How Surgery Prepared Me (and Didn’t) for Homeschooling


In many ways, my career ill-equipped me for homeschooling.

Surgery is all about protocol. In an emergency, when the blood pools on the floor, the blood pressure on the monitor drops, and panic swells in the room, surgical training teaches you to lean into procedure. You cut out the noise, ablate the chaos from your vision, and focus on what needs to be done: step one, then two, then three. Apply pressure, get large-bore access, give blood, repair the wound. Done. This clean, streamlined approach to problems, and the instant gratification it proffers, is a surgeon’s lifeblood.

Unfortunately, toddlers don’t give a hoot about your lifeblood. While body fluids often, indeed, splatter the floor, at home when I open my hand for help, instead of gauze I receive a fistful of slimy goldfish. Protocols as perfunctory as brushing teeth, putting on shoes, and — yes — using the toilet, break down with the mere glimpse of a pile of Legos, or with the sudden remembrance of a bottle cap thieved by a sister a month ago. As far as efficiency is concerned, I can think of no instance when this commodity is so grievously lacking, than in the painstaking effort to corral two sub-five year olds out of the house intact.

Needless to say, this shift from an environment that thrives on procedure, to one that fizzes with chaos, has required adjustment. My command of physiology and my ability to get. things. done!, just don’t translate well. When I’ve had to put down the storybook for the fourth time, because the toddler is running around the room again and the preschooler has smeared ketchup in his hair, I know my esteem for and reliance upon order doesn’t help. These kids don’t need a trauma surgeon. They don’t need my decisiveness and productivity. They need a mom. They need someone patient and humble enough to pause in a story and wipe ketchup from their hair, tousle that hair, and give them a kiss before picking up the book again.

In these ways, surgery doesn’t help our homeschooling. And yet, when I consider my training, I glean richness and insight that I have found in no other corner of life. Surgery prepared me for homeschooling, because it taught me how to learn.

The brick-and-mortar schools of my youth advertised learning as a passive process. You went to class, you sat quietly, you followed directions, you completed the assignment. The topic was chosen for you. To ask a question, you had to raise your hand and await permission. You may have had some leeway in creative writing, but overall the content of learning was prescribed, not explored.

College offered more choices, but the formula was still the same: you attended a class, you completed the assignments, you aimed to meet the instructor’s standards and earn a good grade. Even in medical school, when the content became voluminous and the stakes felt higher, this approach recurred. Although your knowledge would influence your competence in medicine, and that burden wore heavily upon you, from week to week you studied to pass the test.  You choked down piles of information, spit them back out, and allowed them to escape from memory like drifting tumbleweed.

Surgery residency offered something completely new. In residency, you have already completed medical school and are officially a “doctor,” but require further on-the-job training in your chosen specialty before you can be unleashed upon the world unsupervised. As a first-year resident, you dart from room to room, struggling to keep data together in your head on forty patients, and terror grips you. In the hospital corridors, your gaps in knowledge become shamefully evident. With every detail you miss, or diagnostic test you don’t understand, you can feel your ignorance weighing down your conscience like lead.  The need to know is no longer about a grade. It’s about your influence on others. It’s about whether you can help, or inflict harm. What you know, and what you can do, matters.

That was when I learned how to learn. Cracking open a textbook took on new urgency and import, as for the first time I studied not for a grade, but for real life. No one told me what to study; I learned what I sought out. The harvest was great.

Residency taught me that true learning begins not with a syllabus, but with a question.

Learning takes flight when that question is not prescribed, but inspired.

And learning takes root when the answer to that question matters, in a way that is tangible, immediate, and real.

As a resident, the question, “What do I do if someone comes into the emergency room with a perforated esophagus?” arose because I didn’t know what the dickens to do. The process of inquiry, and of researching the answer, was self-motivated, and as such the answer solidified itself in my mind. When faced with the problem in real life, I hearkened back to my study. When I placed that first chest tube and saw gastric contents spill out, it reinforced what I’d researched. I knew it, down to my depths, without hesitation. This process recurred in residency over, and over, and over.

My kids don’t need to fix a perforated esophagus (heaven forbid). And they shouldn’t learn out of fear. But they can learn richly, and deeply, and well, if self-motivated inquiry fuels their explorations. Their learning will take root, if they can tie concepts to things they can see, and touch, and experience. They can dive into the questions that tickle their minds now — about the magical workings of cats and dogs, and the origins of ice cream — so that later, when the significance of decisions magnifies, they may navigate the waters with ease.

I didn’t know this at the time, but learning science supports these ideas. John Holt and John Taylor Gatto wrote decades ago about experiential learning, and about the need to engage with, take control of, and organize learning for ourselves. Research from cognitive learning science now reinforces these concepts. God, it seems, has specially crafted our brains to actively seek after him.

As someone who so loves the protocols of surgery, you’d assume I would relish set curricula, orderly with checkboxes, rows, and milestones to accomplish. But surgery taught me something else: real learning comes from inquiry, and from making the material matter. It depends upon our ability to weave a concept into our own story.

Our job is to help our kids’ minds flourish as God intended. To encourage them to thirst for knowledge, and to cultivate tools of learning, and to mature into the beautiful, unique, gifted people God sculpted them to be. My career guides me in that task, not through faith in scripted procedures, but through respect for the power of inquiry. And so I wipe away ketchup, mine for their questions, and explore with them. With hair tousled, and book again in hand, we drink deeply of wonder. .



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