Updated: Dec 16, 2019
Being a nursing student is hard…
Walking into a new clinical site as a nursing student is daunting, whether you’re 21 or 51. You don’t know anybody. You might not know anything. You’re in your school-sanctioned scrubs in some unfortunate color like purple or maroon. The word ‘Student’ is emblazoned on your work badge. You planned to show up an hour early, but you got lost in the parking garage, and now you’re cutting it close. You’ve made it onto the unit with help from kind strangers, and now you’re looking for a nurse named ‘Kelly’. You look upon a sea of scrubs and ponytails. Good luck finding her.
Nursing students, I get it. I’ve been there - not too long ago. Nobody who is a registered nurse today got to skip out on the awkward student nurse phase. Take a breath. You’ll be okay.
And so is being a Preceptor.
I work with nursing students quite a bit in my role as an Emergency Department RN. This has given me an opportunity to reflect on my past experience as a nursing student with a new perspective.
Over the last few months, nursing students have asked me for advice: How can I be a better student for my preceptor? I hear the same concerns over and over: I’m worried I’ll get in their way. What if they think I'm stupid? I've realized how little instruction nursing students get about how to approach their clinical experiences - and most importantly, their relationship with their preceptor.
And just like there’s no one way to be a nurse, there’s no cookie cutter way to be a nursing student. Every student arrives on the unit with a unique background, which includes their level of experience, their nursing program, their age, their maturity level, their past career history, and more! That’s part of the fun - and challenge - of being a preceptor - especially if it’s just for one shift rather than a longer term relationship.
The nursing student - nurse preceptor relationship is critical to the success of future nurses. A great preceptor can inspire you to go into their specialty - or even work on their unit. A bad preceptor can put you off from nursing altogether. I have some advice for you to make the absolute best out of every nursing clinical experience - and how to make your preceptor’s life a little easier.
Tip #1 - Be Realistic
Before you even get on the unit, prepare yourself for a shock to the system. Real-life nursing practice is not what the textbooks have you believe. There are realities of working within a hospital environment that the classroom cannot effectively prepare you for. This is why getting actual clinical experience is so important. Go in with an open mind.
I chuckle when I look back on my early days of nursing school clinicals. My classmates and I were scandalized that the nurses we shadowed didn’t wear their isolation gowns - when indicated - at all times. “It’s just irresponsible,” we would haughtily say to each other during our lunch break.
Student nurses, let's get real. That Iso patient had MRSA four years ago and me leaning into the room to shut the lights off without a gown on isn’t going to give anyone MRSA. Your preceptor probably won’t “scrub the hub” for a full 15 seconds. He may push IV medications over two minutes instead of the recommended two. If you’re the perfect nurse who actually does these things, good for you. And I’m ready for your emails. But the reality is that nurses’ To Do lists are miles long. We’ve learned from experience how to be more efficient. And now you get to learn from us.
Obviously, if you see something truly unsafe or unethical going on, speak up. But don’t try to tell your preceptor how to do her job. It’s not a good look, and we probably have a good reason why we’re doing things the way we are. If you want clarification about a skill that we’ve performed differently from your instructor, ask! In Nursing, there are 100 acceptable ways to do a given task. Now’s your chance to observe a variety of techniques, and take your favorites into your own practice.
Tip #2 - Guard your Empathy
My first week as a nurse intern in an ED, an unstable Triple A (Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm) was airlifted to our hospital and rolled into our stabilization bay. I silently watched the team do their thing from the deepest corner of the room, wedged between the airway cart and the cardiac monitor. The skill and cooperation I witnessed that day was incredible. And then, once the patient had gone to the OR, I went in the bathroom and cried.
Thirty minutes earlier, as we had been waiting for the chopper to arrive, one nurse turned to the rest of us and said, “Better hope he doesn’t have allergies. With Triple As, one sneeze, and it’s over.” The nurse’s station cracked up, and my jaw hit the floor. They were sitting around laughing about a man bleeding out from the largest artery in his body in less than 3 minutes. I was horrified.
I don’t know what happened to that guy. That’s the way of the hospital. Patients roll away, and you don't get to know the ending to their story. But as I cried in the bathroom, I was so scared for him. And I was scared for myse