When the student becomes the teacher

February 18, 2020
Interested in an academic career but love working with patients? The AOA’s 2019 Educator of the Year explains how you can have both.
Zanna Kruoch, O.D.

Excerpted from page 16 of the January/February 2020 edition of AOA Focus.

You might say Zanna Kruoch, O.D.—2019 AOA Optometric Educator of the Year-is a triple threat: Compassionate. Demanding. Smart.

"Dr. Kruoch represents the model educator optometry needs-compassion for patients, demand for excellence in students, and both academic and 'street smart' knowledge that prepares students to be more than just graduates," read the nominating letter by the Texas Optometric Association, which noted that in the past year she had received the highest rating from all her students. "It prepares them to be doctors."

In a Q&A with AOA Focus, Dr. Kruoch discusses the journey from student to educator.

When did you realize you had a gift for teaching?

I definitely did not have teaching in mind when I graduated from optometry school (University of Houston College of Optometry [UHCO]) in 2009. I went on to do a one-year contact lens residency at the Illinois College of Optometry. And during my residency, I was required to teach as part of my experience.

It was during this time that I realized I had a good connection with students and that I could explain things in a different way for them. It was feedback from the students and honestly, for me, giving them an explanation and having them understand it. You see that "click" in them. It was huge for me knowing that I was making an impact on their education and their decision-making.

You focused on contact lenses during your residency—what interests you?

In specialty contact lenses, you get this fascinating experience where you have someone who can barely see their hand at 20 feet, and you put on these really cool contact lenses and suddenly they're 20/20. I just loved the gratification I got. Instead of me having to refer a patient, I can take care of them in my office, with the tools used only by an optometrist.

As clinical assistant professor at UHCO since 2015, you started a specialty contact lens program at the university-affiliated Cedar Springs Eye Clinic. How has that evolved?

Once I came on at the clinic, we made specialty contact lenses an available service. I spoke to a couple of contact lens companies, and they agreed to donate a set supply of specialty contact lenses to us each month. They found it to be a business advantage to them because they get to expose the students to the product. It grew from there. The clinic is a free-standing, inner-city clinic, located in the heart of Dallas, and it's affiliated with the University of Houston. We take on a third of the graduating class, so we get 11 students per semester. Patients are mostly indigent, some insured. But we don't turn anybody away. We have a low fee, and they get the best care they can. We get between 50-80 patients a day, depending on how many doctors are scheduled. It depends on the season, too. Students I work with now are current optometry students in their fourth year. Through the clinic, they get real-world experience.

What lessons did you learn as a student that you now carry with you as an educator?

As a fourth-year student, I had to learn during my rotation sites (one of which is the clinic that I am faculty for now) the importance of decision-making to become a successful doctor. I have taken that same philosophical approach of guiding students on proper decision-making but have added elements of different clinical experiences (like specialty contact lenses) and creating good doctor-patient rapport in order to achieve success. In addition, I have added to my own teaching style not just giving students the opportunity to make decisions but offering them other perspectives. I give them room to discuss their thoughts, and in return, I try to expand on it by offering other solutions or approaches for that particular patient.

What are the rewards of teaching?

It's rewarding to teach the next generation of optometrists because it means that as a result, they can provide high-quality eye care to the public and community. I find satisfaction in knowing that I am a part of that educational process for many young doctors. It is tough to reach every single student because they are all unique in their own learning style and methods, but it's so rewarding when I know that my contributions to their education gave them the confidence, strength and knowledge to be an amazing doctor.

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