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The key to being an amazing preceptor to a new graduate nurse is to always remember what it’s like to be a brand new nurse. The idea that “nurses eat their young,” if true, is neither helpful to the new nurse nor to the patients that they care for. Starting a new job is stressful enough, so facing untoward behavior from a preceptor or new colleagues only further discourages the new nurse, and potentially hinders their skills development and patient care. Here are seven ways to be an amazing preceptor and support new nurses and their patients.

1. Assume they don’t know.

One of the most problematic instances between preceptors and new nurses is the preceptor’s assumption that the new nurse knows something they don’t. This could involve speaking in jargon specific to a specialty, teaching complex skills without a basic understanding, or delegating tasks to a preceptee that they are not capable of carrying out. Keep in mind that no matter how many hours the new nurse spent in clinical, learning to be a nurse and being a nurse are two very different things. Use language that a layperson could understand and explain terminology in a non-patronizing way before using it.

2. Answer questions objectively.

Even if a new nurse asks a question that seems too elementary, never express judgment or criticism toward them for asking. The last thing a patient needs is a nurse who is too frightened to ask questions for fear of being ridiculed. It is essential to every nurse’s growth that they learn and practice in an environment that supports their learning and development.

3.Address the social atmosphere.

While the main role of the preceptor is to teach, observe, and assess a new nurse’s aptitude for working independently, it is also worthwhile to discuss the culture of the organization they work in and how to thrive in it. For example, if a boss is very lenient about swapping assignments but strict about tardiness, this is worth divulging to the new nurse. Some hospitals have policies about taking breaks that are interpreted very differently in each unit. Sharing this information with a preceptee could save them the potential embarrassment of breaking an unwritten rule. This would also further reinforce the idea that they are supported by their predecessors. Nurses who like the place they work and who trust their colleagues are generally better nurses.

4. Encourage work/life balance.

While it is not necessary to exchange personal details, it is worthwhile to encourage the new nurse to take care of themselves appropriately in their work. Many new nurses are so frightened when they start working, they may not want to ask where the restrooms are, where they can get a glass of water, or when lunch is for fear of seeming uninterested in the content of their training.  One of the first activities any amazing preceptor should do with their new trainee is take them on a tour of the unit and show them the facilities available to them. Encourage the new nurse to speak up if they need to use them. Nurses who go without do not make better nurses. 

5. “See one, do one, teach one.”

Having a simple outline for training a preceptee such as “see one, do one, teach one,” allows the trainee to fortify and demonstrate their understanding. Many new nurses find that their preceptors allow them to do too much, or not enough. Neither are optimal for allowing the nurse to practice new skills with the fundamental understanding to back it up. Showing the new nurse a skill, then having them perform it, and then having them teach it gives them understanding, skill practice, and a test of their complete understanding. Many hospitals now require nurses to complete documentation for each skill. “See one, do one, teach one,” is an effective way to work through training and skill assessment.

6. Don’t be afraid to pass on precepting.

Just as not every preceptor is made equal, so too with every new nurse. If a preceptor finds that they cannot establish a positive rapport with a new nurse or vice versa, they are empowered to request a switch. If interactions between the preceptor and new nurse are not founded on mutual understanding, the training will likely not be optimal. Similarly, if a nurse has been inundated with precepting and needs to take time between training nurses, they should honor that. A new nurse would likely benefit more from a preceptor who can be enthusiastic about training.

7. Be open to new nurses’ observations and feedback.

Many nurses who have been in a job for a long time take for granted the state of things without question. If a new nurse points out a policy or system that seems ineffective or inefficient, it is worth considering that it is coming from a fresh pair of eyes. Even if the temptation is there to criticize the nurse for being presumptuous or idealistic, consider the value of a new nurse who is so enthusiastic about their work that they are willing to critically think about ways to improve.

No experienced nurse got to where they are without a beginning. Ask the best nurses how they got to where they are and they will likely credit a preceptor who believed in them and pushed them to be their best. Any nurse can be an amazing preceptor, as long as they have an attitude of both compassion and tact in which a new nurse can thrive.

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Nancy Swezey, BSN, RN, CNOR

Nancy Swezey received her BSN from Columbia University. She now practices in New York City in the operating room where she has worked as a staff nurse, and currently as a care coordinator specializing in head and neck surgery. Nancy is also pursuing her advanced practice degree at CUNY Hunter where she assists the faculty as a research assistant, focusing on nurse education and module development.

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