By Joseph Gaccione (UNLV School of Nursing Associate Director of Communications)
UNLV Nursing doctoral student Carrie Jeffrey remembers when she realized how much she loved being an educator. It was during her time as a young practicing nurse, not one specific moment, but a collection of events that gave her a clue. “I found myself staying in rooms, trying to teach patients,” Jeffrey recalls. “That’s my bucket filler: explaining things to patients, new nurses and students who would come on our floor.”
Jeffrey filled her proverbial buckets on the way to an assistant professor position at the Annie Dee Taylor School of Nursing at Weber State University, where she recently won the Presidential Teaching Excellence Award in March 2022. She’s been teaching there for five years, while studying for the past three years in UNLV’s PhD in Nurse Education program.
Balancing the different levels of her academic life hasn’t been easy, but Jeffrey has maintained what makes a successful nurse educator: compassion, mentorship, and a desire to see changes in the field.
A Career Steeped in Wellness
As assistant professor at Weber, Jeffrey teaches mostly undergraduate students, with a little bit of work in the master’s program. She teaches skills lab, simulation, an NCLEX prep course, and (previously) clinicals. In addition to her educator role, Jeffrey is the current capstone coordinator for undergraduate students and will soon move into a clinical coordinator role. She’s also the chair of the MSN educator residency course.
Jeffrey didn’t start her professional career as a nurse. She earned her associate’s degree in physical education, teaching fitness and nutrition and wellness. While living in Minnesota with her family, she thought more about finishing her education and getting her bachelor’s. “I always thought about nursing but just didn't have the time and the energy,” she says. “Then, when that opportunity presented itself, and I had some experiences with my kids in the hospital, I thought, ‘Okay, I think I'm supposed to be a nurse.’”
She earned her BSN from Minnesota State University and MSN from Weber State University. Jeffrey says her health background provided a strong foundation to work from. Being an older student also helped avoid the stresses common to first-time degree seekers, though that was offset by continuing to raise a family. “I would say it's easier to focus and be serious and not get distracted by things that don't matter,” she says. “But it was also a little bit more difficult trying to find that balance because I was working. I had four kids, and it was harder to schedule.”
Jeffrey says her plan was to obtain her bachelor’s degree and eventually become a nurse-midwife, but she was motivated by one of her instructors to consider teaching. “[My professor] pulled me aside in my last semester and said, ‘I think you need to think about nursing education. You're a natural leader. You explain things to your classmates. It seems they go to you for questions and then you come to us,’” Jeffrey remembers. “That's where that seed was planted.”
Adapt and Overcome
It was at Weber where she first heard about UNLV’s PhD in Nursing program through word-of-mouth from fellow faculty who also began UNLV graduate students. “We heard about the program from them, and they had nothing but good things to say,” she says. “They felt really supported. They felt all of their coursework helped prepare them for their dissertation.” Jeffrey’s dissertation topic focuses on emergency remote teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic and how it’s affected new nurses practicing in the field.
Jeffrey admits if she knew a pandemic was on the horizon, she would not have applied for the PhD program when she did. She explains while her PhD courses themselves were not more challenging, it was balancing them around everything else. “My job was constant. We were working so much trying to switch everything online; trying to figure out how we're going to do sims and labs; and how we're going to get these students clinical hours when the hospitals kicked us out,” Jeffrey says. “The PhD program was just one more thing. It wasn't harder. It was just everything else that was so taxing and took longer that it felt undoable at times. I'm so glad I did it. I appreciate my education and I've learned so much, but it was hard.”
Sharpening The Focus of Teaching
Jeffrey says through the eyes of a teacher, the pandemic reminded her of how human we are, especially for nurses, and it influenced how she interacted with her students. “I think in nursing, we get rigid and [feel like], ‘Things have to be this way.’ We hold our students to a really high standard because we need to put out safe nurses, but at the same time, they need exceptions, some compassion themselves,” Jeffrey says. “It shifted my perspective a little bit, that I needed to be treating my students as a person first and a nurse second and not vice versa.” She adds the pandemic also forced her and her colleagues to streamline their teaching style and assignments. “I’ve shed a lot of unnecessary things that we just always did because we always did it. We started asking, ‘What's the purpose of this? Why are we doing this? Can we get rid of this?’”
As an educator, Jeffrey doubled as mentor for her students throughout COVID-19, despite the faculty being just as unsure about how the pandemic would pan out. “I would say our mentoring probably increased 100-150%. We spent a lot of time de-escalating and trying to calm anxieties and reassure ourselves that we'll get through this.” She urges her students to prioritize themselves and their families above everything else. “If those two things are not taken care of, everything else suffers.” However, Jeffrey acknowledges it’s one thing to tell others to de-stress and another to practice it. “Faculty and I will admit one of the first things to go during the pandemic was self-care. It seems hypocritical, but I think we were all in crisis mode and just trying to function. I think we're still recovering. A lot of us still say, ‘We'll get back to normal, whatever that looks like.’ I don't think we're quite there yet.”
But Jeffrey lauds her students for finding a renewed sense of health care pride. “I've seen students almost get more passionate about nursing because they felt they were meeting a need in our community for nurses. They felt proud to be a nurse during this time, even though they were just starting nursing school.” It’s a balancing act, Jeffrey says, between expecting exceptional work from students but not pushing perfection, but she argues at a certain point, educators have the ability to ease the pressure so these young nurses can avoid making mistakes and minimize safety concerns.“I think we condition [nursing students] before they even get to us to get A's, to be perfect to get into our program. Those are the students we accept, who have straight A's and have to be the best. Sometimes, we need to remind them, ‘It’s okay if you get a B. As long as you pass the course, it’s okay. You do not have to have one hundred percent on everything. You can let some things go, meet the bar and still be a safe nurse,’ provided they're the right things.”
Finding A Path Towards Confident Nursing
Making nurses feel appreciated goes against a tide Jeffrey sees too often, where nurses are treated poorly as disposable workers. She and other faculty are making sure to empower their students to strengthen their confidence. “We are trying to build up these nurses to advocate for themselves, to take care of themselves, and to be aware of what they're signing when they get a job and be aware of their rights and their scope of practice.” Jeffrey contends while building up the nursing workforce is important, there shouldn’t be a sole focus on graduating more nurses; there needs to be an effort to cultivate and support the nurses who have already graduated as well.
Jeffrey says it’s the visible impact of the work that is the most gratifying, and she encourages other nurses with even the slightest desire to move on that feeling. She says, “If you're finding yourself feeling satisfied after you have helped someone else make a connection and learn something new, make the jump.”
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