“I've always wanted to be a nurse, ever since I was a little girl. I wanted to be a labor and delivery nurse because I love moms, I love babies. That was my passion,” said Megan Leach, “I knew that's where I wanted to end up. But, you know, life has a way of taking some interesting turns.”
Leach, who’s currently enrolled in the Oklahoma City University (OCU) online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program, did eventually achieve her childhood dream of becoming an obstetrics nurse–and she loved it. But after a few years she felt herself “needing to grow” and took a shot applying to the nurse educator role in her unit. “I had only been a nurse for about three years, but I knew I had a passion for making changes to our current workplace at the time. I was fairly inexperienced, but they took a chance on me.” That’s when, she says, education became her passion.
Working in nurse education can be a rewarding career path that provides a variety of opportunities. It does, however, take some academic commitment and professional exploration to reach a point where you can confidently step into a position of leadership, guiding other nurses on their own educational journeys. From required degrees to day-to-day responsibilities and career outlook, we’ll cover the top things you need to know about becoming a nurse educator and determining if it’s a good fit for you.
What do nurse educators do?
Nurse educators are responsible for the training and education of prospective or licensed nurses, depending on the environment in which they instruct. They work in both academic and clinical settings (where they are sometimes called “clinical nurse educators”), and, just like other types of educators, often will choose a subject to teach based on both need and their personal interests.
Leach got her professional start as a nurse educator on the obstetrics floor where she had been working as a labor and delivery nurse. Nurse educators like Leach, working in health care settings, are often focused on providing education that’s relevant to the specialty of the department in which they work and the types of cases they’re seeing come in. For example, in an obstetrics unit, nurses might attend a class that teaches skills caring for newborns who require special care. Nurse educators often also organize courses for required skills like Basic Life Support and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to keep staff up-to-date with certification.
Nurse educators working in academic settings, like clinical instructors and faculty, supervise students rather than staff. Clinical instructors supervise students on clinical rotations and coordinate with sites to provide students with assignments, instruction and evaluation. Nurse faculty focused on didactic, theoretical instruction work in classrooms and have the same responsibilities as other university professors such as developing syllabi, coordinating curriculum, instructing classes, grading and more.
After several years working in the clinical setting as both a bedside nurse and clinical nurse educator, Leach was ready to leave the hospital setting and try something new.
“When you become a leader or educator, all the problems become yours and you own them until there's a solution. I like to solve problems. I like to fix things and I like to make things better,” she said. “The reality that I was faced with in the hospital is that the process of change is so slow, and it is very hard, but we made a lot of great changes. But ultimately it's the system. Reflecting on what I wanted to do with my life, I realized I didn’t know if I wanted to be in the hospital anymore. At that point I also noticed a lot of the things that we're seeing as hot issues in the hospital start in the school. So maybe I can go and work and try to fix some of those issues and better prepare nurses for reality.”
How do you become a nurse educator?
If you’re currently working in a hospital or clinic, one way to break into nurse education is to make a similar move to Leach, and apply for open clinical nurse educator jobs within the department or health system you work in. Requirements vary to be a clinical nurse educator depending on the facility you work in. At some hospitals, especially those with or pursuing Magnet status, nurse educators are required to have bachelor’s in nursing (BSN) or MSN degrees, but you might be able to enter the role with only an RN.
For other academic nurse educator roles, you should consider earning an MSN with an education specialization. Not only will you be qualified to teach at more universities and for a wider range of courses but you’ll also gain crucial knowledge on contemporary nursing pedagogy. In her MSN program, Leach is gaining all sorts of instructional skills, even some she never previously considered.
“This program structure is very accurate for what I'm doing right now,” Leach said. “In my first semester I took Nursing Theory at school while I was teaching Intro to Nursing to my students. My master’s course really helped me get a good grasp on what I was teaching, so the courses went side-by-side. Then we studied curriculum development in my master’s program and it inspired me to change some things in the program I work at. So I'm doing some curriculum revision now and using new teaching strategies. All the classes for me as an instructor have been so helpful. It’s also opened my eyes to the fact that a lot of self-reflection as a person has to be completed before you can go and teach students. A lot of what I'm learning is about figuring out who I am as a nurse and who I want to be; Who do I portray to students? It's been very helpful for me.”
Making the transition from clinical to educational nursing
If you’re concerned about moving from a clinical role to an instructor position, there’s a number of things you can do to help ease the transition. On your own, you could start, or increase, your exploration into academic and clinical journals to gain familiarity with academic language and lines of thinking. You could also do double-duty and earn continuing education credits through more traditional lectures or workshops to get a sense of how others teach and what types of instruction work well for topics you’re interested in.
If you choose to go back to school, you can talk to your professors about their career journeys into education. You can also slowly transition by continuing to work while you start your new degree program and can choose an online option to make things simple. Leach, who’s in an online MSN program says that she made the choice for flexibility, “I don't have the time in the day to commute to school and to be able to sit in a classroom.” Online programs can be a more comfortable way to get into academia and make the transition from the bedside to the classroom as both a student and instructor.
Is being a nurse educator a good job?
Determining whether being a nurse educator is a good job is largely subjective but there is concrete data you can use to figure out if it will meet your career priorities. For one, the average national salary for clinical nurse educators is $85,955.1 In nursing, salaries frequently increase as your level of education does, so you could make more depending on your degree and the department in which you work.
Nurse educators working in academic settings often have the benefit of more traditional professional schedules (e.g. 9 am to 5 p.m., five days a week) rather than working fewer days for 10 or 12 hours each shift. If you later decide to pursue a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or Ph.D. you could also be eligible for tenure, which provides additional job security and sometimes other benefits.
Morally, being a nurse educator definitely is fulfilling. From Leach’s perspective, it’s part of the job. “It’s our duty as nurses to better the profession. Increasing education is going to better the profession. If we invest in our profession, we'll ultimately bring better results to the bedside, to patients and to our communities.”
Nurse educator job outlook
This is a great time to get into nursing education as the nursing shortage is hitting nursing education as well as clinical caregiving. In a 2022 survey, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) identified 2,166 full-time faculty vacancies (plus a cumulative need for 128 additional positions to accommodate student demand) within 909 nursing schools across the country.2 Another report by the AACN found that U.S. nursing schools turned away 91,938 qualified applications from baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs in 2021, largely due to insufficient number of faculty and preceptors.2 That’s a lot of open positions and a high level of demand, making job opportunities, as well as job security, for nurse educators look really good.
Take the next step to turn your nursing career goals into reality
What is your biggest dream for your nursing career? For Leach, it’s continuing her path through nursing education to make an impact on the lives of others. “I would love to run a nursing program and just really help students figure out who they want to be as a nurse and really provide them with a strong academic base,” she said. “I want to give them the tools to succeed and I hope that one day they look back and say, “Man, I'm so glad I chose nursing. I'm so glad that my program prepared me for what was to come.”
The Kramer School of Nursing at Oklahoma City University can help you achieve your career goals, just as it’s helping Leach. OCU offers online RN-BSN, MSN and RN-MSN programs that are totally asynchronous, but with committed faculty support to help you grow personally and professionally.
“A lot of the faculty have been bedside nurses so they kind of know where you're coming from,” said Leach. “They also really have a good grasp on what they're teaching. It's their passion, it's their specialty. It's not just something that they're teaching because they were told to teach it, it's something that is meaningful to them. It's less about giving grades and more about trying to mentor.”