“I don’t think you’re cut out for this.” Considering a statement like this motivational seems counterintuitive, but you never know what will help you succeed. However, negativity is only sometimes beneficial.
Looking for positive feedback anywhere you can find it isn’t unusual when you’re a student nurse. The challenges of nursing school require commitment. Baccalaureate programs, which have become the path for many student nurses, demand even more time and energy. Students look to educators, classmates, family, and friends for encouragement as they progress. Frequently, the words of wisdom students receive provide positivity to help even the most uncertain believe they can succeed. Students will still hear internal voices passively and aggressively suggesting they’re not ready. Such defeatist talk isn’t sustaining, so in league with the positive reinforcement of those close to them, students learn to adjust their thoughts and believe they can succeed.
However, some students encounter experiences that force them to make tough decisions about where their lives will take them. Two such experiences forced me to analyze the course of my life while pursuing a nursing degree and how negatives can turn into positives.
Nursing school struggles
Student nurses experience various degrees of stress. Over time, though, most students develop resilience and learn a truism: We must all learn how to be a nurse; no one is born a nurse. Nursing is a learned skill—a way of knowing and thinking. Understanding the importance of instinctive behavior can prove crucial for a student nurse. Instincts allow us to evaluate situations as they arise. We gain some instincts through knowledge acquisition, but others are more behavioral; we learn them over time. Some might call this common sense.
Using our instincts isn’t always easy. The knowledge gained in nursing school can blur together, confounding students, particularly during testing. The mind can play tricks on us when reading test questions. We might see words that aren’t there or unconsciously add information to the situation described. Test anxiety prevents us from focusing on the crucial problem in nursing, especially when faced with emergent situations. We don’t need to contemplate every possibility if a patient is in respiratory arrest. We need to act based on the patient’s condition and within the scope of our practice.
For this reason, many nursing students become frustrated by exam questions. Some believe that educators want to trick them, but that’s not true. Thinking like a nurse takes time to develop, and some develop more quickly than others. The speed at which someone learns isn’t the issue; what they believe is. Some nurses need more time to develop, which doesn’t make them incapable of performing actions or duties. This slow development is just how they learn. However, the concepts of speed and belief become intertwined in a world that measures success by how quickly a nurse completes or performs tasks.
Believing that you can perform a task isn’t the same as expeditiously doing it. Confidence can help you complete tasks effectively and efficiently. Many nurses gain this ability quickly, but some struggle because, although they may feel they can perform the task, confidence eludes them. And then some nurses have the knowledge and confidence but not the desire to serve.
My experience in nursing school involved this struggle with ability and confidence. I struggled with testing—in some cases, knowledge came easily, while in others, I fought to understand. Then two events transpired to change my perceptions. They made me question whether nursing was for me.
Almost all of us have encountered an educator who challenged us during nursing school. A meaningful challenge builds character, promotes realism, and helps us gain the confidence to act. Student nurses must prove to themselves that they can succeed. Showing an educator we can be successful is crucial, but we need to confirm that to ourselves more. We have to believe we can and want to be a nurse. There’s no place for fence-sitting—you’re either hot or cold for the profession. This desire drives many student nurses to push through obstacles and challenges. Occasionally, that obstacle can be an educator.
I’ve never shied away from a challenge. I believe taking calculated risks plays an important role in the game of life, so I risked having a more demanding semester with a challenging educator, Steve Rowland*. For the most part, I had a good experience with Mr. Rowland, but with moments of struggle. He saw my best and worst sides, primarily when I worked closely with him during clinicals. I found my challenges with Mr. Rowland manageable compared to my difficulties in the course.
Throughout nursing school, I struggled to answer test questions, constantly second-guessing myself, changing answers, and limping through, barely passing. This semester, however, I wasn’t passing the course and needed an impressive score on the final exam to complete it successfully. Mr. Rowland, who knew of my struggles, was blunt. I had accepted the challenge of this difficult course and expected scrutiny, but I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. He said, “I just don’t think you’re cut out for this.” That statement sent a cold shiver down my spine. It felt disconcerting, mainly because I didn’t want to believe it, but deep down, part of me thought he might be right.
Peers can serve as sounding boards. Most student nurses share their feelings about school, discuss the ups and downs, sadness and happiness, and trials and tribulations. Tests are a big topic of discussion.
Student nurses compare themselves to their peers all the time. During the same semester I struggled with the challenging educator and course, I had a classmate who I believed was exceptional. Lisa had the knowledge, applied it well to testing, and seemed to perform well in clinical. From my perspective, she epitomized an excellent nurse. Meanwhile, I saw myself as average to below average in my test performance.
One day Lisa joined me in a break area. Her gracious and genuine smile revealed her sincerity. I truly admired her. We’d taken a test the day before, so we discussed our performance. I asked Lisa how she did; of course, she earned an exemplary grade. My thoughts, for a moment, centered on whether I could ever make grades like her. Lisa’s next statement instantly shattered that thought: “But I hate clinical.” I don’t know what shocked me more. The fact she said she hated clinical, or that she said it with a smile on their face. Without thinking, I replied, “But that’s nursing. Clinical is what we do in nursing every day.” She looked at me, continued smiling, and said, “I know, and I hate it.”
I had no response. It took me some time to process what Lisa said. She hates nursing. A person I admired, who I thought epitomized what a nurse could and should be, hates nursing. How do you reconcile a statement like that? As a student nurse, I found that this moment eclipsed the encounter with Mr. Rowland. I felt thoroughly discouraged and utterly confused.
“I just don’t think you’re cut out for this.” “I know, and I hate it.” These two sentences devastated me for a time that semester. Unsurprisingly, I failed to pass the course and had to retake it, but these statements continued to reverberate. I hadn’t seen either coming, and both changed me.
After Mr. Rowland’s bold statement, my response was, “I think you’re wrong.” A confident retort only because I was trembling inside from doubt, fury, and anguish. The following weeks did nothing to alleviate those feelings, especially since I had to enroll in the same course again. I never felt at ease until the second attempt ended successfully. I took the words of that educator as yet another challenge. Sometimes I believe that was the point. Educators have to motivate students to succeed. They don’t cross ethical boundaries, but sometimes they see something in a student that the student can’t. I believe Mr. Rowland, in making that comment, saw potential in me, but I didn’t realize that potential myself. That lack of realization stemmed from my diminished self-confidence.
For generations, nurses have assessed patients at the bedside. A nurse educator extends those assessment skills into academia with student nurses. Those interactions require the educator to be genuine with the student. Being blunt may not work in every situation and probably isn’t used as much today, but genuineness between educators and students is essential.
Genuineness between peers also is essential. Lisa’s statement about hating nursing and my exchange with Mr. Rowland triggered something in me. In the months after Lisa’s comment, I saw her only two more times. Both instances occurred after she had graduated and I was still in school. At the first encounter, she still smiled, and her comments seemed optimistic, but I sensed a melancholy tone. She appeared hunched over, tired, and defeated. I saw her again a few months later, and she appeared under more duress. She didn’t answer when I called her name. She appeared to be running from the building, not looking back. I never had a chance to talk to Lisa again. To this day, I don’t know if she continued in nursing or quit. I like to think she continued somewhere within nursing and that she’s happy.
Lisa taught me one thing: I don’t hate nursing. Nursing is hard. Anyone in the profession would agree. However, I haven’t met many who would say they hate it. I knew I could be a nurse, but unlocking that potential proved challenging. It wasn’t easy, but I decided to be a nurse. No one else could make that choice for me.
What’s the point?
When I began my career as a nurse 22 years ago, my goal was to do the best I could, no matter what. I’ve taken that philosophy into academia to apply my knowledge and expertise to educating student nurses. I share my stories with students to help them understand what the profession offers. My favorite moments are guidance. Whenever I see a student struggle, I make myself available to them. I want to help them succeed, but they must make that choice the same as I did. What student nurses put into their education is what they’ll get out. I encourage them, offer recommendations, celebrate their accomplishments, and love watching them succeed.
On that day many years ago, as a student nurse, my path in life could have been much different. I could have believed Mr. Rowland. When Lisa told me how she did on the test, she could have left out how she felt about nursing. Both might have left me with a completely different mindset, and perhaps I wouldn’t be a nurse today. I think about all the lives I’ve encountered since that semester, and all the beautiful experiences nursing has brought into my life. I’m glad I didn’t miss those moments. Each event and situation has made me who I am and has allowed me to help others achieve their dreams.
They made me a nurse, and I’m forever grateful. So, to my challenging educator and my peer, I thank you both and wish you well.
*Names are fictitious.
Jason R. Thrift is an assistant professor at Clemson University School of Nursing in Greenville, South Carolina.
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