The relationship between a nurse preceptor and their preceptee nurtures professional growth, respect, and understanding. At its best, it inspires a new generation of nurse leaders.

Sharon Walters, RN, has been a UPMC nurse for more than four decades. Now working part time, she has spent much of her career on the fifth floor (5B) at UPMC St. Margaret, the hospital’s medical-surgical unit.

It’s one of the hospital’s fastest-paced and highest-acuity areas. There, nurses care for patients recovering from surgery or “stepping down” from critical care.

Sharon doesn’t remember exactly when she became a nurse preceptor for 5B — but she does remember why. A nurse preceptor’s role is critical and engages all of one’s nursing skills and leadership experience to coach and guide student nurses.

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It did the same for new nurses and other nurses who came to her floor. “It’s an invaluable process to fully orient newcomers so they can become full participants on our team,” she says.

As a student nurse at Clarion University’s Department of Nursing, Allison Norris, BS, BSN, RN, completed a clinical internship on 5B as a preceptee of Sharon’s. She liked her experiences there so much that she initially accepted a job as a patient care technician on the floor.

“Sharon agreed to be my preceptor when I became a patient care tech, as well as several other roles I took on when I became a nurse,” says Allison. “Having an experienced mentor to guide you makes all the difference.” In all, she completed nearly 19 weeks as a preceptee with Sharon.

Continuing the tradition

Sharon’s influence on Allison’s professional development inspired her so much that she decided to become a preceptor, too.

“Nursing is a stressful career. That’s no secret. When I was a new nurse, I really needed the help of someone who was kind and supportive — someone like Sharon,” she says.

“I’m sure I asked her many dumb questions, but she always welcomed them and encouraged me to learn. Sharon put her heart into making sure that I had as many experiences as possible so I could be fully prepared for my patients. She worked hard to seek out opportunities for me. I want to pay that forward.”

Sharon says one of the best things about working as a nurse preceptor is that she always learns something new. “For me, there’s a tremendous benefit to working with younger nurses,” she says. “I get to see what we do through their eyes. It’s energizing. It creates a give-and-take relationship. And even today, Allison’s my go-to for any tech questions.”

Allison notes that today’s national nursing shortage has impacted the preceptor/preceptee process. “It’s hard to find a preceptor with the kind of vast experience Sharon brings to the role. She set a really great example for me. As a preceptor, I’m building on a lot of the things Sharon taught me,” says Allison.

“I started out precepting nursing students but now I’m doing the orientation of new nurses. I introduce them to everything — from the documentation systems we use and who to call for help on a problem to 5B’s culture and working environment.”

A changing profession 

As a new nurse in the early 1980s, Sharon remembers wearing a white dress uniform, hat, and pantyhose to work each day.

“It was a different time. We didn’t wear scrubs. We hand-cranked patient beds. We didn’t even have computers!” she recalls. “But from my first day on the job, I never wanted to leave bedside nursing.”

She also remembers the challenges she faced as a young nurse. “There was no formal preceptor process in place,” she says. “We tried to shadow nurses on the floor where possible, but within a month we were working full shifts on our own.”

Sharon’s commitment to bedside nursing drives her dedication as a nurse preceptor. “There’s always going to be a need for bedside nurses,” she says. “Patients need us even more today — not only as caregivers, but also as advocates. As a preceptor, I’m helping our nurses, but ultimately, it’s about working together to provide the best possible care for our patients.”

Allison agrees. “There are so many team members involved in patient care at a hospital,” she says. “But nurses are the people who are with patients the most. We’re their constant resource, the ones who get to know them and their families. The nurse preceptor role is an important bridge to delivering quality patient care.”

To learn more about nurse preceptors and the current challenges, click here.

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