A Good Nursing Workforce Needs Good Nursing Teachers, Says Nursing Professor Deb Savage, Director of Nursing at Doane College

By Rick Docksai

Of all the jobs that a young person can take up with a nursing degree, one of the most critically needed today might be teaching. Student enrollments in nursing programs are surging1, and all those new students necessitate more teachers. Nursing-education schools in many parts of the country now find themselves struggling to find and keep enough faculty.

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Deb Savage found her purpose and passion in nursing education.

“In Nebraska, I’m not seeing a lot of faculty vacancies. But I am seeing other parts of the country where they are really under pressure,” says Deb Savage, director of nursing at Doane College in Lincoln and Grand Island, Nebraska. She cites in the southwest, some areas of the Midwest, and certain areas of both the East and West Coast as regions where nursing teachers are in particularly short supply.

Savage has more than 25 years of personal experience to speak from, having both taught nursing and practiced it at various Nebraska locales. She tended to patients as a staff nurse in oncology and critical care at the Bryan LGH Medical Center in Lincoln, for about eight years before adding academia to her career repertoire and serving, successively, as an assistant professor at the Bryan LGH College of Health Sciences and, afterwards, her present-day position at Doane, along with another two-year stint in medical-surgical nursing at the Crete Area Medical Center in between.

She could hardly have joined the ranks of nursing educators at a better time. Nationwide, enrollments in bachelor’s degree programs made a 22.2% jump from 2011 to 2012 alone, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, which further noted that this increase marked the tenth year-on-year enrollment increase in a row. Even more telling, the same survey found that nursing schools turned away more than 52,000 qualified applicants in 2012 for no reason other than the schools had reached maximum capacity1.

Altering Nursing Education Programs

The situation is forcing many schools to alter their training programs to get more use out of limited numbers of teachers. Some resort to online programs, since one professor can teach many more classes if those classes take place on the Web.

Electronic training simulations are another increasingly common teaching strategy. Nursing schools have routinely assigned students to put in for-credit hours working in hospital settings with real-life patients. Some schools, pressed with too many students and not enough available clinical space, replace some of these live training activities with computer models, set up in the classroom, with which they simulate on-screen a patient and his or her vital signs.

“They’ll have a lab set up to simulate a patient, and they can do a lot with that,” she says. “They can recreate a patient’s conditions and have it make any kind of heart rhythm or lung sounds.”

“Most learning takes place with patients, the solid learning. That’s the key. You cannot replace working with a patient.” ~ Savage

The simulation will present scenarios that are bound to arise in real life, such as the patient suddenly exhibiting irregular heart beat. And for each situation, the lab instructor will walk the students through what to do.

“It’s a clinical tool to teach the students when you don’t have the actual space for it,” she says. “This was developed as a teaching tool in addition to meeting a need for a decreased clinical space. Student access to taking care of a live patient in the clinical environment is kind of the bottleneck. There just aren’t enough clinical sites to put students out there.”

For all its greater efficiency, though, online education may leave something wanting. She’s found that, at least at the bachelor’s degree level, learning works best when there is at least some direct human contact.

“I’m a relationship person. I think learning takes place in relationships,” she says.

In the same vein, she cautions against seeing electronic simulations as a substitute for working with patients. A simulation is not a living patient, after all, and working with one does not really give you a feel for what it is like to work with the other, she argues.

“Most learning takes place with patients, the solid learning. That’s the key. You cannot replace working with a patient,” she says.

Relationship-Centered Teaching

The country can definitely use more teachers. But it’s not a job for everybody. Savage stresses that a very capable nurse will not necessarily be a great nursing teacher. Teaching is a unique skill set, one that includes building and connecting effectively with one’s students.

Human connection means a great deal to Savage, in the clinics and in the classrooms. She speaks earnestly of the satisfaction that she finds getting to know her students and helping them to get going on their respective professional paths. That drive to relate to and help others is what makes teaching worthwhile, in her book.

“My favorite thing about it is my relationships with the students. I’m a teacher, I’m an educator, and I have that passion to work with students. I do spend hours grading papers and reading. But the relationships with the students are what drive me,” she says. “So many go through life without ever finding what their purpose is or what they’re passionate about. For me, it’s very fulfilling to see somebody find their passion and their purpose.”

It’s definitely not for the money. She notes that those who enter nursing education have to give up the opportunity to earn much higher salaries that come from working in nursing practice.

“You have to be willing to work for less money. If money is something that drives you then you’re not going to find it in nursing education,” she says.

“So many go through life without ever finding what their purpose is or what they’re passionate about. For me, it’s very fulfilling to see somebody find their passion and their purpose.” ~ Savage

Some nurses do a little of both, though, by teaching classes while doing some real-life practice on the side. This is the best of all worlds, in Savage’s view, since they not only earn more, but they also bring more experience and knowledge to the classes that they teach.

“I think that to be a really good teacher, you have to work in the field. I’ve had nurses that tried to teach but had very little experience, and it shows. I’d rather have someone teaching me who’s out there doing it. The book learning is okay, but you just can’t replace experience,” she says.

It’s also the more common route. Savage sees relatively few students go right from a bachelor’s of nursing program to the doctoral program for a teaching degree. The majority of those who make their way to teaching, she says, do so after having worked in clinical practice for a while and deciding that they would prefer to teach.

Need to be a People Person

Those who are thinking about teaching nursing need to think hard about whether it’s the best fit for their personal strengths and likes. Savage has many of her students read Standout: The Groundbreaking New Strengths Assessment from the Leader of the Strengths Revolution, by Marcus Buckingham, for the book’s assessment exercises, which break down an array of careers and the personality traits that will best suit someone for each. Teaching is one of those careers.

“Not everybody is a good teacher. You have to have a talent, and you have to love to teach,” she says. “Those people that do teach, they teach because they love it.”

1American Association of Colleges of Nursing