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What makes a great nurse mentor?

Nurse mentors are at the heart of nursing education, offering student nurses valuable support and guidance and assessing their progress and competence. While becoming a mentor is seen as an important step in a nurse’s career development, the role doesn’t necessarily come easy. So what makes a great mentor? We asked nurses at varying stages of their career to share their insights.


They make time for students

Registered Adult Nurse Rebecca Wood recognises the challenges mentors face. For her, the ones that stand out are approachable and generous with their time.

‘I think being approachable and having the ability to communicate well with a variety of people is key. There is no monetary reward for mentoring and it can be hard work and frustrating, especially when work pressures are high. The best mentors I’ve had gave their time, without making me feel like I was a burden. On the flip side, you can tell when you’re a burden to your mentor because they have so much work to do and talking about it wastes time.’

They encourage students to participate

Other students note that poor mentors neglect to cover the basics or don’t involve students in procedures. ‘A good mentor allows you to get stuck in and guides you rather than just telling you what they are doing, or assuming you can’t do it because you’re a student,’ says second-year student Michelle Neale. ‘My worst mentors have been ones that haven’t explained the basics of the nursing needs on the ward, because they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be new.’

Second-year student Pippa Harrison agrees that mentors would benefit from remembering what it’s like to be new. ‘Starting a new placement can be very daunting as a student, so a warm welcome from a mentor goes a long way. The ones you remember are those who make you feel part of the team and encourage you to push yourself, so that you are constantly learning.’

Although some students are keen to take on more responsibility, many have to be encouraged to step outside of their comfort zone.

‘The best mentors notice when you are comfortable in your environment and ready to be put on the spot,’ says second-year student Tiffany Jordan Dent. ‘One of my mentors allowed me to teach new students, whilst standing next to me. This helped her gauge my knowledge, and let me feel useful.’

They praise frequently and criticise gently

Of course, students will sometimes get things wrong. If a student isn’t making mistakes, they aren’t being pushed outside of their comfort zone. How you respond to mistakes can have an impact on a student’s confidence and their willingness to challenge themselves in future.

Pippa says: ‘One inspirational nurse I worked with praised even the smallest achievements and never criticised my mistakes, only reminded me all nurses makes mistakes and discussed how these could be avoided in future practice.’

They have a sense of responsibility

If you’re considering taking on a mentoring role for the first time, it’s worth speaking to others who have mentoring experience. Not only will you learn from their successes and failures, but talking to them will help you decide what kind of mentor you want to be.

Keeleigh Scott, a registered Adult Nurse working in the community, is currently studying her mentorship. She admits that her expectations have changed since starting the course.

‘When I first started mentoring, I had this dreamy idea of being every student’s best friend. The reality of being a mentor is quite daunting when you realise the implications, i.e., supporting them through to registration, signing skills off, addressing any doubts and making sure they are eradicated. It’s not as simple as developing a good rapport and supporting students, you have to take so many other things into consideration. It’s actually a huge responsibility.’

They lead and inspire by example

Finally, mentors don’t just guide students’ learning – they lead by example, inspiring others by demonstrating the highest commitment to excellence and patient-centred care.

Cat Sullivan, a Palliative Care Clinical Nurse Specialist with more than 25 years’ experience of general nursing, has mentored many students. She says: ‘I love seeing the light come on in my students’ eyes as their confidence grows and they realise the impact that they have on a patient’s well-being. It’s lovely being reminded what it was like to be a student too, and how much I now have to teach.

‘Being a good mentor is a testament to our own confidence and experience as nurses; demonstrating passion and skill in managing competing pressures and fielding sometimes difficult questions while delivering skilled care is no easy task, but it is so worth it if our students are to develop to their full potential.’

The difference between a great mentor and a poor one can have a major impact on a student. As Keeleigh says: ‘I’ve had two awful mentors and they have stuck in my mind and haunted me. But I also had four amazing mentors. I only hope I can inspire others, as they have inspired me.’

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