Think back to the first time you rode on an ambulance as a student. You may have to shake the cobwebs from that portion of your brain, but don’t you remember all the overwhelming feelings you had when you arrived at the station? The excitement of wanting to run your first call and show everyone you had what it took to be an excellent medic? The terror of making a mistake and looking like an idiot? Walking that fine line of showing confidence without appearing arrogant? Of being scared of getting into a dangerous situation and not knowing how to get out of it? With all of these feelings and thoughts going through your head, you looked to your preceptor to give you guidance and help you set some of your fears aside.
After surveying many students about the student/preceptor relationship, I found that every one felt this relationship was an indispensable part of their training. This relationship is what allows students to practice the skills and knowledge they learn in the classroom. Preceptors are able to gauge the students’ capabilities in a working environment and provide them with constructive criticism on what areas to improve upon.
Students appreciate a preceptor who is patient and willing to take the time to answer their questions. It is important for a preceptor to take an active role in a student’s learning process. The preceptor is in a unique position of seeing the student perform in a natural work environment and being able to teach them one-on-one. It is through the closeness of this relationship that a sense of trust and mutual respect is born. This sets up an environment in which the student feels comfortable asking questions they may not ask in a classroom setting. Preceptors also need to keep track of what the student is actively learning in the classroom, so that information can be reinforced in the internship setting if possible. Students retain more information when they can read, see and do what they are learning.
A preceptor who is enthusiastic about the job he or she is performing, as well as one who enjoys teaching paramedicine, is a must for most students. Remember that these students are excited about becoming paramedics. The job has not become mundane for them and they do not want to be around people who view the job as petty and boring.
Another important characteristic for a preceptor to have is confidence in his job skills. The more confident you are, the more willing you are to step back and allow your student to perform skills and assessments. One of the major complaints we have from students is that their preceptors will not let them do anything. Remember that these students are in the field to perform skills, which means preceptors have to step aside and let them do so.
Preceptors need to be willing to push students to meet their full potential. Just as children crave discipline and structure, students need someone to help them structure their study time and to push them to do the best they can do. This is not an easy task and requires a lot of energy and creativity on the preceptor’s part. Downtime can be spent helping the student study for an upcoming exam or drilling them on drug calculations, drug dosages, drug indications or EKG rhythms. Downtime should also be used to review previously run calls. Take this time to praise the student for a job well done. Students need to know when they do something right as much as they need to be corrected for the things they do wrong.
The skills these students are learning may be new to them, but that does not mean the students need to be babied while learning them. They need the freedom to perform these skills on their own initiative and in their own way. By all means, if the patient is critical or if the student is going to make a huge error, then take control and treat the patient. However, if some leeway can be given, the preceptor should allow the student to make patient-care decisions. The students are not in the internship setting just to learn skills, but also to learn to make critical decisions for patient care as well as for their own welfare.
A preceptor needs to be a good communicator and a good listener. You need to be able to effectively communicate to the student what their strengths and weaknesses are and to formulate a plan for shoring up those weaknesses. Listening to students can give you insight into what’s wrong with their performance. If a student is having a problem with a specific skill, ask them what they think is going wrong. Many times they know what they’re doing wrong; they just don’t know how to correct it. This is where you come in. Offer some advice on correcting a problem the student has identified, and you make the student an active participant, instead of just a bystander, in their own learning process.
An effective preceptor encompasses many traits, including the desire to constantly learn. It is simply not enough to be a good medic. Many excellent medics do not make effective preceptors because they’re not willing to put in the effort it takes to teach a student. As the world of paramedicine continues to evolve, so must the preceptor. You must be willing to put your nose in a book and continue to learn alongside your student, or the students will pass you by.