Six lessons I learned on the way to becoming a Doctor of Nursing Practice.
She earned a DNP to fulfill a career goal and to comply with her university’s new employment requirements, but she learned more than was promised in the program’s description.
While working on my Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree over the past three years, I learned a lot. I had already been teaching for three years and thought I was a decent nursing instructor, that maybe I did not need much improvement. I was wrong. Becoming a student again reminded me what is really important when teaching.
First, some background. I moved to the United States in 2000 from Macedonia in the former Yugoslavia, where I had worked for seven years as a nurse in a general surgical ward at the Military Hospital in Skopje. Unfortunately, my nursing credentials didn’t transfer to the United States. I had to go back to school.
Over the next four years, I worked as a licensed practical nurse while studying for my BSN degree, first at a community college in Chicago, then at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). I learned not only about the nursing profession in the United States but also about the importance of being able to communicate with patients from a variety of backgrounds. Every day—at work, at school, everywhere—I encountered considerable cultural diversity. As a nurse, it helped that I was an immigrant. I was more patient with patients who struggled to express themselves in English. I understood their yearning to belong and be accepted. I learned how to be humble.
In 2010, I graduated from UIC with my Master of Science–Family Nurse Practitioner degree. I loved that I was now able to do more and interact with and manage patients. That degree connected the dots for me and answered questions I had about patient care.
In 2012, while still working one day a week as an RN (the rest of the time as an FNP), UIC nursing students and their instructor visited the unit. I really enjoyed interacting with the students. I liked their questions, curiosity, and looks of admiration. We all like being admired! Soon afterward, I applied for a part-time clinical instructor position and was hired. A year later, I was doing it full time.
After years of working as an FNP and nursing instructor, I applied for admission to UIC’s DNP program and was accepted. I had planned to go for my DNP eventually because I believe nurse educators should have the highest possible degree in their profession, but the timing was somewhat forced on me when the UIC College of Nursing announced in 2015 that clinical instructors would be required to have a DNP or PhD degree.
Once again, I was a student. Most of the time, I enjoyed it. I learned how to improve quality in healthcare and how to initiate changes within systems. But I also learned the importance of being a good educator. In that regard, here are some of the lessons I learned.
1) Be nurturing and patient with nursing students. It makes all the difference in the world to them. They see you as someone who understands them. Trust me, I know! Keep in mind that you are teaching future nurses how to care for sick people. Be the kind of nurse you want to see in your students.
2) If you sign up to be a mentor, do so for the right reasons. Don’t put your students down, even if you think their ideas are naïve and amateurish. Guide them to a deeper insight. That’s why you’re there! I had a wonderful mentor. When the paper I was writing didn’t communicate coherently with anyone reading it, she helped me make sense of the jigsaw puzzle. I have heard of mentors who don’t take student ideas seriously and merely criticize.
3) Please, if you are going to teach a nursing course, come prepared! Make sure your course work is well planned and organized—students love that. They will respect you more if you take the time to thoughtfully assemble the 100 pages they need to go through to learn what they will be doing in your course.
4) Don’t change the form or content of an assignment at the last minute. All assignments should be clear and concise. Avoid using vague and abstract language. I had some wonderful, well-organized professors who clearly articulated assignment requirements.
5) Be flexible and open-minded. Accept your students for who they are without trying to impose your own values and beliefs on them. Use a variety of teaching techniques to engage a wider range of students. We want the future nurses we teach to respond well to needs of patients from all sorts of backgrounds. As educators, we need to do the same for our students. My best learning experiences came from professors who were willing to get out of their comfort zones and discuss student views.
6) Motivate learning and hard work, and don’t sweat the small stuff. If one of your students completes a quality project in less time than the course requires, grade the work, not the time. The quality of the work is what should guide the project.
Being a student again has helped me better understand what is really important to nursing students. The experience made me realize I may not have been as open to my students’ views as I should have been. My organizational skills may have been lacking. I may not have been supportive enough of students who needed more direction on an assignment.
Being a student again has made me realize that I need to be a more patient educator, more open to new ideas. It has reminded me of the importance of being humble. It has given me a new sense of responsibility. It has helped me see with new eyes the impact I have on students every day and how important it is to make sure that impact is positive so students can reach their potential.
Getting my DNP degree has made me a better nurse practitioner—but, just as important, it has made me rethink my teaching. It has forced me to think about what kind of educator I want to be. RNL
Afrodita Salievska, DNP, RN, FNP-BC, is a clinical instructor at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Nursing, Department of Biobehavioral Health Science, Chicago, Illinois, USA.