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Succeeding with Your Preceptor
7 principles for starting off right.

It is the profession’s worst nightmare: a nurse draws 3 cc’s of insulin instead of 3 units.  Thankfully, a preceptor is there to double-check the dosage. It could have been lethal.

The first few months of most nursing jobs begin with working with a preceptor—a mentor who is by your side to make sure nothing goes amiss.  Whether you are fresh out of nursing school about to start your first nursing job, or transitioning into a new role in a new unit, the relationship you cultivate with your preceptor is the key to making that change positive—and you effective in your job.

Here are some basic principles I’ve learned as a preceptor to help you get started on the right foot:

1) Aim for complete honesty – right from the start. New nurses can help make the most of working under a preceptor by coming to the table with openness and honesty. As a preceptor, I like knowing a new nurse’s background and experience.  By focusing on things he or she is not comfortable with, a preceptor can cut down the number of patients in order to have the appropriate learning opportunities—so the new nurse isn’t completely overwhelmed.

2)  Be willing to ask lots of questions. A preceptor’s greatest fear is a new nurse who doesn’t ask any questions. Ultimately, nursing is about guarding patients’ lives. So what is worse: being embarrassed by a stupid question or killing someone because you thought you knew all the answers? No one knows everything. Even I have to look stuff up.  A nurse who either thinks he or she knows it all, or who is not open to instruction, won’t learn-- which is of course the goal of this relationship.

3)  Address issues with your preceptor directly – first. The preceptor tries to strike a balance between not overwhelming their nurses while giving them the tools and experiences they need. So a preceptor relies on feedback to know how they are doing. If you feel as if you are drowning, talk with your preceptor and together you can develop a new plan.

4)  Take ongoing issues with your preceptor to your educator. If the situation is still overwhelming, then take it to the educator or to the manager.  If you aren’t clicking with your preceptor, whether it’s because of a personality issue or training styles, then why drag it out?  This relationship is essential to your growth, so don’t allow a bad situation to ruin your chances of success.

5) Take time to develop true confidence. There’s a fine line between self-confidence and cockiness, especially as a new person.  There are going to be life and death situations, and this is not the time to pretend you know something. You truly need to know this information and be ready to act upon it. Listen to your preceptor in these situations and use them as learning opportunities. Not a day goes by that I don’t learn something new just by listening to my patients, the doctors, and my co-workers.  And the more you can soak in, the more confident you’ll feel.

6) Learn when to ask for help. This usually becomes an issue with someone who is nearing the end of their time with a preceptor, because they don’t want to ask for help.  They want to prove to themselves they’re ready to be on their own.  I try to tell them that in many situations, it doesn’t matter if you’re a new nurse or not, you will need to ask for help.  Even I have to rely on my peers daily for help, and I also need to be willing to help them. Asking for help is an essential skill for effective nursing.

7) It’s okay to feel afraid. Typically, a new nurse will start on nights. That may feel scary to have less than two years’ experience and realize you’ve got to try and hold the ICU together at night.  But holding to the principles developed while under your preceptor can help you manage a situation that only a few weeks before would have proven overwhelming. You are part of a team, and will grow by working right alongside your peers in challenging situations. You are never alone, and you can do it!

Kim received her BSN from Olivet Nazarene University in 1997. In 2003, she earned a Graphics Arts and Web Design certificate from College of DuPage, helping her develop patient and family education materials. She is currently an RN at Edward Hospital in Naperville, IL. Ultimately, Kim’s passion is to see the phrase “Nurses eat their young” become just a bad memory. She hopes to make a difference by improving new grads’ first impressions of nursing in the real world.

Read more Precepting articles

4 Responses to “Succeeding with Your Preceptor”

  1. Lori Says:

    great article !!!

  2. Jamie Says:

    Thanks for the advice, I will keep it in mind as I begin my GN position this summer.

  3. Kisha Says:

    Thanks for this Kim!

  4. Mildred Says:

    This is a question, How does a preceptor fail a preceptee?

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