As teenagers, we are often nothing like the adults we become. For some, the transition is a metamorphosis that occurs gradually. For others, it’s a rapid change that can almost take a person by surprise. For Paul Barlett, it was a little bit of both. In his youth, he was shy and quiet. He was the last person you could imagine taking control of a classroom to teach.
He became Dr. Paul Barlett and embarked on a lengthy and successful career as an anatomy professor at Cleveland University-Kansas City. At one time he was unable to speak in front of others, now he’s unable to stop, because he loves what he does.
But how does a man who struggled with presentation skills arrive at a career delivering lectures to college students each day? It was a journey of discovery; one that forced him to at take control of an uneasiness with public speaking that had bedeviled him for years. Along the way he gained confidence, a career, and the respect of students and peers alike. But after more than 30 years in the classroom, in many ways, he is still just Paul Barlett, shy and quiet.
“I’m definitely an introvert, and people don’t see that, but I really am,” Barlett said. “I don’t really work well at social events, I’m not good at small talk, and when I was a freshman in high school, I almost failed a speech class because I was terrified to stand up in front of people.”
Years later, when he returned for a high school reunion, his classmates were shocked by his career choice, thinking it seemed out of character for a someone who was so quiet. His silence during his younger years is something Barlett does not dispute. “I probably said three words a day,” while in high school,” he said. Although he spoke sparingly back then, these days his words are much more plentiful.
Engineering a Biology Career
After high school in his native Ohio, Barlett prepared himself to write the next chapter of his life. He enrolled in college at the University of Akron and studied engineering, but it didn’t resonate with him. He was still looking for something that he could be passionate about. A long-time interest in biology sparked a change in his major, and his course was set.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in biology, he applied to medical school. Fate threw him a curve ball, and he didn’t get in. Unfazed by the setback, Barlett conferred with one of his professors who encouraged him to complete one year of graduate study and then apply to medical school a second time.
It was thought that the additional research work would increase his odds of gaining admission, but it wasn’t meant to be. What he really wanted was to get involved with medical education. When he found out he could do that without being a medical doctor (M.D.) he was hooked. He began teaching in graduate school and found the career he had been seeking.
“I thought I wanted to go to medical school, but the best thing that happened to me was that I didn’t get accepted,” Barlett said. “I decided to stay in graduate school and went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees. That’s when I started teaching.”
Barlett earned a master’s in physiology at the University of Akron, which is the study of the functions of living organism and their parts. After that, it was on to The Ohio State University (OSU) for a Ph.D. in anatomy. His primary area of study was embryology, which involves human development from conception to the time of birth.
Teaching was a surprising turn for Barlett, and one that would require a gradual strengthening of his confidence. He would rely on his recollections of Dr. Margaret Hines, one of his professors at OSU. She was a mentor who greatly influenced his classroom instruction techniques.
“When I first started teaching, yes, I was very uncomfortable still, but over time you evolve things,” Barlett said. “And I would go back to Dr. Hines again, and I would say, okay, how would she do this, how would she handle this, what would she do in this instance? And slowly I became her in front of a class, and I felt much more confident in myself.”
That confidence also led to a much more comfortable relationship with his subject matter and his ability to deliver it. While this sometimes involved two-to-three hours of study at night, it served him well when he was standing in front of the class.
“Students that were older than I was”
After finishing his degree at OSU, he accepted a laboratory job that he would soon lose when the economic recession hit in the 1980s. Still, his love for the classroom never waned. He applied for a faculty position at CUKC and got the job, but it was not without its trials.
“When I first starting teaching at CUKC, I was very young,” Barlett said. “I had students who were older than I was. This forced me to take control of my classes. And believe me, there were challenges. What I found was that if I was in control, if I was dynamic, and if I was confident in my ability, I could be a great teacher. I am still striving to be that great teacher. My shyness forced a change in my outward personality. If one projects confidence, one will seem confident.”
Conquering his fear of public speaking forced Barlett to adopt different strategies to excel in in the classroom. Once again, he relied on the techniques learned from Dr. Hines. He incorporated them in with his own efforts to find success, and he still uses those same educational systems today, often with similar results.
“Dr. Hines did not take much credence with memorizing structures,” Barlett said. “She wanted students to think. And so, she would always ask questions that were above memorization. And when she did that, the students really didn’t like it, just as my students don’t like it now.”
He said many of her med school students were challenged by her methodology, and only when they saw the results of her efforts did they begin to understand.
“At the end of that year, because they would go into clinical rotations, all of a sudden, she would get flowers and cards because she had prepared the students for medical rotations,” Barlett said. “And I’ve found the same thing. Students sometimes really don’t like the things I do in a classroom, but I have a wall full of awards for ‘Teacher of the Year.’ And so, the students appreciate it after the fact, but usually not during.”
Student success, a shared endeavor
At CUKC Barlett teaches anatomy, primarily to students pursuing the Doctor of Chiropractic (D.C.) degree. For them, it is an academic battle of attrition. When graduation arrives, the feelings of satisfaction belong not only to students, they are shared by faculty.
“I became a teacher because of that look on a student’s face when something clicks for the first time,” Barlett said. “In addition, I’m helping students accomplish their goal of getting a D.C. degree. I realize that I’m a small piece of their educational experience, but for me, to know that I helped them reach the end that they want, is very motivating.”
Putting students first has always been a priority for Barlett, and he believes that he owes them a firm foundation on which to build the rest of their coursework. To do this, he makes it clear what is expected of them. This leaves some students a bit thunderstruck, but it fuels his efforts to help them grasp the material as the class progresses.
“When you walk into a classroom that first day, and you give them the fire and brimstone speech, where you tell them this is what you’re going to have to do, these are the requirements of the course, these are my rules; they all sit there like deer in headlights,” Barlett said. “But slowly they start to loosen up, and you start to see them actually understanding and learning, and I want to do the best job that I can to get that message across to them.”
According to Barlett that messaging is made easier because chiropractic students are dedicated to their academic pursuits. He can relate because he was a similar type of student – focused, driven and thirsty for knowledge. For that reason, he tries to ensure the coursework is not only challenging, but also of value.
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The anatomy arena
To gain the respect of your students, you must be proficient at what you do. And for Barlett, there are a few simple things that are crucial to not only be an accomplished anatomist, but one who can help others achieve in that arena as well.
“A good anatomy teacher is three parts. They are a scholar; they have to know their subject. They have to be an artist. An artist is important in anatomy because we deal a lot with visual images. We have to be able to draw to be able to explain. And finally, you have to be able to get dirty. Dissection is the way to learn anatomy. But with that comes a little bit of ‘grossness,’ in the laboratories. So, you have to be able to kind of divorce your mind from exactly what you’re doing, yet you still have to learn the material.”
And for Barlett, the best way to learn that material is in the anatomy lab, because textbooks simply cannot offer a complete window into the subject matter. He believes it is imperative that students have a tactile experience as well. To do that, there must be a lab option that includes a dissection option.
“There is a real big push in the world of anatomy now to go into computer generated models, and yes, they’re wonderful, but you lose the three-dimensionality of anatomy by using those kinds of modalities,” Barlett said. “I think they are wonderful for supplementation. Even models are really good if you want to supplement, but if you want to see structure, and you want to see the way that it looks in the body, you need a cadaver.”
Barlett believes that to put our biological differences in perspective, one must be able to view examples of the deviations in structure and content up close and unfiltered.
“We are all different on the outside,” Barlett said. “Everyone is also different on the inside, and, so, therefore, those little nuances of differences can be seen in the cadavers. If you study 10 different models, they’re all going to be the same, and you’re going to walk away with the idea that everyone is the same on the inside. So, as long as I can, I will still advocate for cadavers and dissection laboratories.”
Learning the Barlett way
The ability of Barlett to camouflage his trepidation about public speaking has served him well.
His knowledge of the subject matter is expansive, which puts him in his comfort zone. This greatly reduces any lingering difficulties regarding his presentation ability. The material he teaches serves as a buffer between Barlett the introvert and the one who is the extrovert. So much so, that he feels like “a showman” when he stands before a classroom of students, which allows him to be part comedian, but all educator.
As a result, anatomy is a favorite class among many CUKC students, partly because of the subject matter, but mainly because of Barlett’s teaching style. He is jovial and possesses a self-deprecating sense of humor not often found in academic circles. And while he doesn’t take himself very seriously, he is all business when it comes to his work. In the classroom he is passionate, dedicated, and doggedly determined to make sure that his students understand the human body.
“To me, education should not be torturous for students,” Barlett said. “They should learn, but they should enjoy that learning process. The type of instructors that just stand up and read power points, that’s not what teaching is to me. I mean, you have to explain, you have to draw, you have to write, and that’s what I do. And I joke…I have a good time. But when it comes down to it, students need to know the information”
A career without working
Now after 32 years in the classroom at CUKC, Barlett has seen much and taught many. He could’ve gone to a large flagship institution like his alma mater, OSU, but he readily admits that he would not have had the opportunity to do many things that he has experienced at CUKC. The ability for him to continue to learn and grow professionally came more rapidly at CUKC than it might have at a larger university.
Barlett was instrumental in the development of the bachelor of science degree program at CUKC and was the first director of undergraduate studies. He served as academic dean for more than a decade, and he’s sat on national boards for chiropractic education for 20 years. Those activities deepened his knowledge of academia and allowed him to experience the best of what CUKC has to offer from both his students and his peers. And although he has given a lot to the University over the years, it’s what he gets back that keeps him at Cleveland.
“My biggest motivation is the students,” Barlett said. “They show up every day ready and hoping to learn new material. I also like the people I work with. They are my colleagues, but also my friends.”
When assessing why he chose a career in education, Barlett offers the perspective that many in his profession share. He made his choice knowing that great wealth and adulation will likely never find a teacher. It’s done for the love of something that can be categorized with neither price nor prize. It’s deeper and more profound.
“If you get into teaching to make money, or to ‘blow your own horn,’ you’re going about it the wrong way,” Barlett said. “Don’t get hung up on money or fame, just enjoy what you do every day. If what you do doesn’t make you happy, then you aren’t doing what you should be doing, find something else. As the saying goes, ‘If you enjoy what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.'”
Catch Dr. Barlett’s “One Big Thing” in this 30-second clip