by Jason P. Smith
If you graduated from the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center’s nursing program in the last several years, you probably took a class with Tammy Spencer, RN, MS. Spencer has spent her career working to help others through both patient care as well as educating and training hundreds of nurses in the Denver Metro Area.
Earning her BSN from the University of Oklahoma, Spencer then worked in critical care for several years in the ICU in both Oklahoma and in Denver, following her desire to help others.
Spencer said she enjoyed patient care, but really liked the educational aspects of nursing. "That’s the great thing about nursing – it’s so multi-faceted," Spencer said. "You can do so many different things with it."
With her interest in education, Spencer went back to school at the University of Colorado and earned her MS, wanting to go into nursing education. She has been educating nurses now in Colorado for nearly 10 years.
"I teach in both the undergraduate and the graduate programs," she said. "In undergraduate, I teach health assessment and advanced medical/surgical care, which is a more advanced critical care course."
By teaching on a variety of levels, Spencer said she gets to see her students mature and grow throughout their time in the program and in the hospital. "I think the classes I teach in undergraduate are great because I get to see the students in their first semester and I see them when they are almost graduating. It’s a great growth process and I get to be a big part of that, which I absolutely love.
"In the graduate program, I teach health assessment in the nursing doctorate program. I also teach lab courses as well, so I get to see a little of everything."
Over the years, Spencer said she has seen some big changes, some of which can be attributed to the current nursing shortage. "One of the biggest challenges we face right now in nursing education is providing a high quality education to an increasing student body," she said. "With the nursing shortage, we’ve had to admit more and more students. We used to have classes of 45 students and this summer we’ll admit a class of 150. A lot of that is driven by the nursing shortage and some of it is driven by the fact that nursing has become a very popular profession."
Although Spencer believes the University of Colorado has done a good job of providing a high quality education to a large student population, she said there are still other challenges as well. "Another challenge is providing a bridge from what goes on in the classroom and lab to what goes on in the clinical setting," she said. "We want to make sure what’s taught in the classroom is applicable in the clinical setting."
As challenging as her job can be at times, Spencer said she loves the reward of helping students learn. "All the rewards of this job come from my students, defiantly," she said. "The biggest reward for me is when a student comes up to me and says ‘you’re the reason I went into critical care,’ or ‘I never really understood that before, but now I do because of the way that you taught it.’
"It’s a huge reward to make an impact in a student’s life that will affect them for the rest of their nursing career – what better reward can you ask for?"
Spencer said she tries to keep in touch with students as best she can, but many times doesn’t see them until she’s making hospital rounds. "To see them go from first semester, novice nurses to this wonderfully prepared, confident, critically thinking, autonomously functioning individual is a wonderful accomplishment," she said. "And that’s true for any teacher."
Looking at the nursing shortage from a positive light, Spencer said it has helped bring attention to nursing as a career. "It is showing what a wonderful profession nursing is and how much the health care profession depends on nurses for its very being," Spencer said. "If it weren’t for nurses, we wouldn’t have the health care that we have today.
"Our hope is to graduate great nurses who will provide high quality nursing care to help with the nursing shortage."
The one thing that Spencer said she tries to teach all of her students is the ability to think critically. "Nursing is not about memorizing a bunch of facts. Nursing is about being able to look at a lot of facts, and, from those, critically think about how to take care of the patient. That’s what I hope I instill in my students – I want them also to be independent thinkers.
"That’s one of the areas where nursing education has changed. We’ve come a long way from just taking orders to now being autonomous, critically thinking individuals."
Looking to the future, Spencer said that if there was one thing she would like to see changed with nursing it would be how nurses are perceived by the public. "I would like to see nurses perceived more as a valuable resource; however, if you’re on the patient end of it, you see that – nurses are your advocate. With education, I would like to bring in more realistic patient care scenarios. Through more patient contact hours or, maybe through computer simulation technology – that’s a great way to reinforce nurses before they’re out taking care of actual patients. It doesn’t take the place of hands-on training, but it certainly advances their skills."