I went to high school in a small New England town at a time when career opportunities for women were just beginning to branch out into a variety of non-traditional fields rather than the traditional teaching and nursing. Women were also looking toward careers instead of “jobs.” At that time, I viewed teaching as a job, which provided students with the same subject(s) day after day, year after year. To me that seemed boring. I could not see myself standing in front of a classroom all day, or even half a day. I wanted something exciting. In fact, I had decided even before entering high school that I never wanted to be a teacher. While volunteering at our local hospital, I watched the nurses care for people with varying illnesses, something that seemed much more interesting and challenging than teaching.
After becoming a registered nurse, my focus was on patient care in a telemetry/critical care setting. I enjoyed the interaction with patients and families, answering their questions and providing them with information. After becoming a clinical nurse specialist, I continued working with patients and families in a hospital setting, providing them with information about their illnesses and preventive care. Frequently I gave in-services to the hospital staff on various nursing issues. I was also a preceptor for new staff members, and I enjoyed watching new nurses grow in their practice. The hospital had an RN Intern program, and I was asked to be an educator in that program. I viewed all this as “helping” patients, families, and staff. The thought of going from a hospital setting to a classroom still did not interest me.
Change of heart
My feelings on teaching began to change the day I received a call from a colleague who was an associate professor at a local university school of nursing. The fall semester was approaching, and the school of nursing still had to fill a couple of clinical faculty vacancies. My colleague called to ask if I would consider being an adjunct instructor and teaching a nursing clinical class at a local hospital. To my surprise, I found myself saying I would “think about it.” After several days of deliberation and discussions with my nurse manager, I agreed to teach one day a week for one semester.
I knew several of the nursing faculty since they, like myself, were active in our state nurses association. The course coordinator was wonderful and patient in answering my questions and explaining the school’s policies and protocols. She also passed along tips she had learned to make things easier in the clinical setting. That fall semester was definitely trial and error for me. I had eight senior students in my class, and we were on a busy acute care hospital unit. I felt fortunate because the staff on that unit liked having students and were very helpful.
One day, after about four weeks, I was reviewing my students’ clinical performance and progress. I realized that the students were great at taking vital signs, giving baths, performing “mini” physical assessments, helping their resource nurses, and giving medications safely. However, I was not seeing them perform, or document, physical assessments or interventions in what I considered a satisfactory manner for senior students. Nor could they answer my questions. I had always viewed physical assessments as one of the most important nursing functions, so I decided my students’ performance needed to change.
That day I sent the students an e-mail outlining, in detail, my expectations for the remainder of the semester. During the next eight weeks I watched the students perform satisfactory head-to-toe assessments, document more effectively, and perform interventions in a highly satisfactorily manner. The students also began checking their patients’ lab results and were able to explain possible reasons for any abnormal results and the effect of these results on their patients. Even the nurses on the unit remarked on the students’ improved performance.
The last day of the clinical class, the students and I went to lunch together at a nearby restaurant. During the conversation, I learned that my e-mail had really scared them. They had gotten together and warned each other to do exactly what I had outlined in my e-mail so they would not upset me. They also told me that, in spite of my e-mail, they soon learned I hadn’t changed. I was still always willing to help them and answer all their questions. However, they told me that I had made them change. Then my students asked if I would be teaching the next semester. When I replied I hadn’t signed my contract yet, they all told me that I should sign it and continue teaching. They said that, even though I had scared them into improving their performance, I had helped them achieve their goals to become nurses. They also said that I had made them feel like “real nurses”. To me that was the best compliment I could have received.
A new path
Thanks to my students that first semester, my thoughts on teaching took on a different light, and I realized that I had learned a lot from my students. I had helped them become nurses, but they had helped me become an instructor. I signed my contract and continued teaching clinical classes as an adjunct instructor for another six years. However, I made one change at the beginning of each semester. At orientation, instead of an e-mail, I gave all students a typed copy of my expectations for their performance during the semester. The students’ comments at the end of each semester helped me continue teaching. I left that university only because I was moving out of state.
After settling into a new location, I started looking for a part-time job. I initially wanted something similar to my former hospital position. I had several very long interviews, but each position and interview did not seem right. Finally, I met someone who was a faculty member at a local school of nursing. She mentioned that the department in which she worked had a vacancy for a part-time clinical instructor. Even though I was not sure I was ready to teach again, I e-mailed my resume to the department chair. During my two interviews, I felt very comfortable with everyone to whom I spoke. When I was offered the part-time position, I readily accepted it and have had no regrets.
I still do not want to teach in a classroom or even give occasional lectures. However, my students continue to make me realize how enjoyable teaching clinical nursing can be. Yes, sometimes it can be frustrating, and sometimes a student needs a lot of extra attention. It’s certainly not an eight or twelve hour shift job. The salaries for faculty, especially part-time faculty, are not high. However, it definitely is not boring. It’s exciting! For any advanced practice nurse who wants a challenge, along with frustration, part-time salary, and no standard hours, this is a perfect position. The pros definitely out weight the cons. The best part for me, someone who never wanted to teach, is that I still enjoy watching the students grow and become nurses.
Beverly Wheeler, MSN, RN, ACNS-BC, is clinical instructor in the School of Nursing at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
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