Tuesday, May 4, 2010
On her final day of teaching, April 14, Linda Costanzo, Ph.D. – one of the most decorated teachers in the history of VCU’s School of Medicine – lectured before an admiring throng of students, faculty and administrators attending her last class in physiology.
They occupied every seat in the auditorium of the Hermes A. Kontos Medical Sciences Building, latecomers standing shoulder-to-shoulder against the walls.
She glanced at the time as her lecture winded down. “So, that’s basically it,” she said, putting a punctuation mark on 30 years of teaching.
Clapping became thunder, cheers became war whoops.
The dean of the VCU School of Medicine, Jerome F. Strauss III, M.D., Ph.D., threaded his way to the auditorium stage to embrace Costanzo, and the auditorium rocked.
Strauss reached as high as he could for superlatives.
“In the pantheon of medical educators at MCV who made this institution great, you’re looking at the next member,” Strauss said.
No one doubted him.
Over 30 years on the faculty, Costanzo has amassed 61 teaching awards. She received the VCU Distinguished Teaching Award in 1992, and she was the inaugural recipient of the medical school’s Teaching Excellence Award in 1999 and the American Physiological Society’s Teacher of the Year honor in 1993.
In 2004, she won the prestigious Alpha Omega Alpha Robert J. Glaser Distinguished Teaching Award, which recognizes the most gifted medical educators in the country.
One honor that surprised Costanzo was bestowed when officers of the first-year medical class joined Strauss to present her with Virginia Senate Joint Resolution No. 241, which the students initiated. State Sen. Stephen H. Martin of Chesterfield County served as the patron.
The resolution extols Costanzo’s innovative teaching methods, her ability to connect with her classes, and “her legacy [which] will live on in the lives of the students she has taught.”
The award prompted more cheers, more whoops and a few tears.
As the auditorium grew quiet, Costanzo told her students, past and present, why she puts so much into her teaching.
“It’s pretty simple,” she said. “I love physiology, and I love you.”
But if anyone was trying to put her on a pedestal, Costanzo quickly stepped down and told a scolding story on herself.
She said her first try at teaching, long ago at Cornell University Medical College, ended in miserable failure.
Following a two-hour dress rehearsal prior to her first official lecture, Costanzo’s department chair – sitting on the back row of an otherwise empty lecture hall – turned grim.
“This,” he said, “will never do.”
Costanzo said she learned several lessons that day, from that one sentence. It was the seminal event that made her a better teacher – and as others would later observe – a great teacher.
One lesson was, “to get it right, always.”
As they become physicians and take others’ lives into their hands, Costanzo urged her students to always “get it right,” never giving in to mediocrity or short cuts.
When she was an undergraduate at Duke University, Costanzo said her loyalty was torn between two of her best subjects, chemistry and English.
She earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry, but later in life found time to pursue her interest in writing by authoring three textbooks on physiology. Those textbooks, used worldwide, have been translated into nine languages.
Amanda George, an M.D., Ph.D. candidate in anatomy and neurobiology who will graduate in May, said she has been at VCU for eight years and has never found a teacher more loved and respected than Costanzo.
She said that Costanzo makes an extra effort to know her students individually – their names and the details of their lives.
“She learns these things through conversations with students, during which she plays the role of sounding board, stand-in mom and wisdom-dispenser,” George said.
Costanzo said that coming to know your students is the critical step in becoming a better teacher.
“When you stop seeing your students as a sea of faces, but as individuals with goals and aspirations and fears, you realize that it’s not about you -- it’s about them.
“I want to do as well as I can because of them. They want to be the best physicians they can be, and I want to share in their sense of excellence,” she said.
As assistant dean for medical education, Costanzo serves as administrator over the first two years of the medical curriculum. Her administrative duties, combined with her teaching and counseling, leave her little down time.
She typically rises at 5:15 a.m. and returns home at 7 p.m. or later, facing two hours of homework to prepare for the next day.
She said her husband, Richard Costanzo, Ph.D., professor of physiology and biophysics, offers both professional and personal support for her work.
But Costanzo said her demanding schedule, coupled with growing responsibilities for her aging mother, has tested her stamina and might eventually erode the high standards she has set for herself.
“I don’t want to remain on faculty beyond the point of usefulness,” she said.
Although her colleagues say she is far from that point, Costanzo believes retirement may be the best step for her.
Strauss, in remarks during the celebration at her last class, said that when he thought of Costanzo’s retirement, what came to mind were the retirements of others who had achieved “greatness” and then decided to step down.
He recalled the retirements of Barbra Streisand, the acclaimed singer, actress and songwriter; of Garth Brooks, the country music superstar; and of Bret Favre, one of the great quarterbacks in the National Football League.
“What I like about these comparisons,” Strauss said with a big smile, “is that all those people retired; then, they came back to work!”
Costanzo said she would love to continue teaching, but for now, her focus is on preparing her second-year medical students for the rigors of their Step 1 exam, which they must surmount to continue their education in medical school.
“You always think about the students – their dreams, their hopes,” Costanzo said.