next 25 years working in the field as an EMT, then EMT-intermediate and EMT-paramedic and finally as a critical care paramedic, in both rural and high-call-volume urban areas. Do you see the stepping stone process?

Along with field experience, I knew I wanted as many certifications as I could get my hands on. To me, more certifications meant more knowledge, and the more knowledge I had, the more tools I was equipped with to better help my patients.

With those certifications, I found myself volunteering for more job duties, stepping up as a mentor and taking on various leadership roles in my departments. I took courses in public speaking and leadership training. My favorite bedtime story? The latest professional journal.

I started my education career part-time, after being recommended from one of my supervisors, teaching the usual alphabet soup courses: the American Heart Association’s CPR, advanced cardiac life support (ACLS) and pediatric advanced life support (PALS). Anyone who has ever taught those courses knows it isn’t easy to make those courses the least bit fun and entertaining, particularly when everyone in your class is there because they are being mandated by their department or employer. I got a crash course in becoming an “edutainer” instead of just an educator.  

My field experience, my alphabet soup teaching experience and the many community presentations for my employer were resume builders, in addition to the monthly inter-departmental continuing education courses given to my peers and colleagues. Finally, it took being at the right place at the right time, and making connections with the right people to earn a spot as an EMS educator.

It was time to make the transition from the streets to the classroom, which took an entirely different level of professionalism than I was used to operating under. Not that I didn’t have professionalism in the field with my patients; I did. However, I could no longer be the girl living off an adrenaline rush, flybing by the seat of my pants. Walking into the classroom, I am now “the expert.” Some days, I spend more time studying than my students do, just to relearn concepts that maybe I haven’t seen or done in years, or to just make sure that I am staying up to date on the on the latest advances in EMS. In the words of Daniel J. Boorstin, “Education is learning what you didn’t even know you didn’t know.”

Being an EMS educator comes with its own challenges

Being in EMS education means working with adult learners, and this can be a challenge in itself. We, as adults, have so many learning styles due to our many different backgrounds. I will walk into a classroom where my students will range in age from 18 to 62, all with different ways of learning and obtaining information, from Baby Boomers to Generation Z. It takes talent to be able to reach everyone in the audience, and keep them engaged and on the right path. Don’t be afraid to get to know your students and how they interact with the material. This helps you understand how they learn best and where their weaknesses might be.

Take responsibility for yourself and for the information that you are trying to present. When all else fails, think of Albert Einstein, who said “If you can’t explain it to a 6-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” Be sure you understand the information backwards, forwards and sideways, because your students will know if you don’t. By the same token, don’t be ashamed if you get asked a question that you don’t know; we are all human. Your students would much rather hear that you don’t know something than to listen to you hem and haw, hoping to accidentally land on the correct answer.

Be passionate in the classroom. I get excited when working with a student who has been struggling with a difficult concept, and then finally “gets it” because I took the extra time with them and made sure they had every learning tool available to help them be successful. It’s a great feeling when you see the look on their face and realize the light bulb inside their head just went on because of your effort as an educator.

The road to becoming an educator may be long, and once you’re there, it may feel taxing at times. Some days, I feel like I work more hours than I did when I was a firehouse medic working my 24s. However, it has its own rewards. After all, what good is knowledge if you don’t share it with others?

About the author
Jessica Ward is senior paramedic educator, Mercyhealth EMS Systems, Rockford, Ill. 

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