Ask any health or social care undergraduate student to tell you where they learn the most about their chosen profession and professional role, and the majority will probably say in the workplace.
Ask them to tell you who has had the biggest impact on their developing professional identity and most will probably name one or two memorable practice mentors who have had a profound impact on their developing professional self.
If we are to encourage our undergraduates to seriously consider a nursing career in social care we need to both increase the opportunity for practice placements in social care settings beyond the current levels and work together to promote social care as a rich environment for student learning.
Learning to be a professional in any field, but especially in health and social care, is complex and messy. Learning takes place in many different contexts, from the classroom, simulation laboratories and in a variety of care settings. As educators and practitioners, we can sometimes underestimate the importance of the learning context and its impact on professional socialisation and professional identity construction.
”Learning to be a professional in any field, but especially in health and social care, is complex and messy”
Rather than professional socialisation being a taken-for-granted, unproblematic outcome of professional education I propose that it occupies a significant (unacknowledged) space in the learning experiences of students.
From my perspective, I understand professional identity to be inextricably linked to the job itself, in so much as how individual professionals view themselves is reflected in how they consequently enact their professional role and choose their particular career path. The workplace where students learn will have a profound impact on not only their learning but also on their ideas of where they want to work on graduation. Put simply, if students have a positive work placement experience they are more likely to view that work setting as a place they may want to work upon graduation.
Social care settings and in particular residential care homes provide one of the richest and most valuable learning environments for undergraduate health and social care students.
A positive ‘care’ experience can help to promote social care as an attractive career option for nurses. Creating an exciting and rewarding learning environment relies upon the presence of positive role models. Role models in practice can make or break the experience for students, and the relationship between student and mentor is vital if students are to view social care as a great place to be a nurse.
”Creating an exciting and rewarding learning environment relies upon the presence of positive role models”
Everyday professional encounters between students and mentors shape students’ perceptions of what being a nurse means and what nursing looks like in different settings.
Residential care settings can, with positive role models and a supportive learning infrastructure, provide one of the richest and positive learning experiences for students. At its best, social care is where expert nurse-led care can be witnessed first-hand.
Being a nurse in social care is a privilege given by the public and enshrined in law through professional regulation.
The context in which learning takes place matters. It matters because learning is not an individual or isolated activity that we do alone. Learning is a social activity that involves students interacting with “others”. These “others” are many and varied and includes peers, other health and social care students, service users, carers, professionals and academics to name a few. Social perspectives of professional identity consider the relationship between the individual, the profession and society and through this, offers explanations of ways in which social forces impact upon professional behaviour and identity.
”I am a firm advocate of the idea that human beings are storied beings, there is a close relationship between the stories we tell and who we are”
If we are to create more opportunities for students to experience nursing in social care, and for students to recognise social care as a great place to be a nurse we need to engage in critical conversations about how we as educators and practitioners can co-create exciting learning environments in the complex world of social care.
Finally, I am a firm advocate of the idea that human beings are storied beings, there is a close relationship between the stories we tell and who we are, our stories are the cornerstones of our identities. We need to encourage nurses working in social care to share their care stories. These have the capacity to become important cultural tools for the future generation of nurses, reshaping perceptions and I hope encouraging more graduates to consider a nursing career in social care.
Professor Alison Chambers is pro-vice-chancellor and dean of the Faculty of Health, Psychology and Social Care at Manchester Metropolitan University.
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