We’ve all been there: At one time, you were the shy, timid student, inexperience plastered all over your furrowed brow. Although it may be hard to remember, you were once intimidated by patients and by experienced nurses. You were nervous to talk to a doctor or to admit that you had no idea what was going on.

Yet many of us have also been on the other side of that relationship, when we’re paired with a nursing student from a clinical group, or matched as preceptor for a senior capstone or practicum. When I was in nursing school, I remember overhearing audible groans of nursing staff on a unit when my little clinical group arrived for the day. At the time I didn’t understand, but I now do: It can be a burden to take on a nursing student in addition to getting the day’s work done.

Of course, some nurses were born to precept and practically beg to take baby nurses under their wings. But being a good nurse does not mean it will be easy for you to teach someone else how to be a good nurse. If you’ve ever found yourself struggling to precept with patience and grace, here are some tips for making the best of the experience, for both of you.

1. Set goals.

At the beginning of your shift, ask your student to establish a daily goal. What does he or she want to get out of this day? Does she want to finally start an IV with success, work on assessment skills, or to follow one single patient? Does he want to practice passing medication or to master wound care and dressing changes? With a clear goal established, both of you will know where to focus your time and energy during the day.

2. Emphasize safety.

In many cases, nursing students are practicing under the license of their preceptor. This is not to be taken lightly: remind the student to consider how to be safe in all areas of practice. Look for teachable safety moments. Did the student handle sharps correctly? Did she wear appropriate personal protective equipment?

3. Get them involved.

Does someone else on the unit have a great patient or an interesting case? Was there a rapid response down the hall? Tell the student that although she should be your shadow, she should also feel free to observe other things occurring on the unit. Get her to take vital signs frequently and to touch as many patients as possible.

4. Deliver good-bad-good sandwiches.

Nursing students can be very sensitive. By the time you’re as experienced as you need to be to precept a student, you’ve no doubt grown a very thick skin and learned not to take anything personally. The student, however, is most likely not at this level. Remember to couch criticism or tips for improvement with two bits of praise. “It’s so great that you were able to assist her to the bathroom. Don’t forget to reset the bed alarms and make sure the side-rails are up, because Mrs. A is a fall risk. Great job with rounding for comfort so she wasn’t tempted to get out of bed herself!”

5. Talk out loud as much as possible.

You may find it hard to narrate yourself, and it can certainly be tedious to explain the method to your madness and the way you prioritize your tasks. If it’s difficult for you, do it in front of the patient, so you can give them both the benefit of your explanations. Remember, nurses are like icebergs: if you don’t explain what you’re doing, it’s likely the nursing student is missing 90% of what is actually happening!

Finally, give yourself permission to speak up. If it’s not a good time to be paired with a student, if you are burnt out by new grads and orientees, or if you are not really the teaching type, tell your manager. (I once made the mistake of taking on a student during the three weeks before my wedding!) Perhaps they can be placed with someone else, which would be better for both of you.

Laura Kinsella

Laura Kinsella, BSN, RN, CEN, is an emergency room nurse in Washington, DC.

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