Updated: Dec 16, 2019
Being a Nurse Preceptor is hard…
With the looming nursing shortage, recruiting and retaining nurses is a top priority. As a preceptor, you have an important role to play. Your relationship with your nursing student is crucial to their development as a future nurse. Not only are you teaching them nursing skills, but you are also guiding them through their first foray into the healthcare system. You are representing our profession. We trust you to do it well.
But acting as a clinical preceptor to a student nurse isn’t most nurses’ dream job. Take all the responsibilities of bedside nursing and now add teaching and supervising a student to the list - all without a pay raise, or much direction.
Precepting is especially daunting if you’re a newer nurse. You might just be starting to feel comfortable at work, and now you’re supposed to teach the job to somebody else? I've been a working nurse for 18 months and have already precepted six different student nurses. It can be totally overwhelming.
As a nurse preceptor not yet too far removed from the nursing student role, I've developed some resources to help both nursing students and preceptors navigate the student-preceptor dynamic.
But so is being a Nursing Student.
But before you dive in, I ask that you pause to remember your first day of nursing school clinicals.
I remember mine like it was yesterday. (Truthfully, 2016 wasn’t that long ago.) I so badly wanted to make a good impression on my preceptor, but my nervous, sweaty hands couldn’t open a pill packet to save my life. Ten minutes into med pass, the nurse kindly took over “to give me a break.” I wanted to die.
Nursing students know they can be a burden to their preceptors, and they want to know how to make our lives a little easier. Let’s do the same for our students.
Tip #1: Center yourself
Sometimes, preceptors know ahead of time when they’ll be working with a student. Sometimes, it’s a surprise. Whether you know two weeks before or you find out at 6:59, try to grab a few minutes of alone time before your shift begins.
I like to lock myself in the bathroom, close my eyes, and think about how I can show up as my best self for the student out there waiting for me. Being the preceptor you want to be for a student isn’t always easy. When you allow yourself time to mentally shift into your new role, you’ll show up as a more patient, more present teacher for your student.
Tip #2: Make a plan
Before the shift starts, connect with your student about their goals for the day. I recommend making a plan for two reasons. First, this is a good instructional tool. It prompts the student to take responsibility for their learning and get in the habit of goal-setting and prioritizing before a shift.
Second, it helps you, as a preceptor, make a game plan. If you have an understanding of the student’s knowledge, skill level, and their primary focus for the day, you’ll have a better chance of effectively instructing them. If you take the time upfront to build a strategy, it will save you time on the back end because you will be able to delegate tasks and instruct them without constant check-ins and guesswork.
Tip #3: Build a relationship
To be a nursing student is to be vulnerable. They show up at clinicals with limited knowledge, knowing they’ll spend the day making mistakes, being critiqued, and possibly being bullied.
If you or anyone on your unit makes a habit of picking on student nurses, end it immediately. Bullying or ignoring students isn’t a display of status, it’s a display of immaturity. Nurses, don’t be too cool for students. You were one once. You know better.
People learn best when they feel safe and supported. Fostering a supportive learning environment begins with building relationships. Express genuine interest in your student’s life and point of view. Establish rapport and get to know your student. They’ll feel more comfortable taking risks - with your guidance - and accepting feedback.
Then, go a step further: Introduce them around the unit. Make them feel part of the team. Model a healthy work environment for your nursing student, so that when they begin their job search, they know what to look for in their future unit.
Tip #4: Give them grace
Once upon a time, I was a nursing student…and a clueless one at that. It took me a full 30 seconds to put on a pair of gloves. I didn’t know the name for anything. Early on in my training, my preceptor said, “Hand me a flush,” and I thought he was talking about toilets.
Your student won’t know everything. In fact, they probably won’t know most things. Whatever they do - and no matter how dumb they may seem - do not shame your nursing student.
Also, prepare for your student to be slow. Soooo slow. I recently had a student nurse working with me who placed a blanket onto a patient with such tender love and care that it almost warmed my cold ER Nurse heart. It also took ten times longer than it needed to.
Instead of rushing her along in the moment and potentially embarrassing her, I opted to have a conversation about time management later in the day. There are realities of working as a nurse in healthcare that students won’t immediately understand. Prioritization and efficiency are key elements to practicing as an effective nurse. That’s a valuable conversation for them to have, but it doesn’t necessarily need to happen in real-time.
Tip #5: Keep frustrations to yourself
This is the tip I need to work on the most. Working as a bedside nurse is stressful. In the ER, we have high patient turnover, constant interruptions (like ambulances and call lights), and more than our fair share of violent patients. Inevitably, all of these factors take a toll on me once in a while, and I become frustrated. When I’m working on my own, I can privately seethe and get over it. But when I have a student following my every move, my frustrations tend to come out.
While it’s important that nursing students see the reality of the profession they’ll enter, listening to a stressed-out nurse gripe for 12 hours isn’t productive. My rule for myself is this: Save the analysis for after the game. When I’m frazzled and barely holding it together, it’s not the time for me to share with my student what is going wrong. Instead, I’ll wait until we’re clocking out, or if they’re with me for an extended period, I’ll discuss it on another shift. Delaying the conversation helps me a) calm down, and b) have a better perspective to share. Just like you shouldn’t put negative energy onto your patients, don’t do that to your student.
Tip #6: Share the love
As a preceptor, there are times when I just really need to be alone. Having a Mini-Me attached to your hip for 12 hours is draining. When you start to feel yourself losing patience, send them off with a colleague for a few minutes. And don’t feel guilty about it. Honestly, your student probably wants a break from you, too.
I like to go up to the nursing station and say, “Does anyone have something interesting for my student to see?” Chances are, your colleague has a laborious dressing change that needs a second pair of hands, and your student will have the chance to see a tunneling pressure ulcer! Win-win-win.
Tip #7: Learn from them
If a student questions you about something you’ve done, don’t take it personally. They’re likely asking because they’ve seen another nurse do it differently. Their primary job at clinicals is to watch the nurses' every move and incorporate what they see into their practice.
During my final clinical internship, I worked with two preceptors from the same Emergency Department who were total opposites. They each learned a lot by watching me use strategies and tricks that I had picked up from the other. Sometimes they liked what they saw. Other times, they had strong feelings about me doing it the ‘wrong’ way. Hearing and seeing two different nursing styles was super valuable to me as a student.
Preceptors, don’t be afraid to embrace the role of student.
If you’ve read this far, thank you for your commitment to grow as a nurse preceptor. Without preceptors, nursing students would never become nurses. Let’s use our role as instructors to leave our mark on the rising generation of nurses. Whether or not you yourself had a stellar preceptor, I hope these tips give you the confidence to be the preceptor your students deserve.