February 23, 2024
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How to be an effective NP preceptor: Basic concepts to keep in mind

What makes an effective NP preceptor? Lots of things. Articles about precepting often talk about setting goals for the students, keeping timetables, getting organized, etcetera. You know the deal.

In this article, we wanted to address a few concepts that many preceptors might overlook when getting into the role. Especially if they’re just starting out.

These basic concepts include: your role as a preceptor, soft skills, how to teach adults, and identifying stages of competence.

If you are an experienced, and effective NP preceptor, or you’ve heard about this before, by all means, skip this one. However, if you choose not to, we believe you might find some interesting insights.

Being a preceptor is a great thing, and nobody teaches you how to do it. It’s crazy.

Let’s look at some stuff that might help you with that:

What is the role of an effective NP preceptor?

The most important question we have to answer here is what exactly is an NP preceptor.

What you might know from experience is that precepting a student has to do, specifically, with teaching. Practical skills. You’re sharing clinical knowledge with students that they will use in their job as a nurse practitioner.

In our language, however, there is a difference between somebody who is a teacher, and somebody who is an educator.

While “teacher” might just refer to the job title, an “educator” might go beyond the teaching aspect to meet other needs that their students, as human beings, have.

An effective NP preceptor is expected to be an educator. Let’s explain why.

NP preceptors can have many faces. As you might remember from school, and your own experience as a preceptee, sometimes a preceptor works as a:

  • Socializer: A person who helps you to get acquainted with a particular group of people, in this case the professional nursing community.
  • Role Model: A person who exhibits personality traits and professional habits that you would like to achieve for yourself.
  • Colleague: A person who works alongside you at the same level, and helps you get through the day. They teach you, and you teach them.

We could say that these are the four pillars that make an effective NP preceptor.

If that sounds like a lot, don’t worry. It’s not like you have to fulfill these four pillars at all times, everytime.

It’s more about knowing when and how to do certain things, aside from just teaching soft and hard clinical skills.

What are “soft” and “hard” clinical skills?

In the world of education, careers, business, precepting, you name it, there are two kinds of skills that you can teach a person.

Hard skills are measurable, practical skills that have to do with completing a certain task efficiently.

In the nursing environment, an example of a hard skill would be “how to place an IV correctly.”

Soft skills, in contrast, are skills related to personality and behavior. Things that help you do your job better, especially if you’re dealing with people constantly.

In the nursing environment, an example of a soft skill would be your bedside manner.

An effective NP preceptor will want their students to acquire both hard and soft skills during, and after, the course of their clinical rotation.

This distinction is important because many preceptors might have a tendency to leave soft skills behind, or might not know how to teach them.

The importance of soft skills when teaching NP students

You might have heard somewhere that “you can’t teach people to be compassionate.” If they are insensitive, that’s their problem.

However, we all have problems, and we don’t wake up everyday feeling peachy and ready to deal with patients.

Everyone can learn strategies, phrases, and body language to appear friendly and compassionate while in the presence of a patient.

And even if this means they’re “faking it,” well, does it really matter if the patient ends up receiving excellent care? We’ve all done it before. That’s a clinical soft skill.

Things like compassion, agreeableness, relationship skills, good communication, etc, can be taught to NP students.

You might say “well, my preceptor never said anything about that, and I turned out to be a great Nurse Practitioner! They were effective!”

There’s a good chance they did, again, by fulfilling the role of the Mentor, which we mentioned before. They might not have used the phrase “soft skills” though.

Now that you’ve given a name to these skills, you can pass that knowledge to your own students. They will know what this means and you’ll be a more effective preceptor for it.

How to treat NP students (as an effective NP preceptor)

The number one worst thing you can do as an NP preceptor is:

Focusing on hard skills alone and not taking on any of the other roles that we mentioned in the first section (i.e. just being a teacher).

The second worst thing is treating your students like children, and this is more common than you think.

How does an adult (a college-educated adult, mind you) learn stuff?

Well, in order to properly acquire knowledge, we could say that an adult needs:

  • Autonomy: Adults tend to be self-directed. Involve them in the learning process by going over the proposed goals with them.
  • Clear goals: Obvious, right? But these goals need to be relevant, this is very important. Never, please, never tell them to do anything “because you say so.”
  • Recognition: They have a lot of life experience, it’s important to recognize this accordingly. Challenge them, but don’t be quick to dismiss them.
  • Practicality: Great for both hard and soft skills. Start with clear steps and strategies that they can test-drive. Do the mentoring part (long discussions) later.

Practicality can be tricky to apply if they don’t immediately agree with what you tell them, which brings us back to having clear goals and giving them recognition and autonomy.

If this is the case, ask them: What would you do? Reassure them that their insight is important, but that the goals you set together are not just your goals, but the goals of the clinical institution.

Is it possible to find a student who outright refuses to do what you tell them to do? It’s uncommon, but it can happen. To avoid wasting time, let them know that this can be discussed at a later occasion.

Keep the doors open for communication as a role model and mentor.

Helping NP students to achieve competence

The goals NP students complete will not necessarily correspond to their competence as professionals.

Effective NP preceptors can help them by actually recognizing the stage of competence that they are currently inhabiting, and shifting those goals accordingly. Every student is different.

You might say, “hey, my preceptor made us do everything, nobody got special treatment, it was do or die, and I turned out fine.”

That’s not the worst scenario, but definitely not a good one. However, remember that these are just suggestions for effectiveness. Apply them according to your circumstances.

There are four stages of competence (explained here from the NP student’s perspective):

Unconscious Incompetence: The stage of shock you get from the school to real life transition and realizing that you don’t know anything about anything. You graduated, yes, but what is an IV again?

Conscious Incompetence: You know what an IV is, you just don’t know how to actually place it. You need to learn what you know you don’t know, and you realize it might not be as easy as you initially thought.

Conscious Competence: You’ve placed about five IVs today, step by step, always repeating the steps to yourself. You might be able to teach somebody else how to do it. It’s clean, it’s professional, and your preceptor is proud of you.

Unconscious Competence: You’ve placed so many IVs in your life you could do it with your eyes closed. You don’t even remember the steps at this point, the needle just goes in and you’re done. It’s great, but you might want to get back to basics, keep the knowledge fresh in case you have to explain it to someone else. Is the process still professional? Is it still clean? Keep those questions in mind.

Why should an NP preceptor pay attention to this?

To finish up, for now, let’s keep in mind that there are lots of other educational concepts that we might explore later in other blog posts. This is only a small sample of the things that you have to consider and implement in order to be more effective in your role as a preceptor.

If you want to be a great preceptor, you should pay attention because there are almost no courses that you can take to actually prepare yourself as an educator.

People expect you to do this job solely based on your own experience as a professional. Just think about it. Is that ideal?

We could say that, ironically, you’re expected to be a mentor, socializer, role model, etc, from a place of Conscious Incompetence. Isn’t that funny?

If it’s not good for the students… It might not be good for you. Just saying.

Keep an eye on future blog posts, and thank you for reading thus far (and for choosing to precept).

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