When she came to UC in 1996, Rebecca Leugers started out teaching undergraduate students in the College of Allied Health Science’s physical therapy classes. As the department’s program changed, she moved from teaching undergraduate to graduate students, and now teaches solely second and third-year doctoral students in the newly revamped physical therapy doctoral program.
But that doesn’t mean her students start out with a strong background in her specialty—physical therapy for patients with a neurological condition.
"It’s an entry level program,” she says. "So everybody has to take the class. Not everybody has to love the class, though.”
Leugers says she tells all her students at the beginning of the course that, while she loves working with patients with neurological problems, "they don’t have to love it, but they have to be good at what they’re doing.”
Teaching her students to excel from the moment they begin clinical work has become the focus for Leugers’ instruction. Students praise her compassion and integrity, as well as her ability to remove the pressures of grades and academic performance from a highly selective program.
"We have students who are very driven,” she says. "They’re used to getting A’s and they can’t always deal with getting less than that or getting criticism. But most of them are driven to do well in their professions—so there’s the opportunity for us to let them let go of the grade and really focus on what’s important for practice.”
Gary Johnson, a physical therapy student who wrote a letter of support for Leugers’ nomination, said that the program’s "practical exams,” mock patient interactions, are a particularly trying part of the curriculum.
"They’ve left many students feeling miserably incompetent when they don’t pass on the first attempt,” he wrote. "However … Rebecca has the ability to fail you during a practical exam in such a way that you don’t become overwhelmed with your self-critical emotions of failing. You recognize that you have room for improvement and that you are still respected.”
"From the first day we had Rebecca as a teacher, it was clear she was there to help us become well-rounded physical therapists, not tear us down,” wrote student Coryn Autore. That preparation for students involves guided self-evaluations, class discussions and in-class interaction with a variety of patients who have experienced neurological injuries or conditions.
Given that her classes typically fall before students’ clinical internship, Leugers has found a way to help them prepare for that next level in their education. Drawing from past patients and connections, she has developed a network of nearly 20 patient volunteers—all willing to share their experiences with a neuromuscular condition or injury, including stroke, traumatic brain injury, amputation and other impairments.
"It takes a while to develop that group of people who will come in year after year,” she says, "and who are willing to let the students fumble around with them and learn.”
When volunteers attend classes, students are able to interact with them individually or in small groups. If unsure how to carry out an exercise like testing muscle strength or reflexes, they can "phone a friend” by asking a fellow classmate for assistance.
"I think that’s important for students, to have the experience of feeling and handling another person’s body who may have some abnormalities,” says Leugers. "Some of our patients have very high tone in their muscles and it may feel different to move their arm or their leg. A lot of students don’t have that experience, but, by practicing in class, you’ll be able to see that light bulb come on. It really helps them put things together.”
Leugers also has students talk with volunteers to learn how their injury or disease affects other aspects of their life.
"I want the students to be able to put themselves in the patient’s shoes—to understand, holistically, how a catastrophic problem like having a stroke or a TBI (traumatic brain injury) has affected the whole person. I think these patients have a lot of strengths, as well as a host of problems. But sometimes they rise above and beyond what we think they can do. It’s amazing the lessons we can learn from our patients.”
Johnson says Leugers not only teaches the ideals of empathy and respect as a professor, but shows them as a physical therapist: "It would be incomplete to only say Rebecca ‘demonstrated’ these qualities. I feel like she embodies them.”
Rose Smith, a fellow faculty member in the department, says Leugers has served as a mentor, team-teaching with her when Smith was transitioning from a clinical career to an academic post.
"She represents what I think teaching is,” says Smith, "Her enthusiasm in the classroom, the way she engages the students, applies creative activities to assist learning and the mutual respect that is demonstrated is obvious in her classroom.”
But Leugers says she’s also been helped by her department. Coming to UC "with a lot of experience from clinical life and limited experience in teaching,” she says the guidance from fellow faculty members helped mold her as an instructor.
"One of the things that’s nice about our physical therapy program is that we have great faculty,” she says. "I’m very honored to win this award, but I think that pretty much everyone in our faculty could win this award, too. We’re very much a team. We all have our own silos of expertise, but, at the end, we’re all looking at producing a great physical therapist.”