The Modern Nurse Educator


The Modern Nurse Educator

By Daria Waszak, RN, MSN, CEN, COHN-S
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Today’s nursing students show up to class already prepared as “content experts.” They have listened to a pre-recorded PowerPoint lecture at home and will now spend their time in class discussing what they learned and applying the newfound theory. “We don’t just talk for five hours,” explains West Coast University Assistant Professor Cheryl Rojas, RN, MSN, FNP, who teaches adult med-surg and critical care. “Every day, there is a quiz or exam. We use case studies, NCLEX-style questions and ATI [test bank] activities; do scenarios; answer questions; and conduct group activities and discussions. It helps students understand the material and make connections between theory and clinical.”

Each week, Rojas teaches two theory classes lasting five hours each, one 12-hour clinical day with students and one after-class workshop for students who want to analyze quiz or test questions. She also spends time each week preparing for the next week’s class, accessing “learning communities,” which are a big help.

“Faculty who teach the same courses get together every 10 weeks to discuss what has worked in the classroom and what has not,” Rojas explains. “We have faculty course feedback and go over best practices. If the learning community as a whole agrees that changes need to be made, they are taken to the curriculum committee for a vote.”

No Nurse Educator Is an Island

“In the old model, instructors did it all,” says Jan Jones-Schenk, RN, DHS, NE-BC, chief nursing officer and national director of the College of Health Professions at Western Governor’s University. “It’s going out of usefulness. It’s not scalable. It doesn’t use the best talents of the instructor.”

Jones-Schenk describes the contemporary educator as one who is able to effectively partner with a myriad of professionals. As healthcare becomes more collaborative and specialized, so too does the educator model.

“I would liken it to interdisciplinary teams in hospitals,” Jones-Schenk says. “At the end of the day, one person can’t have all the expertise. You might have instructors good at helping students understand complex material, but if that instructor is also grading, developing examinations and doing guidance counseling, maybe they are not as good at those things.”

Although each educator takes time preparing for a course, they don’t necessarily “own” the course. More than one instructor can teach it. “The core competency for the instructor of the future is to find the best materials, craft it and pull it all together,” Jones-Schenk says.

Giving Back and Getting Back

Rojas teaches fundamentals to new students and more advanced theory to students who are towards the end of the program. “We see them in the beginning — they are so brand new,” she reflects. “And then we see them at the end. To see how much they’ve learned is rewarding. Students are finally understanding and making connections. The puzzle pieces are coming together.”
Rojas says another rewarding part of her job is being able to see the students pass the NCLEX examination and come back to thank the faculty.

Hilary Morgan, Ph.D., CNM, an assistant professor at the Jacksonville University School of Nursing, has been teaching full time for five years.“There is no typical day,” she says. “There is no set day. Every day is different. That is one of the things that appealed to me about it.” Her more traditional educator role varies from teaching theory and engaging with students one-on-one in practice settings to developing programs and curriculums. “I have a sense of wanting to give back,” she says. “I feel like I’m making a contribution.”

Morgan, who has more than 30 years of experience as a nurse, is also in the U.S. Navy Reserve and spends two weeks each year at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center near Washington, D.C., where she often encounters a surprising number of former students. “There has never been a time when I was on command and didn’t run into a student,” she says. “It’s great that we’ve been able to make such an impression on Navy medicine.”

Nursing Faculty Shortage

Sadly, there’s a shortage of nurse educators like these. A report prepared for the Board of Registered Nursing (BRN) shows that as of October 2013, California prelicensure nursing programs had a faculty vacancy rate of 5.9 percent, the highest rate since 2007.
“Yes, there is a faculty shortage,” says Jones-Schenk. “It will grow worse because of the demographics of the nursing faculty: the aging of nursing faculty. Part of the shortage was created because of not being able to adjust a model for faculty engagement.”

The Educator Career Path

Anyone who is interested in becoming a nurse educator can take instruction courses, earn certification in nursing education and become a student teacher in a graduate program.

The ideal nursing instructor is “energetic, articulate, creative, supportive and ensures students are the No. 1 priority,” says Robyn Nelson, RN, MSN, Ph.D., dean of the College of Nursing at West Coast University. “Generally, you have to have an academic degree higher than the students you are preparing.”

Requirements for nursing educators vary by state. In California, the BRN requires instructors of prelicensure nursing programs to be at least master’s-prepared while assistant instructors must be baccalaureate-prepared. There are also various requirements for minimum levels of nursing and teaching experience. Clinical teaching assistants must have at least one year of experience in an area of expertise plus five years’ direct patient care experience.

With the Institute of Medicine’s goal of having 80 percent of all registered nurses be at least BSN-prepared by 2020, many students feel pressured to complete an RN-to-BSN program. However, compulsory learners may not be as engaged or ready to learn as students who genuinely want to pursue a degree.  

“Whether on ground or online, if students aren’t motivated, they won’t be successful,” says Nelson. “Staff members have to set the expectations.” Therefore, an effective educator must be engaging, an excellent researcher, organized, clear and able to deliver courses online or at convenient times for students, who are often working nurses.

Dynnette Hart, RN, DPH, CPNP, associate dean of the Loma Linda University School of Nursing, notes that an instructor cannot rely solely on expertise. “Along with competence must come the ability to adapt the teaching process to positively support each student in their unique learning style,” she says.

The goal is to teach nurses to be lifelong learners prepared to take on the challenges of an ever-changing healthcare landscape.  


The Nurse Educator Wage Gap

We all know that tackling California’s nursing shortages will mean training large numbers of additional nurses. Unfortunately, finding enough qualified nurse educators to fill the growing number of vacant nursing faculty positions may not be easy due to a significant pay gap.

Why Did the Nurse Cross the Street?

The challenge for nursing schools is that a nurse who has the education and experience required for most college-level faculty positions can parlay those same qualifications into nursing leadership or advanced practice roles with substantially higher salaries.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary for a postsecondary nurse educator in California, $87,420, is actually lower than the average salary for California RNs, which the BLS estimates at $96,980. The average salary for nurse practitioners is $110,590 and some administrative positions pay even more than that.

That means nursing schools’ biggest competitors for qualified candidates can actually be the schools’ own associated hospitals. “You can go across the street and make twice the salary,” admits Dynnette Hart, RN, DPH, CPNP, associate dean of the Loma Linda University School of Nursing.

Loan Forgiveness Programs

Hart says you “must be dedicated” to choose a career as a nurse educator, but for younger nurses still struggling with student debt, dedication may not be enough.

This is not an easy problem for schools to address. Few nursing programs have the resources to compete with hospitals on salaries and attempting to do so would likely translate into even higher tuition rates for students, ultimately compounding the problem.

An alternative would be expanding loan forgiveness options for nurse educators. The federal NURSE Corps program is already open to nurses teaching full-time at accredited public or private nonprofit nursing schools and can forgive up to 85 percent of a nurse’s un-repaid student loans in exchange for a three-year service commitment.

The Need for Public Policy

The downside is that funds for these programs are often limited; NURSE Corps applications are already closed for 2014. Also, because loan forgiveness amounts are usually taxable, nurses need to consult an accountant or tax attorney to understand the potential liability before signing up.

Nonetheless, programs like these may prove to be the most cost-effective way to ensure that nurses who have the skills and dedication to become educators can afford to do so.

Daria Waszak, RN, MSN, CEN, COHN-S, is a freelance writer and adjunct professor of nursing. She has been a RN for 19 years in clinical and administrative roles and is currently pursuing a doctoral nursing degree.

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