One of my greatest pleasures in life is being a mentor to the next generation of nurses (not all of them, obviously!). I’ve learned over the years that the mentor/mentee relationship should be taken seriously. Mentoring relationships have often grown organically in my career. Though they are informal in nature, they provide a touchstone, an outlet, and a path for success to the mentee.

One thing you have heard in this career is that nurses eat their young. I’m not convinced that this is unique to the profession. Look around you and you’ll see someone in need of a helping hand in their life, and I’ll bet you have something to offer.

Here are 10 ways you can make the most out of your mentoring relationship.

1. Start by taking inventory of yourself.

What are your strengths and weaknesses as a nurse? With experience can come bad habits, corner cutting, and sloppiness. You don’t want to pass those on as wisdom. Conversely, I’ve gained deeper insight into the process of nursing, how to work within a system to promote change, how to put patient safety and outcome at the top of my priority list. These are the things I want to share.

2. Model the behavior you want to see.

I hate to say it but anyone can talk the talk. Oddly enough, I found that hand washing is a great silent instructional tool to model the correct behavior. There are plenty of nurses modeling bad behavior, but it only takes one person to do the right thing for it to catch on.

3. Be quick with praise.

The new nurse often works in a vacuum of praise. They are just expected to always be correct. I point out the correct behavior when I see it. That moment of reinforcement will last a lifetime. I’ll bet you can think of a time when someone praised you.

4. Don’t let a bad habit take root. 

Gentle correction like, “You are doing great. I can see why you did it that way, but let me show you the right way… and here’s why.” The trick is to give constructive criticism in a way that works to change behavior without humiliating the receiver. One humiliation can sour a relationship. I never give correction in front of other people. I just don’t do it. Gentle correction in private is the way to go.

5. Be willing to learn.

Medicine requires a lifelong commitment to learning—and not just doing CE’s to renew your license every few years. Every day I find some new facet of my practice where I don’t know something. How does this medicine work? What is the natural course of this disease? What is the meaning of this lab value? Modeling to my mentee that I’m a learner encourages him/her to be a learner as well.

6. Be comfortable enough to share your mistakes.

We’ve all made them. I let my bad experience be a learning tool for my mentees.

7. Show the wonder of medicine.

Enthusiasm, excitement…these things can die if not frequently watered and fed. We have so much pressure on us as nurses that we can forget to see that caring for another human is a wonderful experience. The human body is an awesome machine for carrying around our mind. Even in great states of stress or disability, it can surprise us with its tenacity. It can also surprise us with its fragility.

8. Invest time in your mentee.

Time is all we have on this good earth. It’s my most valuable gift and when it comes to mentoring, I give it freely. Someday, one of these young nurses is going to be caring for me, and I want the compassion that I have for my patients and my craft to be reflected in the next generation of nurses.

9. Have fun.

If you aren’t laughing, you aren’t alive. Caring for the sick and injured at the bedside is tough cookies. Having a ready joke, seeing humor in difficulty, smiling…these are valuable coping tools that I use daily.

10. Finally, be compassionate.

It’s our most valuable asset. Having compassion for our fellow humans sharing this journey of life helps give us meaning. Compassion leads to love, and kindness, a desire to understand the plight of others, to intercede in tough circumstances, to be a good servant to mankind. That’s what we should want to pass on to the next nurse.

Don’t let a mentoring opportunity pass you by. You’ll find, like I did, that being a mentor is fun, rewarding, and a two-way street. I get 10 times as much as I give.

Spencer Miller, RN

Spencer Miller, RN, is an emergency room nurse who has worked at various hospitals in Florida, Georgia, and California as a traveler. He currently lives in Sunnyvale, California.

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