It can be a grab bag: Will you get a good preceptor or a bad preceptor? Often you don’t
know the clear answer to that question until you’re well into your orientation. Then it may
be too late to request a change. Kim Rapper, RN, BSN and Reality RN Senior Advisor, has
had years of precepting experience. She knows the tell-tale signs of a lax preceptor. So you don’t
suffer a sub-par precepting experience, Rapper shares what you don’t want your preceptor to be:
The “don’t ask why” preceptor
The “Why?” question is important to ask—even if it feels like pestering—because it helps to
solidify the information you are learning at a fast pace. A good preceptor is involved and is
willing to slow down and offer explanations—so you understand why you do something a
certain way and what can happen if you don’t.
But a bad preceptor shuts you down every time you ask a question, saying something like,
“That’s just the way it is. Just do it.” This response could be an indicator that the preceptor
doesn’t know the answer and doesn’t want to be exposed as ignorant. Or maybe the preceptor
just isn’t a great teacher; he/she may know the answer but has a difficult time articulating it.
However, to get the most out of your experience, you need a preceptor who is a good
teacher—willing and able to answer your questions (even the seemingly dumb ones).
The “sit-at-the-desk” preceptor
You may have heard this story, or a variation of it: The preceptor who sits at the desk reading
a magazine, feet kicked up, thinking her precepting day is a day off. These types of preceptors
take the “come-to-me-if-you-have-a-problem” approach rather than the proactive lead. They
think, If they have a problem, they’ll come ask me.
But this approach is ineffective for multiple reasons. First, it teaches new nurses that once
you’re done with orientation you can put your feet up and become disengaged. Secondly, it
minimizes the learning opportunities that happen when a preceptor and preceptee walk into a
room together. Learning happens through engaging all the senses—especially the visual. The
preceptor needs to be present and coaching—as opposed to being absent and just telling the
preceptee what to do.
At the end of the precepting experience, it’s appropriate for the preceptor to be more hands-
off, because it gives the new nurse confidence to walk in the room and give an assessment solo.
Until then, a new nurse needs a preceptor who is an in-the-present coach.
The “I’ll do it myself” preceptor
Often this type of preceptor knows what needs to be done and wants to step in a do it for the new nurse…because, well, “it’s just easier.” It should be obvious that if your preceptor is always
intervening, you’ll never actually learn. Some preceptors step in with good intentions: to help
when the new nurse is unable to complete everything by a given time. But there comes a time
when a preceptor needs to assign the new nurse all the tasks so he/she can realize how much
they were unable to get done in a given time.
That means that the preceptor may also have to stay late to make sure the new nurse
completes everything. As a preceptor, I’ve been in that position. I had the new nurse do all the
procedures and tasks for one day, and at the end of the shift not everything was done. I told her,
“That’s okay, I don’t have anywhere to be tonight, and I wanted you to see what needed to be
A good preceptor will be open to your saying, “Hey, I really want to try to do everything
by myself on Thursday. Is it okay if we’re a little bit late so I can try?” A bad preceptor won’t
develop a plan with you. But a good preceptor will. You may even set up an agreement that
states everything’s not done by so-and-so time, then the preceptor can jump in and help out.
The “uninformed” preceptor
The good preceptor asks the new nurse to give a detailed account of the kind of experience
he/she has. A preceptor needs to know what procedures the new nurse has or has not
experienced; what the new nurse is comfortable with; and what he/she isn’t comfortable with.
The preceptor doesn’t expect the new nurse to do something with a patient that he/she
hasn’t done before.
The bad preceptor will not ask questions—which often leads to unrealistic expectations of the
new nurse. And because the new nurse is eager to not disappoint, he/she forges ahead blindly
into a procedure, not expressing his/her ignorance. This not only puts the patient at risk, but it
also prohibits the new nurse from learning the procedure appropriately.
A good preceptor won’t make assumptions and will have an honest conversation about a new
nurse’s abilities. Preceptor and preceptee—together—can map a plan to help the new nurse
become more competent in areas where he/she has deficiencies.