By Larry Z. Slater | 09/20/2016
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat!
For many novice nurse educators, the first few years in an academic environment are a whirlwind of experiences and emotions. During these formative years, we are often left to our own devices, as faculty shortages leave little room for lightened workloads and adequate mentoring to foster our development.
As we navigate the world of didactic and clinical teaching, student advising and mentoring, and course/program development and evaluation—while perhaps pursuing a research trajectory—we feel that we are barely keeping our heads above water. We shift between feelings of hopelessness over our own shortcomings and brief periods of elation when we feel that we can make a difference in our students’ lives. All the while, we have little time to think of our own growth as a nurse educator and future leader in the profession.
After a few years in academia, I finally felt like my feet were somewhat planted on the ground. It was around that time that I attended the 42nd Biennial Convention of the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International (STTI) in Indianapolis. As I was navigating through the Exhibit Hall, I came across an STTI booth promoting its Nurse Faculty Leadership Academy (NFLA), sponsored by STTI and The Elsevier Foundation. In talking with STTI staff and reading through the materials, I realized that the NFLA was exactly what I needed at this point in my career—and a selfish reminder that it was time to start thinking about me again. What steps did I need to take to work toward promotion and advancement in academia? What did I specifically need to work on to improve my leadership capabilities? How could I learn to mentor others who will follow in my footsteps, so their first few years are more rewarding than mine were? I had faith that the NFLA would help answer all of these questions and more.
The preparation of the comprehensive NFLA application was a journey unto itself. It required me to thoughtfully examine my career in nursing education and what I had done to develop myself as an educator and as a leader. This type of self-reflection, I was to learn, would become an integral part of the NFLA experience. Also for the application, I had to decide on a topic for a nursing education team project and select a Mentor who was experienced in that topic and willing to participate with me.
As a huge proponent of honors education in nursing, I knew that I wanted to develop such a program for nursing students at my institution. This brought me back in touch with my former undergraduate nursing honors advisor and longtime STTI member, Ellen Buckner, PhD, RN, CNE, who was more than happy to go on the NFLA journey with me—despite the time commitment involved, including completing her own comprehensive Mentor application. We were both overjoyed in January of 2014 when we learned of our acceptance as a Mentor-Scholar dyad for the NFLA.
Over the next 20 months, I lived and breathed individual leadership development, expanding my scope of influence, and leading a team to advance nursing education, the three domains of the NFLA curriculum. With guidance from Buckner and the third piece of the NFLA triad—my adept Faculty Advisor, Tony Forrester, PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN—I further explored my own capabilities and shortcomings, developed and followed through with concrete actions to build my personal leadership brand, and started on a journey of nursing program development that continues today.
Individual leadership development.
One of the hardest things to do is accept critical feedback. To develop a comprehensive leadership development plan, the program required that I obtain this difficult, but necessary, input from colleagues, administrators, and staff with whom I had worked for several years. With the help of my NFLA triad, I was able to dissect and evaluate this 360-degree feedback, including the good and the bad. Together we developed an 18-month plan that would teach me, among other things, to actively listen instead of jumping in headfirst to offer my own opinions, seek consensus among those with vastly different ideas, and learn to work closely with those I would have butted heads with in the past.
While I sometimes find myself falling back into old habits, I know how to catch myself and right the ship. I am no longer afraid to admit that I am human, which includes acknowledging and offering solutions to mistakes that I may have made. Going from opinionated to opinion-seeking may have taken me a long time to accomplish—after burning many bridges—had it not been for the NFLA’s keen focus on individualized leadership development.
Expanding scope of influence.
Being engaged in STTI since completing my baccalaureate degree, I was no stranger to being immersed in the nursing profession. However, I was often too much of a “yes” person, always volunteering when something needed to be done. But this led to spreading myself so thin that I didn’t have the time or energy to be fully engaged or committed to anything specific at the college, university, and professional levels.
Through the NFLA, I learned to use my talents in a more focused manner. Even though it is still hard to say no at times, I now think before acting. I weigh the needs of the organization with my personal skills and available time so that both can benefit. This strategic thinking has allowed me to become a leader in faculty governance at my college of nursing and university and expand my professional role in working with nurses and student nurses in New York State and the United States—all while remaining active in STTI, an organization that remains at the center of my nursing career.
Leading a team.
Perhaps the most rewarding part of the NFLA experience was learning to lead a team of junior faculty. In doing so, I was able to operationalize the lessons I was learning through the Academy. My team of six faculty, which included a mix of tenure-track and clinical faculty, had two goals over the 18 months that we were together: 1) to develop a nursing honors program for traditional baccalaureate students and 2) to build and grow our own individual leadership identities.
The team laid the foundation for what would become the LEAD Honors Program at the New York University Rory Meyers College of Nursing, which is now in the hands of a new committee that will finalize and implement the program beginning in the fall of 2017. While I would never discount the accomplishments of the team related to this educational program—including an article published in Nurse Educator on nursing honors programs and perspectives for implementation, two articles submitted to journals on faculty-student mentoring for honors programs, and a few podium and poster presentations—I am more proud of the leadership growth of all team members throughout the 18-month journey.
My NFLA team members have expanded their own scopes of influence and are now leading and participating in a number of college committees, running for and winning board positions in professional organizations, expanding their mentorship roles with faculty and students, publishing and presenting scholarly work, and obtaining new nursing certifications. I often feel like a proud parent when I hear about another of their accomplishments and feel humbled that they chose to share the NFLA journey with me. They embodied everything that the Academy stresses, which includes not only developing its selected scholars but also enabling those scholars to pass that knowledge and experience on to faculty at their own institutions.
With the NFLA experience behind me, I look back and realize what a tremendous opportunity I was afforded. The dedicated team of Faculty Advisors and Leadership Mentors, under the excellent leadership of Deborah Cleeter, EdD, succeeded in developing 14 scholars to become part of the next generation of nursing education leaders. The NFLA helped us find our own voices, instill confidence in our education and leadership capabilities, and create lasting networks of Mentors and colleagues.
It was a rigorous, exhausting, and difficult 20 months. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. Should you? Absolutely. You will be forever changed.
Larry Z. Slater, PhD, RN-BC, CNE, is clinical assistant professor at New York University Rory Meyers College of Nursing in New York, New York, USA.