ECU professor honored as NCNA Education Nurse of the Year

Dr. Mark Hand, an East Carolina University clinical nursing professor, was named the Education Nurse of the Year by the North Carolina Nurses Association at a gala event Sept. 14 in Winston-Salem.

Hand started as a clinical nursing instructor in 2000, after completing his master’s degree at the University of New Hampshire near his home. He said he didn’t enter the nursing profession to be a teacher but to care for his patients.

Dr. Mark Hand with Bachelor of Science in Nursing students in a classroom at the East Carolina University College of Nursing. (Photo by Benjamin Abel)

“I said, ‘Sure, why not try it?’” Hand remembered. Something clicked for him while leading those first few classes. He spent three years as a faculty member at Rivier University before moving to Durham, where he taught for five years as a faculty member at Durham Technical Community College in the associate’s-level nursing program.

In 2008, he began teaching clinical nursing and health assessment at the ECU College of Nursing. After six years of teaching future Pirate Nurses, he was offered a position as the assistant director of the nursing program back at Durham Tech, his first role as a program administrator, but not his last.

“I worked there for three years and then came back to ECU because (then-dean) Sylvia Brown invited me to apply for the department chair of the undergraduate department,” Hand said, which he did for two years until recognizing that he wanted to be in front of the classroom rather than managing other instructors.

“I thought, ‘I’m not getting any younger’ and I really wanted to enjoy the rest of my teaching career,” Hand said. Since his return, he has taught entry-to-practice nurses, advocated for men in the nursing profession and researched how LGBTQ+ content is taught in nursing programs.  Hand also is actively involved in the National League for Nursing (NLN), serving on the Board of Governors.

“While I’ve known Mark for just over a year, I have been astounded by his incredible productivity in terms of curriculum development and research, his ability to make strong connections with his students, and be a hands-on leader in the classroom and among his faculty peers,” said Dr. Bim Akintade, dean of the College of Nursing.

Akintade is proud to have Hand be honored with the Education Nurse of the Year award in part because Hand is setting a standard for men in the nursing profession.

“We need more men working as nurses at the bedside and in the boardroom. Mark is, of course, a dynamic presence in the classroom, and having him there to show all our students that men make good and caring nurses is as important as his impact on nursing education and his prodigious research,” Akintade said.”

Dr. Yolanda VanReil, chair of the nursing department at North Carolina Central University in Durham, has known Hand for more than a decade and considers him a mentor, colleague and friend. She nominated Hand for the NCNA honor because of his tireless work in student learning and research.

“He’s changing a lot of the curriculum at ECU with the cutting-edge research that he’s doing with LGBTQ issues. He is at the forefront of it because not many universities or community colleges have included LGBTQ information in their content,” VanReil said.

While they’ve never worked together directly, VanReil said that their relationship while working in the city of Durham and across North Carolina has helped her become a leader in nursing education.

“Mark took me under his wing and we still collaborate on boards and committees,” VanReil said.

Dr. Mark Hand and husband Terence Mollohan at the award ceremony in Winston-Salem Sept. 14. (Contributed photo)

Paradigm Shifts in Teaching

The worlds of nursing and education have been drastically affected by technological advances in recent years, and Hand said the most impactful change he’s experienced in his three decades of teaching students is the application of computers and mobile technology.

Where nursing students today can use their phones to access up-to-the-minute information on patients during clinical rotations, at the beginning of this teaching career Hand had to trek each day to the hospital to retrieve paper copies of patient records to distribute to his students.

Having immediate access to the world’s medical knowledge has been a blessing and a challenge, Hand said.

“Students now have access to so much information that they don’t really have to open a book, and they want to go right into the ICU” upon graduation, Hand said. “When I started teaching, that’s not how it was. Students went right into a general medical/surgical unit where they learned fundamental skills, and later they went into advanced nursing.”

Part of this shift to newly graduated nursing students taking on roles in complex patient management is driven by the precipitous decline in nurse staffing in critical care, which forced hospitals to offer significant increases in pay for any nurse, new or seasoned.

Hand said that the cultural shifts and student access to information has forced him, and his colleagues, to change their curriculum to keep pace with a new generation of nursing students.

Where Nursing Education is Headed

Part of what has made Hand a world-class educator is staying abreast of the changes in the nursing profession and learning how to teach emerging nursing skills and theory. But Hand said that one of the greatest challenges he faces in the classroom is teaching discernment and critical thinking.

Hand’s students are very good at locating information online that could be useful in diagnosing or treating a patient, but his first question to his students is often, “Where did you get that information from?

“How do you know that is real? How do you know some online expert is giving you the right information?” Hand asks his students. “I’m a proponent of clinical judgment, making sure my students are making the right decisions. How do you think like a nurse?”

Hand also said that teaching the next generation of nurses will require instructors to know how to build self-confidence in students, which he sees a lack of, and to teach future nurses to manage their anxiety.

“The goal is to get them to think like a generalist nurse,” Hand said. “We’re moving back to competency-based teaching so we know that students are competent at a variety of skills, not that they did it once correctly in the classroom, but to know they can continue to perform in the clinical setting.”

While the human dimension will always be the most important for nurses, Hand believes that nursing educators need to lean into technology.

“Virtual simulation is a great thing because it gives students a realistic opportunity to practice in a way that you can’t really do in the classroom. I don’t know what artificial intelligence is going to do but I’m sure that it’s going to have an effect on how we teach students.”

Whether learning skews toward the virtual or stays firmly grounded in the analog world, Hand believes that teaching the next generation of nurses will require instructors to create opportunities for hands-on learning — less books and banking models of learning and more doing, a challenge that Hand relishes as the new school year begins to unfold.