Health Occupations Instructor Susan Heitman is a bundle of energy known for her constant and contagious smile. A familiar face at MATC's Downtown Milwaukee Campus, she teaches a full schedule while also serving on faculty committees and working occasionally as an occupational therapist. What keeps her going is a burning passion to help others learn.
"I draw on my students' energy and enthusiasm and try to give something of that back," she says. "And I think I'm most energetic when I practice what I preach – that is, when I use the same lessons for living that we teach to occupational therapy clients. Practicing a healthy lifestyle and giving to the community is essential for me." Quoting Sarah Bernhardt, Heitman adds, "Energy creates energy; it is by spending oneself that one becomes rich."
The push and pull of the learning process inspires her. As a teacher, part of her job is to move students out of their comfort zones. "For some people it's a difficult journey. But afterwards they realize they are better for it, and they will share that with me. It's very gratifying to be a part of that process and to see people grow.
"To help them get there, the teacher has to perform a balancing act. You have to find a way to be firm and set high expectations without killing the fire."
Buoyed by Faith
Her deep religious faith helps sustain Heitman through the ups and downs in her work and her life. "I'm acutely aware of my many blessings," she says in explaining her unfailingly positive outlook.
Health Occupations Instructor Susan Heitman keeps her skills fresh by continuing to practice as an occupational therapist.
Heitman joined MATC in 1995, while she was working as an occupational therapist at the former Trinity Memorial Hospital in Cudahy (now St. Luke's South Shore). She was hired for a part-time opening, teaching therapeutic media, her first love. Therapeutic media, now referred to as activity analysis and application, provides a foundation of the OT profession to engage people in meaningful activities despite physical or emotional limitations.
She continued part-time as a therapist while teaching at MATC. After three years, she was promoted to full-time instructor. Heitman continues to work occasionally at the hospital, filling in weekends on the Behavioral Medicine unit.
In addition, she is a hospice/bereavement volunteer at the Aurora Visting Nurse Association Zilber Hospice. "Being truly present, attentive and responsive to an individual and his or her family at the end of life is both humbling and rewarding. I have learned so much from the people I have worked with in hospice." Heitman also shares her time with the Respect Life ministry at her church because she feels strongly that life, at all stages, is precious and valuable.
Keeping one foot in the workplace constantly reminds her of the challenges professionals face in the field. "I can share my experiences with students. It adds credibility to what I teach in the classroom."
"Therapists are teachers in that we want to show clients how to be as healthy
as possible and how to change unhealthy and unproductive behaviors.
So for me, training occupational therapy assistants felt like second nature."
Primed to Teach
A native of St. Francis, Wis., Heitman holds a bachelor's degree in occupational therapy from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She did not train to be a teacher, but says teaching had long intrigued her. "About a hundred years ago" she wanted to be a home economics teacher.
Although she had never formally taught, her job in many ways was about teaching, she says. Occupational therapy helps physically and mentally challenged individuals achieve independence in all facets of their lives. The therapist's job includes designing client-centered treatment programs, performing home and job site evaluations, assessing performance levels, training clients in the use of adaptive equipment and providing education and support. "Therapists are teachers in that we want to show clients how to be as healthy as possible and how to change unhealthy and unproductive behaviors," Heitman says.
Heitman says the OTA faculty has been innovative and creative in developing authentic learning opportunities. For instance, they recently collaborated with students to present "Wii-habilitation" during MATC's 2009 Portfolio Night at Discovery World. Students presented the interactive video gaming system to educate about health and wellness. Since then, OTA faculty received a grant from the MATC Foundation to develop a curriculum using the Wii as a therapeutic tool.
Very Full Plate
In addition trying to stay creative in her teaching, Heitman branched out educationally in 2000 by earning her master's degree in educational computing from Cardinal Stritch University, opening the way for her to take on computer-related teaching assignments. In 2006, she assumed the role of coordinator of the OTA program and teaches "Introduction to Occupational Therapy," "Activity Analysis & Applications," "Geriatric Practice," "Assistive Technology" and "Community Practice."
In addition, Heitman teaches a variety of other health courses and advises the Student Occupational Therapy Assistant (SOTA) Club. SOTA has been involved with informal mentoring of peers in the OTA program, outreach to the community with donations of hand-crafted hats for a local neonatal intensive care unit, community blood drives, and other activities.
Since 2001, Heitman has supported international education by hosting visiting students from Canada and Germany and a German teacher as well. She has traveled to Germany as part of a teacher exchange program. Beginning in 2006, Heitman developed a student exchange program between MATC occupational therapy assistant students and German Ergotherapie students. OTA students visited Ergotherapie schools and healthcare facilities in Frankfurt and Berlin. MATC students have traveled to Germany twice and the OTA program has hosted Ergotherapie students and faculty twice since the program's inception.
Heitman says she is grateful that MATC supports these robust learning activities and is delighted that the exchange program has provided opportunities for students to connect with colleagues across the Atlantic. "The profession of occupational therapy is richer for these experiences that explore our differences and our similarities," she says. "Learning about your profession within a different culture offers opportunities to reflect on who we are, and justify our actions to those who are not familiar with our routines and customs. This thoughtful self-reflection allows us to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of diversity on a personal, professional and cultural level."