Tim Bristol PhD in Nursing Education

In his own words, Tim Bristol literally grew up on the “wrong side of the tracks.”

When he was in 11th grade, he dropped out of high school. Looking to stay out of trouble, he joined the Army. After getting out, he spent a few years bouncing between odd jobs. He considered becoming a missionary, but decided he wasn’t “pastor material.”

Fast forward 25 years, and today, through his organization NurseTim.com, Bristol and his team are nationally-recognized leaders in providing interactive training for nurse educators and learners. In total, they serve more than 900 nursing programs nationwide and interact with more than 15,000 nurse educators each year through customized onsite and online conferences and consultations. 

So how do you go from being a high school dropout working at McDonald’s to being one of the most recognized nurse educators in the industry? Capella University recently spoke with PhD graduate Bristol to explore his winding journey, what it means to “learn how to learn,” and to get his thoughts about what the future of the nurse educator profession holds:

Q. Your path to becoming a nationally-recognized nurse educator has been an interesting one to say the least. When you were a kid, could you have even imagined this is where life would take you?

A. Definitely not. As a kid I vacillated between astronaut and making an easy buck. Education and health care were not on my radar at all. I was never interested in school but did occasionally dream (astronaut).

Q. When did it first occur to you that nursing may be your calling, particularly as a nurse educator?

A. In my early 20s I was deeply impacted by mentors in my life. These individuals showed me that I was not using all the abilities God had given me. I thought a lot about becoming a missionary but knew becoming a pastor was not in the cards for me. Two of my mentors happened to be health care professionals (including my mom, who was a nurse). As I started looking at college, it became clear nursing was my path.

During nursing school, I soon realized I would need a master’s degree, and so after I completed my BSN, I dove right into that master’s degree. Once I had that degree in hand, I began looking for a job in nursing practice but could not find one that fit my family situation. Then came the offer to teach. Me? A professor? Why not? I decided to give it a try.

Q. Can you share some of the key milestones that got you to where you are today?

A. As soon as I started teaching, my inadequacy as an educator became glaringly obvious to me. It’s a tough transition, and many of my friends that started teaching with me quit and walked away from education.

But when I looked at my students, I thought of my mom and was inspired. She was a single mom of two wild teen boys who went to nursing school and survived. I wanted to help the students in my classes make it and thrive like my mom did. They had so much to offer. One problem: my master’s was in practice (family nurse practitioner). I had no training or skill in the art of teaching.

I needed a PhD. I enrolled at Capella and pursued a PhD in Education with an emphasis in teaching and training online. That was the turning point.

I soon discovered the power of engaging instructional design and student-centered learning. I thought to myself, “My students need this!” I began sharing my discoveries with colleagues around the state of Wisconsin. Then the Midwest. And, within three years, around the nation. That was the beginning of NurseTim.

Q. You have said that you “never learned how to learn.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

A. I was told all through nursing school, “Tim, you are not good at critical thinking.” And you know what?  They were right! I never learned how to learn. Not in high school. Not in the Army. Learning is a taught skill that doesn’t just come naturally to most people. It’s not about what you know, but “how” you know. It’s how you synthesize and process the learning that makes an impact.

Q. What are the obstacles facing nurse educators that you are helping them overcome?

A. Just the sheer amount of faculty turnover in nursing schools is a huge issue. Of course, that’s hard on the faculty and their programs, but your heart hurts for the students, too. They not only have to tackle challenging curricula, but also have to navigate the constant turnover in the faculty who are so important to their learning. The majority of this turnover is directly related to poor mentoring for faculty and a lack of access to quality training that instructors can use in class and clinical right away. Faculty need help understanding how to support today’s learners.

Q. What do you hear from nurse educators themselves in terms of what they need to best train the next generation of nurses?

A. What I am hearing is, “Please give me concrete ideas on what to do when I am standing in the classroom in front of my students.” So many times training comes in the form of someone reading a bunch of research to the nurse educator and expecting them to apply what they are hearing. That is not very applicable to the real-world teaching setting. With every training our team of speakers and consultants offers, hands-on engaging experiences are not optional. They are core to making an impact as a nurse educator.

Q. Where do you see the industry heading? What does the future hold for nurse educators and what gets you excited? 

A. E-learning is important, and it will continue to be a core way nurses learn the profession. But what makes it effective is not simply the technology, it’s the idea of “active learning.” Students must think as if they were standing next to a patient providing care. They can’t just sit in a lecture hall or on their computers and absorb information. That no longer works. Every lecture needs to resemble a clinical environment. This means that nursing faculty must be very creative, as most do not have the physical resources (e.g., mannequins) to make this happen in class. It can be as simple as starting each class by saying “welcome to clinical.”

Q. You mentioned you once wanted to be a missionary. How are you bringing that to life now?

A. My family and I spend about eight weeks a year working at a nursing school in Haiti. Since 2007, we have led more than 600 people—ranging in age from 6 to 81—on trips to this nursing school. We take nurses, professors, nursing students, families, teens, and many others.

The goal of these trips is to have people work with Haitians to meet the needs of Haitians. If you are a nursing student, you will work with Haitian nursing students in the hospital, classroom, and clinical setting. If you are a professor, you will work with Haitian professors, simultaneously teaching American and Haitian students in the hospital, school, and community. If you are a teen, you will work with Haitian teens, and together you will participate in projects in the community. It’s truly a wonderful and hugely impactful experience for everyone.

Q. What’s next for NurseTim?

A. We appreciate the barriers many nursing students face as a result of everything from faculty turnover to lack of training for faculty. So we have developed a whole line of student tools that give students the power to take ownership of their own learning regardless of their background. These unique tools are student-centered and help the students study as if they were caring for a patient. They can be found at NurseThink.com.

Learn more about Capella University’s nursing degree programs.

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