The Tennessee Occupational Therapy Association has recognized Stephanie Lancaster, EdD, OTR/L, ATP, CAPS, program director for the UTHSC Department of Occupational Therapy, with a 2020 Excellence in Education Award. Dr. Lancaster is one of two educators in Tennessee recognized with the distinction, which is based on student nominations.
“It’s such an honor to have received this award,” Dr. Lancaster said. “I’ve learned so much about teaching – both in a classroom and outside of one – since I began working at UTHSC in 2013.”
Dr. Lancaster’s love for teaching began with a personal loss. In 2010, her father was diagnosed with brain cancer, and she became one of his primary caregivers. She witnessed services performed by others that were not to her standards of person-centered, occupation- or evidence-based care. “It was so disheartening,” she said. “After my dad died, I felt the need to do something to address that, and that something turned out to be teaching future OT practitioners.”
She said her favorite thing about teaching is connecting with students and seeing those Aha! moments. For example, Dr. Lancaster has done a round-robin learning activity with every class of new occupational therapy students. It involves working in pairs, while rotating partners to figure out how to adapt a particular therapeutic activity for the patient. “It becomes what we call in OT the ‘just-right challenge’ for a person receiving OT services. Sometimes an activity, as it is typically done, is too hard for someone and other times it isn’t challenging enough to stimulate growth in a person. That’s where our OT-think skills come into play.”
Her training in instruction and curricular leadership with an emphasis on instructional design and technology is proving beneficial as education has shifted to a mostly virtual format due to COVID-19. “When I was working on my doctorate, I had to think outside of the box a lot of the time to figure out how to apply what I was learning in the context of in-person teaching as opposed to online,” she said. “With the shift we’ve had to make due to COVID-19, online teaching has become the norm, and I am so grateful for what I have learned over the years about that.” Dr. Lancaster is also using her teaching skills informing occupational therapists or those interested in the profession on her podcast “On The Air.”
In her nomination, a student described Dr. Lancaster as “sensitive to the anxieties her students face as they embark on their journey to becoming occupational therapists, while simultaneously encouraging personal and educational growth. Her zest for teaching the next generation intersects with her empathy and kindness to truly embody the heart of occupational therapy and excellence in education.”
With the many changes associated with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Lancaster is staying connected with her students in the virtual world by recording videos of herself talking to students about assignments and course updates. She also checks in regularly on students to ask them how they are doing and hosts a virtual “Yappy Hour” for students, faculty, and staff members in the department to help them stay connected while off campus.
“I love teaching and do my best in this role to teach so that the unfamiliar becomes familiar and the familiar becomes unfamiliar, to make things seem relevant and motivating for learners and to facilitate inspiration from within them to become lifelong learners and effective, compassionate OT practitioners,” she said.