AOA 2024: AOA's Educator of the Year reflects on challenges and accomplishments in optometric education

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Jeffrey J. Walline, OD, PhD, was this year's award winner.

Jeffrey J. Walline was named Educator of the Year by the American Optometric Association (AOA) this year and was honored during the organization's Optometry's Meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. In an interview with Optometry Times, he details what it means to be an educator and what challenges are present for schools and colleges of optometry today.

Video transcript

Editor's note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jeffrey J. Walline, OD, PhD:

Hi, I'm Jeffrey J. Walline. I'm the acting dean at The Ohio State University College of Optometry and the president-elect of the American Academy of Optometry. I was honored this year to receive the AOA Educator of the Year award. Actually, I was beyond honored. I was completely shocked by the award. I honestly don't consider myself to be one of the top educators but what I think I figured out is it's about the breadth of education that I provide, all the way from pre-kindergarten all the way up through some of the oldest people that you can imagine. And I think we as optometrists all need to be educating everybody that we see, not only about how to care for their eyes, but about what we do as a profession because as a legislated profession, we aren't going to advance if people don't know what we do.

I think one of the things I've been most excited about over the past year is the total eclipse that actually happened in Ohio and throughout other states. It was a great opportunity for optometry to teach people about how to keep their eyes safe. I am the medical director of the Realeyes program, a part of the Ohio Optometric Association, and we educate kids about how to take care of their eyes. And in a matter of just a few weeks, we came up with the education that we actually provided to over 90,000 students across the state of Ohio to make sure that they kept their eyes safe. And I think that was a really important message and a really important opportunity for all optometrists to be able to provide the education and the resources that people need to keep their eyes safe so that they know what optometrists can help protect.

Being an optometric educator, I think, is really important because what I do on a daily basis helps educate the people and helps take care of people across the entire nation, because I'm educating other people how to become practitioners, and how to teach people about how to keep their eyes safe, ultimately. So I think becoming an educator just sort of expands the message which we have from beyond the clinic to across the world. And I think that's what really excites me about being an educator.
Some of the challenges that schools and colleges of optometry are facing is the fact that we have sort of a flat applicant pool, but we have an increasing number of institutions. But it's not even the applicants that are difficult. It's the educators that we're really having difficulty finding, people who want to do it for a an entire career. Because what we know is that you come in as an educator, the first 2, 3 years are really, really difficult. It's not until after 4 or 5 years that you really know the material well. And you're able to best provide the messages for the students so that they can learn from it. So what we really need to create is a steady bunch of group of people who are interested in academia for a lifetime, because they're the ones who can ultimately do the best job teaching.

The AOA meeting is a blast. I get to see people that I don't otherwise see. I get the opportunity to talk to a lot of people with the similar passions. And of course, being here in Nashville is an absolute blast. But it's really all about what you can learn on a daily basis from each other. So education is always an important part of that. And it can really happen just in the hallways of meetings like this. I think it's what makes it fun and makes it interesting and exciting.

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