- Nursing instructors are not perfect; neither are nursing students. Sometimes relationships with your nursing instructor can be tense and challenging.
- Differences in expectations, poor communication, and miscommunication are all causes of tense relationships with professors.
- Conflict management and resolution are challenging, especially between nursing students and instructors. However, conflict is not a sign that nursing is not for you.
Nursing school is one of the most challenging times in your career. Nursing students are expected to adapt to different clinical settings, balance STEM classes and relational skills, and complete numerous assignments, exams, and presentations.
When your relationship with a nursing instructor is strained, it can be the last straw. This page explores the challenge of working with a nursing instructor you don’t like, or who appears not to like you.
You can find concrete tactics you can use, and in some cases, the option of changing your perspective. Discover some of the reasons students don’t get along with their instructors and how to navigate the situation without losing your cool.
How to Navigate Tension With Nursing Instructors
Sometimes, no matter how good your intentions are, you and your nursing instructor find yourselves in a tense relationship. Renee Thompson, DNP, RN, CSP, believes that instructors should start the semester with a clear expectation of helping students to become successful, safe nurses.
This means that students should expect to receive feedback, both positive and constructive. She also believes that students at the start of the semester should let their instructors know they welcome feedback.
However, if you still find yourself in a tense relationship with your nursing instructor, here are some steps you can take.
Start With Yourself
As a nurse with more than a decade of experience, Amanda Haas recommends you begin by examining yourself before jumping headlong into a confrontation. Ask yourself if your emotions may be heightened because of exhaustion or stress. Could you have misinterpreted this situation, or was this legitimate feedback that embarrassed you or hurt your feelings?
It is a smart decision to step away for 24 hours so you can reconsider what happened after you’re well-rested and fed. Was the situation time limited? In other words, was it a one-time event with no lasting consequence?
If you do address the situation, what change do you expect? One mature nursing student in her 50s reported her clinical instructor for threatening behavior. However, in the following month, she was threatened by the dean with expulsion, banned from her clinical assignment, and received a failing grade in her lecture and lab classes.
At this point, her only recourse was to contact a nurse attorney. This does not mean that you should not address an issue, only that you should consider the consequences of your actions and whether they could have a long-lasting positive effect on the instructor or the student body.
Talk to the Instructor
After you feel calmer, speak directly to your instructor. Don’t only talk about the situation with your peers or another instructor. When you sit down with your instructor, summarize the situation and try to provide the context for your concerns.
Use statements like “I feel” or “I felt” instead of accusing the instructor by saying “you did this.” Haas recommends that you allow the instructor to respond and give you their interpretation of what happened.
It is important that you don’t interrupt or get defensive during these conversations.
Own Your Part in the Conflict
It can be difficult, but it is important to take ownership of your role in the relationship with your nursing instructor. Even if you feel the conflict is completely one-sided, you’ll have greater success in resolving the conflict if both parties can own a piece of it.
After your conversation, if you feel your concern still needs to be addressed, communicate your needs directly. Haas gives the example of a nursing instructor who quizzes a student in front of a patient. The student becomes flustered, cannot answer the question, and feels her instructor was yelling at her in front of the patient. Haas recommends this student could tell her instructor:
“Next time, can we review the medication in the medication room, or outside the room before we go in? I would like to make sure I am ready before I go in so that the patient will have confidence in me providing their care. When you quiz me in front of the patient, I get nervous, and that makes the patient question my abilities.”
Document the Conversation
Documentation is an essential skill in healthcare. Documenting challenging conversations and situations will help you provide information if the situation needs to be escalated.
One way to document the conversation is to send a follow-up email to the nursing instructor with a recount of the conversation. This establishes a paper trail and ensures accountability.
If you are uncomfortable having this conversation one-on-one with the instructor, you can ask for your advisor or a person in a similar position within your school to be present. This helps both of you have an objective individual who can confirm the documentation of the events is accurate.
“They can help you navigate the situation with the instructor and help identify behavioral trends with this particular instructor. They are well-versed in the types of conflict typical for nursing students and have a wealth of resources available to help!” Haas says.
Should You Move the Concern Up the Chain of Command?
It is vital that you recognize that conflict is a part of any workplace and nearly every environment. Moving the situation up the chain of command will have positive and negative repercussions. Nursing programs and nursing instructors are not perfect. Neither are nursing students.
Ask yourself what result you want to see from reporting your nursing instructor and whether that result is a reasonable expectation. In other words, just because “everyone” has problems with this instructor doesn’t mean the school will fire them or their behavior will change.
You must have a reasonable expectation from past actions taken by the school that escalating the concern will have a positive result.
Why Nursing Students Don’t Get Along With Instructors
Thompson is the founder of Healthy Workforce Institute where she works with healthcare organizations to cultivate a professional workforce. She believes that one of the biggest reasons instructors and students don’t get along is that they have different expectations.
Some students approach their college education believing that since they’re paying for it, they should receive a passing grade.
“In reality, the instructor’s responsibility is to make sure their students are safe to practice. If the student demonstrates safety issues, the instructor needs to address it, even if it means giving the student a failing grade,” she says.
Another reason for conflict is students not being used to receiving constructive feedback. This can lead to feeling defensive or taking things personally.
Haas has been a registered nurse for over 14 years and is the cofounder of Home Fit Headquarters. She also believes there’s a disconnect between the student’s expectations and constructive feedback from the instructors. She notes that the admission requirements are high, which means most students are often high achievers.
This can make the transition from high school to postsecondary education difficult. Students are exposed to different expectations and a higher workload while expecting more out of themselves than is realistic.
“The disconnect in expectations is the root of a lot of conflicts between instructors and students,” Haas says. “Sometimes all it takes is a difference of opinion, the wrong tone of voice, or a hard lesson learned to reach the tipping point.”
However, both Haas and Thompson point out that in some cases, the nursing instructor is the problem. In her video about nurse bullying when the clinical instructor is the bully, Thompson points out that she frequently receives emails about being bullied by nursing instructors.
Many of these students are at the end of the program before they encounter an instructor who seems focused on ensuring they fail before they graduate. The challenge is not unique and appears on several forums where nursing students are seeking advice on how to deal with an instructor who is threatening or intimidating.
Depending on your experience, nursing students must take an honest look at the interactions to determine if there is a difference in expectations or if the instructor does have bullying behavior.
Seeking outside perspectives from fellow nursing students or on online forums can be a great way to seek tools and reassurance for how to handle complicated student-instructor relationships.
Conflict Is Not a Sign That Nursing Isn’t Right for You
It is important to remember that all nurses start as beginners. It is only through an ongoing commitment to learning that nurses become successful and competent in their field. Thompson shares that there are many nurses she admires who had either struggled in school or didn’t pass the National Council Licensure Examination their first time. She cautions nursing students to remember they should expect to fail at some tasks.
“Constructive feedback is meant to help improve a behavior or performance. Instead of beating yourself up, the key is to pause, reflect, and ask yourself, ‘What do I need to work on to become a more competent nurse?'” she says.
Haas agrees and encourages nurses to remember that conflict is inevitable. It is how you choose to navigate it as part of your education that makes a difference in your success and the future.
“Navigating your way through conflict will make you a better nurse. It will help you to advocate for your patients, yourself, and your colleagues,” she says. “You will be a better advocate for their needs. You will help to create a better nursing landscape for those who come after you.”
A good nursing student is willing to accept constructive criticism and seeks ways to become a better nurse. But the reality may be different. Haas points out that healthcare is often a high-stakes game. There are exceptional demands placed on nurses, nursing students, and nursing instructors.
“The requirement to perform acute skills while constantly thinking about competing priorities, that can change minute to minute, takes YEARS of practice. When people are under this kind of pressure, they may not show up as their best selves — even seasoned nurses,” she says.
Part of being a nursing student is learning how to work under pressure and learning to choose your battles. Haas notes that you will witness the very worst of humanity and the very best. It’s important to learn from both and to recognize that conflict with your fellow students or your nursing instructors is not a sign that nursing is not right for you.
Meet Our Contributors
Amanda Haas, RN, BN, MN
Amanda Haas is a wife and mom of three school-aged kids. She has been a registered nurse for 14 years. Her career has spanned across acute care, nursing education, healthcare leadership, and all the nooks and crannies in between! She has spent nearly 10 years as a student in postsecondary education and has a passion for bridging the gap between nursing education and practice. She is the cofounder of Home Fit Headquarters where she contributes health and nutrition articles.
Renee Thompson, DNP, RN, FAAN, CSP
Renee Thompson is the CEO and founder of the Healthy Workforce Institute and works with healthcare organizations to cultivate a professional workforce by addressing bullying and incivility. Thompson has authored several books and is one of only 30 nurses in the world who have achieved the prestigious certified speaking professional designation.In 2018, she was recognized as one of LinkedIn’s Top 10 Voices in Healthcare for her contribution to their global online healthcare community. In 2022, she was recognized as one of the top 5 nurse influencers on LinkedIn, and recently, was inducted as a fellow in the American Academy of Nursing. Thompson and her team are on a mission to create a world where bullying and incivility are immediately rejected and kindness, respect, and professionalism become the new norm.