There is a saying in our profession that “nurses eat their young”–referring to the way certain veteran nurses are said to treat new nursing graduates. But just what does this statement mean? Are nurses like wild animals that carry their young in their arms only to devour them at the first chance they get? Are we the type of people who pretend to care for our young and then, when an opportunity presents itself, we tear the weaker one into little pieces?

Although some people in the nursing profession may believe this is true, we don’t think so. A nurse is someone who devotes his or her life to caring for other people’s physical, mental, social, spiritual and emotional health. Nurses do this not only by taking care of their patients but also by taking care of their co-workers. When we as nurses take care of our new graduates, we are functioning in the role of a mentor.

Not all nurses have the desire or the personality to be a mentor to new graduates, just as not all people desire to be nurses. So the question is, who should be a mentor and what qualities should a mentor have when working with new graduates?

Desire to Be a Leader

Leaders are responsible and accountable for others. There should be a desire to nurture another person in a particular role.

To be a leader of new graduates, you must learn how to lead. By definition, being a leader requires that you have someone follow you. It amazes us when nurses ask their supervisors if they can precept a new graduate and then complain about having “a shadow” follow them for three to six weeks. What a dehumanizing way to describe someone! We should never refer to our new graduates or any preceptee as a shadow.

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These people are our fellow colleagues in the nursing profession. Most of these new graduates have attended college for four to six years in hopes of making a difference in someone’s life. By providing leadership to a new graduate, you will have the wonderful opportunity to help shape this person’s attitude about what constitutes excellence in nursing care.

Having an impact on someone’s life is a huge responsibility. You as the leader must decide what motivates the new nurse. You must consider such factors as: What is this person’s learning style? How does he/she respond to stress? Is the person ethical in his/her behavior? Will he/she ask questions when something is not clear?

As a leader, you will create opportunities for learning in a positive manner. How do you make these opportunities available? We suggest having a roadmap that will tell you where the new graduate will start and how to evaluate his/her progress throughout the training period. An example of a roadmap is shown in Figure 1, with each stage of the process lasting two weeks.

Dr. Leland Kaiser, the award-winning health care consultant, educator and author of Mapping Your Future: A Lifework Planning Guide for Health Care Professionals, has said, “If a person is learning, you will know it by their soul’s frequency.” This frequency can be measured by the amount of energy a person releases in joy, creativity, motivation and in having fun. A good leader will recognize these frequencies and learn how to tap into them to make learning enjoyable for the new graduate.

Desire to Be an Educator

Nurses do not necessarily need experience in teaching or training to precept new graduates. What you do need to have is the desire to educate others, along with the ability to share your knowledge and experience in a way that will be meaningful to the person you are mentoring.

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All too often, managers are given the task of choosing who will train their new nurses. Not all nurses have the desire to teach, and not all nurses can articulate themselves well. During our own nursing careers, both us of have worked with certain nurses who didn’t want to train new graduates but were required to do so by their managers.

Most of these nurses who grudgingly took on the task utilized what we call the “Watch Me” method of training. Every trainee who was put into these nurses’ care received the same treatment: Watch me and learn. There are two problems with this type of training. First of all, as adults we learn in a variety of ways. Some people are visual learners while others are verbal learners. Still others learn best by demonstration, by hands-on or by a combination of methods.

Secondly, Dorothea Orem’s well-known theory of nursing deals with the self-care model. We want our patients to learn to take care of themselves. As an educator to our new graduates, we should strive for this same result. We should want our new nurses to learn to become independent.

An old Chinese proverb says that if you give a man a fish when he is hungry you feed him for a day, but if you teach him to fish you feed him for a lifetime. The same is true in the nursing profession. If we tell new graduate nurses to “watch me” show them a skill, we teach them for a moment. But if we teach them to perform the skill themselves, we have taught them for a lifetime.

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Desire to Be Patient

The online encyclopedia Wikipedia defines patience as “the ability to endure waiting, delay or provocation without becoming annoyed or upset, or to persevere calmly when faced with difficulties.” When mentoring new graduates, it’s crucial to understand that the learning process takes time, that not everyone learns at the same pace and that things may not always go as smoothly as you anticipated.

You may encounter some trainee nurses who are struggling with barriers that can affect their ability to learn effectively. For example, they may face language barriers, such as difficulty understanding or speaking English. They may have behavioral or social barriers, such as shyness, being easily angered or difficulties in getting along with others.  In order to develop teamwork on a nursing unit, it is necessary to address such behaviors very early in the training.

Having patience requires understanding other people’s behavior. But before we can do that, we must first understand ourselves. If you are a nurse who desires to be a mentor, you must first do a self-inventory of your own attitudes, beliefs and biases. Learn what makes you tick. Once we have gained this self-knowledge, then we can help others.

The quality of patience will allow you to give constructive criticism that will promote growth. Communicate your thoughts about the learning process with the new graduate, and don’t be afraid to be honest. At the end of the orientation period there should be no surprises.

Everyone makes mistakes. What is important when working with new nurses is how we communicate their errors to them. This is where patience and compassion comes into the training process. Our new nurses should feel that we are trying to find them doing things right rather than focusing on their faults.

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A mentor with patience can be a positive role model to new graduates who are finally realizing their dream of becoming of a nurse. You have the power to set an example of excellence, both in nursing skills and in high standards of personal and professional behavior. Be accessible to others starting out in the nursing profession. Have a goal to train one nurse the way you would want someone to train you. Maintain a positive attitude.

Nurses are a wonderful, caring group of people. We take time with our patients, families and friends, and we give so much back to the community. Now it is time for us to give back to each other in a loving way, by taking the time to work with our new graduates as they help us get over the nursing shortage.

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