Nurse Educator

One of the most exciting things about nursing is that it’s a profession in which one never stops learning. A lot of this is due to experience, as there are always new situations to learn from, but it also depends on the presence of educators, no matter the environment in which one is working. In hospitals, the role of nurse educators is clear. In the community, it’s a little more complicated, because every community is different and has different needs. It becomes about working with junior nurses who are serving that community to support their development and ensure that they have a good awareness of its needs, as well as the skills necessary to support it.

Researching and identifying community needs

The first thing you need to do when arriving in a new community as a nurse educator is to build a clear picture of precisely what its needs are. Much of this can usually be done by looking at existing documentation such as census data and population data collected by the medical centers serving the community, but you will also need to get out and about and talk to people to get a sense of what the local issues are. No amount of quantitative data can compare in importance with good qualitative data collected in the field.

By spending time in the community, you will be able to identify the kinds of issues which may not show up in collected data, such as social attitudes which place particular groups at risk or community initiatives aimed at supporting vulnerable sections of the population. You will be able to assess the quality of accommodations to identify health risks such as damp or mold, and consider the impact of local weather patterns so that you know, for instance, if elderly residents are likely to need additional support in winter.

By embedding yourself in the community, you can win the confidence of local people and more easily find out about issues which they may be embarrassed to discuss with strangers. You can talk to members of outsider groups such as drug users and sex workers to understand the healthcare challenges they face. You can track down people living in isolation – a particular issue for the elderly – who may not know how to access the services they need.

Developing a relevant curriculum

Once you have assessed community needs, you will be in a better position to start developing a curriculum. The aim of this will be to make sure that nurses working in the area are aware of all the different groups who will need access to their services, and have the general skills needed to support them. You can also develop ways of addressing the more specific skills needed to address the particular health challenges present in the community.

Often nurses trained to follow hospital protocols are not fully aware of the diversity of people they will encounter when working in the community. Having worked hard to familiarize themselves with standard ways of working, they may not be well prepared for the problem-solving aspect of community work. They need to learn not only how to deal with the problems already present in the specific community they’re working in but, using those as examples, how to adjust to new situations, so that if they end up transferring to a different area, they will need less time to find their feet.

In developing your curriculum, you will also need to draw on conversations with nurses already working in the area, taking into account knowledge gaps which they have identified and additional training needs which they want help with. It can be useful to talk to charities working in the broader health and social care sector, which will also have valuable experience and can be particularly helpful in identifying the sorts of issues which otherwise go under the radar, such as those facing people who live alone.

Advocating for vulnerable populations

Within any given population there will be different levels of need, and part of your role as a nurse educator will be establishing who should be prioritized. The online program at Arbor University will give you the opportunity to learn the necessary skillset to do so. It will provide you with the knowledge and practical experience you need to succeed in this job.

You will need to identify at-risk groups and the specific types of risk they face. For instance, people with low immunity need tailored support related to Covid and other endemic or potential pandemic infections, with particular attention to seasonal risk, but many of them may be in good health otherwise, whereas frail elderly people need more holistic support on a year-round basis. You will need to make sure that nurses are aware of these groups and know how to provide for them.

Some vulnerable populations have historically struggled to get the support they need due to prejudice or poor understanding. HIV-positive people, for instance, still suffer from stigma, with some nurses hesitant to treat them because of a perceived infection risk which just doesn’t correlate with reality. As a nurse educator, you need to advocate for groups like this and ensure that all members of the community receive the support they need. Furthermore, you will teach your students how to become better at recognizing their own biases and at facing up to the necessity of dealing with situations which make them uncomfortable.

Some segments of the population, particularly people who are neurodivergent or mentally ill, have considerable difficulty both in articulating their needs and in navigating bureaucratic systems. You will need to make a specific effort to reach out to people in these situations and teach the nurses you work with to do likewise. It will be your job to explain that no one system can work for everybody, no matter how well designed it is, so it is incumbent upon nurses to notice where people do not appear to be successful in accessing healthcare and assist them in doing so. They may also need support in understanding how to access Medicare and what Medicare covers.

Supporting ongoing development of key skills

Although every new nurse begins with a solid set of basic skills, those may or may not be adequate to cope with the particular needs of the community in which you are based. If there is a disproportionately high elderly population, for instance, you may need to focus on skills which are not widely taught outside geriatric nursing. Local nurses will need to understand how to cater to patients who don’t fit standard models.

The way you teach these supplementary skills should be based not only on your initial assessment of community needs but on your observations over time and on what the nurses you work with report back to you. Often, they will identify issues which you were not previously aware of because no matter how good your research is, you don’t have the experience of going into that situation without your well-honed specialist skills. It’s harder for you to identify what’s confusing and know what your students will struggle with. Furthermore, if you’re supporting nurses from a lot of different backgrounds, there will be some variation in what they’ve learned and in the gaps in their knowledge.

Keeping well organized records of requests for assistance will help you to distinguish between individual deficiencies and knowledge gaps which affect a significant number of the nurses in your area, so that you can amend your curriculum as necessary.

Serving as a role model

Alongside delivering your curriculum, advocating for the vulnerable and ensuring the development of necessary skills, nurse educators have another important role to perform: that of a role model. When you work in this position, your own behavior will be the primary example for your students. You will show them how they should be conducting themselves around patients of all kinds, you will demonstrate the calmness and confidence needed to manage difficult or surprising situations, and you will be open about it if you make mistakes, showing them that what’s important is finding a solution, not being defensive.

Setting a good example includes being able to acknowledge that there are times when you don’t have the skills or expertise necessary to handle a particular situation and taking the necessary steps to get help. It’s important that your team has confidence in you, but it’s also important that they learn that nobody knows everything and that there’s nothing embarrassing about asking for assistance. They need to recognize that everybody has limits, and no amount of training can prepare them for everything, but that that’s alright, because the larger nursing family is there to back them up.

It’s seeing your students develop in this way, becoming more capable people as well as improving their knowledge of nursing, which makes working as a nurse educator so rewarding. Combine that with improving the services provided to a whole community, including vulnerable people who have struggled to access adequate care in the past, and you will have a lot to be proud of. Every nurse works hard to improve the lives of others. Nurse educators have a special role to play, and their dedicated efforts help to turn struggling communities around.