Nursing Instructor: Kathleen Atchison, MSN, RNC

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Nursing Instructor: Kathleen Atchison, MSN, RNC

Teaching, training and mentoring the next generation of nurses

By Keith Carlson, RN, BSN
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Kathleen Atchison, MSN, RNC
Director of Simulation, West Coast University

Can you tell us about the history of your nursing career?

I’ve been a critical care nurse since I graduated nursing school 16 years ago. I gravitated to the intensity and the challenge. I still do. I continued my studies and eventually earned a master’s degree in nursing education. For the last six years, I’ve been teaching full time. I’ve taught other experienced critical care nurses in the hospital setting, and new graduate nurses entering critical care. During that time I also worked on many projects to improve patient outcomes.

A great opportunity to teach nursing students came up at West Coast University. I’ve been working there for the last three years and have entered the world of simulation.

What led you to become a nursing educator?

I was always the willing preceptor to students and new employees wherever I worked. I love working with people who are eager to learn and seeing the look on their faces when they gain an understanding of something. So, when I went entered the master’s program, nursing education was a natural fit.

Tell us about your current position at West Coast University.

When I began work at West Coast, I taught theory, clinical and skills courses. At the time, there were discussions about developing a simulation program and the dean selected me and one other teacher to attend classes in simulation offered by the California Institute of Nursing and Healthcare (CINHC).

When I saw what they were doing and what we could do for students, I was hooked. Knowing what I know about students’ needs from an academic and a clinical perspective, I could see that this was something that was critically important to nursing education. At first we conducted a beta test — building two simulation rooms and attempting to demonstrate that simulation could have a statistically significant impact on students. The impact was enormous.

In the process, we also became more convinced that simulation could meet those student learning needs that cannot safely be met any other way. David Pyle, executive chairman of the board of West Coast University, is very supportive of our efforts and committed to providing our students with a rich educational experience. A decision was made to build simulation centers at all four of our campuses, complete with a budget for seven full-time nursing faculty members and several support staff members.

Since then, I have been promoted to director of simulation for all campuses of the university. I have begun building a team of nursing educators specializing in simulation, have made great strides toward integrating simulation into our curriculum, and have begun sharing our experiences with others.

What happens in the simulation center?

Students are challenged, and they learn a lot about nursing and about themselves. We have all high-fidelity mannequins so that we can have the most realism and variety possible. They’re amazing. They can blink, breathe, cough, sweat, and seize. They have realistic heart, lung, and bowel sounds. They have pulse points and measurable blood pressures. They can even cry and bleed. One of our mannequins even delivers a baby and can have complications associated with pregnancy. Two of our mannequins are babies.

The faculty manage the mannequins’ movements and words from a control room while observing the students in action through a one-way mirror. They use headsets to talk to the students through the mannequins as the cases evolve. It’s a very immersive and interactive way for students to learn.

Do you agree that there is a shortage of nursing instructors?

Absolutely. We have a very good budget for the simulation faculty here at West Coast University, and that’s pretty rare. We know we need highly-trained faculty to run an outstanding program, but recruiting enough faculty can be difficult. There are a lot of opportunities for graduate nurses, and teaching is just one. We’ve been lucky so far and have been able to get several excellent nurses on our team. Other schools aren’t so lucky.

What would you say to a nurse who is interested in being an instructor?

For dynamic and realistic simulation activities, solid clinical experience is very important. It’s also important that faculty understand educational theory so they are able to teach most effectively. I’ve coached many of the simulation faculty members to let go and encourage the students to learn from one another and figure things out for themselves. This can be challenging for nurses who were taught with lectures.

Nursing education isn’t what it used to be. We have the capability to do so much more for students now. And as the faculty grow, they realize this and become more comfortable with letting the students explore and learn from their mistakes and successes. They begin to see themselves as facilitators. Then, their most important role becomes that of a coach who is able to motivate students, provide them with opportunities to learn, and offer them honest but encouraging feedback.

Using simulation to teach nurses is going to become more and more important, so anyone interested in nursing education should familiarize themselves with simulation technologies and methods. Now that we know what we know, there’s no turning back. It really is the future of nursing education.


Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, is a registered nurse, writer and blogger. He writes for a variety of nursing and health websites, and has been included in several nonfiction nursing books by Kaplan Publishing. He is editorial contributor to His own blog can be found at

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