Nursing professor Donna Trimm teaches her students in the “JMU Hospital.” She hopes to see more nurses enter the field in the future.

By Corey Tierney | photos by James Chung

They say that those who can’t do, teach. However, some professors at JMU are required to do both.  The nursing department is special in the fact that they are teaching not just mass amounts of information, but also hands-on nursing practices.

Unlike subjects such as English or art history, nursing professors are required to have large amounts of field experience before teaching. On top of getting a nursing-related master’s degree, they need to spend time as a licensed registered nurse, nurse practitioner, or other health position for a considerable amount of years.

“You need to be knowledgeable in practice and you need to be knowledgeable in academia. You need to be able to assess the classroom and assess individual students to recognize how to teach,” says Dr. Linda Sobel, a JMU nursing professor.

Since nursing has vital real world applications, it is important that the learning experience be as realistic as possible. In Burruss Hall there is a room full of 10 life-like dummies has been named “James Madison University Hospital.”

These “patients” are very lifelike with wigs, get-well cards and surprisingly specific background stories.

One of the patients has been named Jacob after the “Twilight” book series because he runs high fevers. Others have more specific situations. One is a woman who is in a lesbian relationship, but with a family member who does not recognize it.

The dummies teach students that along with skills like IVs and checking vitals is the psychology of nursing. Dr. Sobel believes that this is something that is rather unique to the nursing department.

“We have that nurturing piece that is different from other disciplines,” she says.


Courses like understanding sexuality across the health-illness continuum, images of the nurse in American culture and combating childhood obesity discuss certain issues that come with patient care.

The reason that these skills are required stems from that fact that positions in every part of the medical field are constantly teaching, even when outside the classroom.

It’s obvious that when a nurse is giving a lecture to students, he or she is teaching. However, most people don’t realize that nurses are educating while caring for a patient as well.

“You have to teach the patients, but you have to explain what you are doing, why you are doing it and why it might be painful,” says registered nurse and JMU nursing professor Donna Trimm. “Then you must teach them what to do when they go home, so that they can continue the necessary care.”

She continued by saying that students are similar to patients, but really just a different audience.

This patient/student teaching dynamic is not a one-way street, either. When a professor is nursing a patient, they are teaching a patient. When a professor is teaching, they are also instructing the students on how to nurse a patient.

“A good nurse teaches all the time. It doesn’t matter whether you’re standing in front of a classroom or at the bedside; you are teaching patients and you are teaching others,” Trimm says.

Students also agree with their professors on the role of a nurse.

“We’re the No. 1 patient educator during the entire time they are receiving care from us,” junior nursing major Katie Marzolf says. Even now as a nursing student, I incorporate teaching into my patient care during clinicals.”

That circle of knowledge is what makes the nursing department so successful. It is currently one of the few majors at JMU with a competitive admissions process, with 120 to 200 students applying and 90 admitted each semester.

With all these requirements that come with teaching the practice of nursing, there is a concern that there aren’t enough professors.

Sobel has been teaching since 1996 and at JMU since 2001, and believes that there is a shortage of nursing professors with a doctorate.

“For me, [teaching] was just a natural transition and seemed like the next step as a Ph.D.-prepared nurse,” she says.

One reason that others opt out of teaching is the difference in pay that comes from working as an actual nurse versus teaching at a university. Jobs like nurse practitioner can earn up to twice that of a teacher.

Trimm has a similar view, believing that there are not enough younger nurses rising up through the ranks to become mentors and professors.

“I have always loved to teach. This is what I wanted to do and the goals I set for myself … Even when I was a little kid I would line stuffed animals up and teach them,” Trimm says.

Many faculty members are now close to retirement age, and she is afraid of a potential lack of staff.

Perhaps some of the program’s future alumni will fill the void. Sophomore and nursing major-hopeful Sarah Litchford is excited to teach.

“Spreading knowledge about nursing care to prospective nurses is what it’s all about. If I had an opportunity to teach and possibly help them be a more effective nurse, I would be more than interested,” Litchford says.

Regardless, nursing at JMU proves to be a learning experience for everyone involved, both inside and outside the classroom. Luckily for them, they will be trained to do both.