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If you are in nursing school, we have talked about how to pass nursing school exams and how to study for nursing school recently. Today, I want to answer a question that I get in the nursing field all the time. Why nurses are mean to nursing students? If you are a nursing student and have been in a clinical setting, you have probably experienced this yourself.
- Reasons Why Nurses Are Mean to Nursing Students
- How you can handle it as a student nurse
- Other Helpful Posts
Reasons Why Nurses Are Mean to Nursing Students
When I was in nursing school, I said that whenever I got my nursing license and had students with me, I would be really nice to them. During nursing school, I encountered many experienced nurses who we really rude, short, cold, or unwelcoming to the students who were on their unit.
First thing first: This isn’t to justify immature behavior, but to offer possible explanations. When we can increase our understanding of the context of a situation, we can walk into it a little bit wiser, in more control of our emotional response, and able to not take it personally. A key here is remaining objective so that we don’t internalize this stranger’s response to us as something wrong with us.
This is where we can go into a negative thought spiral … doubts everything about ourselves … dread clinical.
The goal here will be to create a little space between yourself and the rude clinical instructor or floor nurse. We don’t want the trajectory of our entire nursing career to essentially depend on this stranger’s initial reaction to us. Now, 12 years into my career, I only remember the name of 1 clinical instructor and none of the names of any of the nurses I worked with during clinical. Seriously, I can’t even picture their faces. What I can remember is the pressure I put on myself for them to like me. The sadness and rejection I felt when I wasn’t welcomed with open arms… when people didn’t care at all what I did, and that I was more of a burden than anything.
This is why I don’t want you to put so much stock into what they think about you – because, in the big picture, they’re genuinely not going to be someone who lives in your head rent-free years later.
Wise people are careful not to attach their identity to something so unstable.
Hard truth: As a student, you’re not going to be able to fix any of these issues yourself. Even if you do everything 100% perfectly, you’ll run into some people who will act like nothing is good enough.
So, we’ve got to take that power away and take ownership of our learning experience. Let’s go through 4 possible reasons they might be giving you the cold shoulder. I hope with this you’ll be able to walk into clinical with a better understanding of some big-picture/systematic issues
Reason #1 Why Nurses Are Mean to Nursing Students – They’re Brand New Themselves
What I didn’t realize as a student was that many nurses that I was working with in my clinicals were brand new nurses themselves. They were overwhelmed, behind, insecure, and just desperately trying to fly under the radar so they could finish their tasks on time.
When I was a brand-new nurse, I was so scared and insecure. I hated having students at that time in my development because I didn’t know what I was doing. And here was this constant reminder (a bright-eyed excited student), asking me questions I didn’t know the answers to. It was surprising to feel that way, and I suddenly understood why people treated me in that manner during school – most of the nurses were in survival mode themselves. They were hours behind. They didn’t know the answers to all of my questions. They were just trying to get through the shift, praying I didn’t ask them a question they either didn’t know the answer to or didn’t have the time to explain.
Reason #2 Why Nurses Are Mean to Nursing Students – It Creates More Work That They’re Not Trained to Do or Paid for
For those of you entirely new to the clinical game, let me give you a little context on how these assignments are made. During a typical shift, nurses are assigned a group of patients based on their location in the unit and how difficult they are to take care of. They find out this information when they clock in at the beginning of their shift.
Typically, as a nursing student, the 1-2 days before, the clinical instructor or someone else will create the assignment list for the students at clinical. They’ll handpick patients that would be particularly good to learn from and who consent to have a student care for them.
This isn’t set in stone because patients may die, code, transfer, or be discharged before they actually get to the unit to care for the patient.
So, you get to the unit and see if your patient is there. Then, if they’re not you’ll be assigned to a new patient.
(I know, super frustrating if you’ve done all the work to prep for the previous patient, but it happens.)
Both you and the patient’s primary nurse find out at the same time that you’ll definitely be working together that day. Now, depending on the unit, the nurse could have anywhere from 2-7+ patients. That means they could have multiple students with them.
Also, that primary nurse could also be precepting a new nurse to their unit at the same time.
I’ve personally had times where I was precepting one nurse and had two students with me also – and I was also ultimately responsible for the patients themselves. It is very, very overwhelming to get constant questions while you’re attempting to think through critically what the best plan of action is and communicate it while navigating questions.
Precepting new nurses is different than having students. Preceptors should get trained. Ideally, preceptors are paid more. (However, often they’re not.)
Imagine you’re going to work and you are efficient enough to get through your day, but barely. You’re not a super nurse yet, still learning things. Not super-fast with tasks and still have to ask your colleagues questions to get through a shift.
And, now you’ve essentially got to explain everything you’re doing to a student. It slows you down even more. You’re going to be even more behind. The student is looking to you for encouragement, guidance, approval, clinical knowledge, and more. And you’re just trying to get through the shift.
And you’re just expected to do it. You’re not trained at all to teach someone else, how to give feedback constructively, how to explain the tasks and how they fit into the bigger picture. You just show up, you’ve got a student, and that’s it.
I was never trained in any sense to teach students. I had to just figure it out. Having a student creates work and responsibility without any compensation or teaching.
Some people who care about teaching will embrace this increased unpaid expectation. Others understandably get frustrated by it. It’s one of those uncommunicated expectations. When you’re hired, you assume that whenever you get students, you’ll be prepared for them. Well, you’re not. But it’s too late to say anything now. So, nurses get frustrated. And it’s a lot easier to just be totally checked out with the student and essentially take it out on them than to do anything about it (like talk to management).
Reason #3 – They Are Burnt Out on Teaching
Building off of the scenario that I laid out before, teaching can get exhausting. I vividly remember many times just wanting to be able to go to work and just go through my day without explaining everything to someone.
Whether I was precepting someone or having students every single shift, I just wanted to fly solo for a while. If you can imagine having a pre-nursing student with you for every single class, every single study session, asking you why you’re highlighting that sentence … why you’re choosing to study X versus Y, what XYZ means, why you’re taking certain classes, why you’ve chosen to use Picmonic instead of something else, etc. – consider how tiring that would be. (But make sure you use promo code FRESHRN for 20% off!)
Sometimes you just want some mental space to be able to think through things without actively explaining yourself, build rapport and communicate with people solo, and just get through your day with your own flow.
Now, imagine that you’re precepting a new nurse for 10-12 weeks, and at least 1 of those shifts each week has 1-3 students for that you’ll be responsible for the entire semester. You could actually go 4-6 months without having a shift to yourself.
And you’ll find that the nurses who are good a precepting and teaching are often always with someone because the management wants the new hire to benefit from the preceptor – so they’re perpetually burnt out of it.
Reason #4 – They Have Had a Bad Experience in the Past
Just like all nurses aren’t the same, it’s also true with nursing students. Some nursing students are go-getters, trying to do as much as they can solo, asking good questions, being proactive, etc. And imperfectly so. The main selling point here is that they’re engaged, but tactfully so.
Sometimes, you’ll get a nursing student who appears to not care. They’re constantly on the computer, looking at the same few things over and over again. They don’t go in the room. They avoid the patient. They sit and wait to be told to do something. They say they can’t do certain things like taking vitals, cleaning patients, checking blood sugars, and assessing patients. Maybe it’s fear causing the student to avoid the patient or learning tasks … maybe it’s a mentality that they don’t want to do this kind of work as a nurse anyway so they refuse to engage. I’m not sure.
But, when you’ve got a nurse ready to teach and guide you, and then you’re met with apathy, that’s really not cool. It’s a genuine waste of time. There are some phenomenal nurse educators out there, but their time is discarded by someone who is disengaged. That’d be like you’re an aspiring singer and Adele just said, “Hey, let me show you the ropes for a few hours,” and you were like, “Well, I can’t because I have to write a report on how to sing”.
It’s like pulling teeth trying to get them to even just look like they care. Again, this is exhausting. It’s not my care plan. It’s not my grade.
And it isn’t a great look in front of a patient too.
Conversely, I’ve also had students who were very unaware of themselves socially. They couldn’t read the room and be able to tell if this was a time to halt the questions and circle back later. I’ve had some really awkward moments with a very excited student and a very scared patient and had to do some serious service recovery afterward.
How you can handle it as a student nurse
First, remember all of these mitigating factors that impact the nurse you’re learning from.
Next, approach your clinical experience as a time to be exposed to nursing in real life. This isn’t a time to gauge your success if you’re the clinical instructor or the primary nurse’s BFF.
This is a time to absorb as much information as you can, observe how the hospital functions, get in reps with certain tasks, get used to talking to patients, etc.
Try to read the room when you walk in
- Be somewhat neutral – not overly excited but also not dead-somber
- Gauge your demeanor off of the patient and primary nurse
Pause before you spit-fire questions
Consider if you can figure it out yourself first; then you can merely check for understanding.
- “What’s the potassium level? Are we giving any replacement?” VS. looking up the potassium level and seeing if you can figure out how to look up if the doc already knows or if an order for replacement has been entered. Then saying, “I saw his potassium was 2.9 this am, and we’re giving up a total of 80 mEq replacement. Is that correct?”
Note if the situation is clinically urgent.
- Save questions for after so the nurse can think and act, rather than think explain and act
- Circle back after with any follow-ups
About your assignments
Ok, so your bedside nurse isn’t going to be responsible for ensuring your care plan makes sense. That’s your job. I know you have to get answers to a lot of things, but sometimes you just can’t get them. An unexpected patient situation happens, things change, and sometimes you forget.
At the beginning of your clinical, make sure you know the must-have information for your assignment and prioritize getting that filled in. That way, if things go downhill, at least you’ve got it.
It can be REALLY helpful to write those things down and keep them in your pocket to ensure you get that done early. Things like pain, last known bowel movement, etc.
If something happens that makes it so you can’t get that information, keep your cool. Be able to speak to why that information was omitted. It is not the end of the world. Something like, “I was unable to ask the patient his pain level because his vital signs quickly became unstable, and administering a bolus was the priority, and I was focused on doing that.” If you get any guff from a professor, you could always ask something like, “At the time, how I prioritized things felt appropriate, but I would love to hear how you would have handled the situation differently so I can learn for next time. I’m still learning how to successfully troubleshoot the unexpected while ensuring the requirements of the assignment are met.” But, it’s really important to have the right TONE here. The tone is KEY because the wrong tone could be condescending, not creating space for teaching.
Getting ready for nursing school clinicals, but feeling unprepared?
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Clinicals are intimidating but they don’t have to be something you dread. Now that we’ve discussed this, I hope you’re able to walk into those experiences as a sponge ready to absorb so much information about how things flow, who is who, who does what, why we do certain things, etc. If you run into someone who isn’t cool, remember what we talked about here, and don’t allow that person’s negative energy to make you doubt yourself.
Sometimes, we run into people who are rough around the edges, but just because they’re experienced doesn’t mean that is a reflection of your self-worth, capabilities, or potential to be a phenomenal nurse. Do not internalize their feedback. Take it at face value. Maybe you need to step it up a bit more and they have a little bit of a point, or maybe they have unrealistic expectations of you. But don’t think that because they’re grumpy that’s it’s 100% because of you. Most of the time, it’s not. And if it is my hope is that they will be emotionally mature enough to communicate their expectations for you and not be passive-aggressive about it.
If anything, someone who conducts themselves like that is teaching you how to NOT act.
Extract whatever value you can and move forward with your life and education. Please do not internalize their negativity and hold it close to your heart. It doesn’t deserve that place.