6 Reasons Why Nurses Are So Mean to Nursing Students

by | May 31, 2022 | Nursing School and NCLEX® | 2 comments

Today, I want to answer a question that I get in the nursing field all the time: why nurses are so mean to nursing students. If you are a nursing student and have been in a clinical setting, you have probably experienced this yourself.

You might know that nurses are the ones in hospitals who run the show. They are the ones who make all of the decisions when it comes to patient care, and bear the responsibility of ensuring the patient’s needs are met and their complex care is coordinated efficiently. Let’s discuss why nurses might be unkind to the students who are with them.

Reasons Why Nurses Are So Mean to Nursing Students

I recorded a podcast episode version of this post, to listen to it, simply click play below.

This podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, PlayerFM, iHeartRadio, Libsyn, Spotify, and Amazon Music.

Reasons Why Nurses Are So Mean to Nursing Students

When I was in nursing school, I thought 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. I vowed never to be mean to nursing students…

And then I became a new nurse.

1. Many Nurses are 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.

2. Lack of Training

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, 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. 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).

3. Insecurity and Vulnerability

Nurses often forget that nursing students are new to the work and have limited knowledge. They’re very task-focused at that point in development, and are not at the point where they fully understand the why – let alone explain it to someone else!

It can be really difficult to remember what it was like to learn these complex skills for the first time. And as a newer nurse yourself, having someone asking you questions that you don’t know the answers to can really amplify those feelings of insecurity and pressure.

4. Feeling Overwhelmed

Often times a hospital will take 8-10 nursing students and give them to a clinical instructor. That instructor cannot be one on one with all those students for the 3, 4, or 6-hour clinical time. They will take the students and pair them each with a patient. The patient already has a primary nurse assigned to them.

The primary nurse comes in and gets their patient assignment, and all of a sudden they have 1-4 nursing students as well. Those students all have different questions, different educational needs and preferences, and a baseline understanding of what’s going on and what to do.

Imagine being a newer nurse yourself who is struggling to make it through each shift on your own. All of sudden you have three students who are looking to you for everything, some of which are just starting out in clinicals and need guidance with every little task.

It’s like you’re out in the middle of the ocean, treading water to keep your head above water and someone hands you a 10lb weight.

You now have even more responsibility, barely know what you’re doing, and are now expected to teach others and have a positive influence on their professional development. Also, you are not being paid more to train them, ever formally trained on the right way to do this, or manage your time when you’re with them.

5. Nurses Are Stressed Out

It’s no secret that nurses are often stressed out and overworked, often leading to them being short and cold with nursing students. They are likely struggling to get everything done in a shift and now they are having to show a student how to do it and figure out how to teach, care for patients, and get everything done in the same amount of time.

As a nursing student, it’s essential to be understanding and patient. Remember that the nurses are under a lot of stress. So try to be respectful and understanding. I will never excuse the behavior of someone being unkind or intentionally mean, but understanding why they may behave that way can help in dealing with nurses.

These are some reasons for nurses being mean to nursing students. Hopefully, this has brought some understanding to the complex dynamic between nurses and nursing students.

6. They 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.

But 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.

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.

Video on Why Nurses Are So Mean to Nursing Students

Final Thoughts

I hope this post helped put into context this common phenomenon. And keep in mind: This post isn’t meant 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, with 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… doubting everything about ourselves and dreading clinical.

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 feeling like 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.

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.

I hope with this you’ll be able to walk into clinical with a better and wiser outlook. Wishing you the best of luck in your nursing career!

FAQs for Why Nurses Are So Mean to Nursing Students

Why do nurses hate nursing students?

Well, this is not true; nurses don’t hate nursing students. Nurses can be mean to students because they themselves are new nurses who are struggling in their jobs. While some are just genuinely unkind people, the vast majority are nice individuals trying to save face in their intimidating role. They want students to be successful in the profession, but this can be hard to convey when they are feeling insecure themselves. Nurses are also never trained to educate/teach nursing students and are not paid more, despite it being extra responsibility and a task that decreases their productivity.

How can I deal with a nurse if he/she is mean to me?

Nurse bullying can actually be quite subtle. It can be really hard to navigate this at any point in your career, but it is especially difficult for people who are new to the profession. I highly recommend reading this book about assertiveness. This is the skill you need to develop. While you are new, that doesn’t mean you should be disrespected. However, we may need to command respect in a tactful manner, and being assertive (rather than aggressive or passive) is how you do that.

More Resources:

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Hi, I’m Kati.

Kati Kleber, MSN RN is a nurse educator, author, national speaker, host of the FreshRN® Podcast, and owner of FreshRN® – an online platform created to educate, encourage, and motivate newly licensed nurses in innovative ways.

Connect with her on YouTube, Pinterest, TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook, and sign-up for her free email newsletter for new nurses.


  1. Taddy

    These all sound like lousy excuses. It all boils down to nurses having poor interpersonal communication skills. It’s okay to be stressed. It’s not okay to be mean to others.

    • Celine

      I was thinking the exact same thing. In the same sense that nurses want students to be understanding of their situation, nurses should understand students as well. As a nursing student right now, it was the nurses that I worked with that really put me on the edge of wanting to drop out. I felt so discouraged and belittled. Nurses need to understand that everything they do and say really can impact the way a student views the field.


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