Meet Registered Nurse – Dr. Narelle Biedermann, who is a Senior Nursing Lecturer / Academic and former Army Nursing Officer. Nurse, PhD, Senior Lecturer at JCU, writer, military & nursing historian, mother, wife, metalhead – Narelle has done so much!

Read about Narelle’s career as an army nurse here: “My experience Army Nursing in the 90’s”

Tips for students

What are your top 5 pearls of knowledge for a nursing student / graduate nurse you can share?

  • Be a life-long learner. You will never know everything there is to know. There is always something more to learn. Learning does not stop when you get your degree and receive your registration.  
  • Remember the privileged position we are in as nurses and midwives. Regardless of where we work, we have an incredible amount of responsibility to our patients, their families, the consumers of our service, the community, our students, each other, and other healthcare professionals … We are trusted to do the right thing, even when no-one is looking. This is an honour and a privilege.
  • You stand on the shoulder of giants – of all those women and men who have gone before you. Never forget that we owe so much to those that have come before us in our profession; those that fought for change in nursing education and professionalisation; those who sacrificed their lives in the service to humanity; those that put up their hands to care for their communities in times of crisis and disaster.  
  • Work for a cause, not applause. Do not chase ‘attagirls’ or ‘attaboys’ to validate the work you do. You will quickly become disappointed. Find a reason for self-validation in the work you do. You are making a difference every day.  
  • Find out the names of all the administration, housekeeping, and maintenance people who work around you. They are an integral part of the team and should be respected and valued. Say hello to them by name every time you see them. Treat them like family and they will look after you.

What do you find nursing students often struggle with and how do you overcome this as an educator?

As an educator, I see that students often struggle with feedback. Many students find it hard to look at feedback objectively. They personalise it or worse still, ignore it completely. As a new graduate, and indeed for years to come in your professional life, you are going to be given feedback from people who have more experience and expertise than you. I’m not saying that it can be hard to hear feedback sometimes, but that doesn’t make it wrong. Step outside the ego for a moment and say to yourself, “This person feels they need to tell me this for a reason. How can I best make use of this opportunity to grow?” Feedback is a gift, usually given with the best intentions. Be gracious with that gift.

What are 2-4 big lessons you’ve learnt on your nursing journey so far? 

  1. Everything you do as a nurse or midwife matters to someone.
  2. Touch and your time can be a remarkable treatment.
  3. The Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps’ motto is Pro Humanitate, which is Latin for “For humankind”. I loved that motto and proudly wore that hat badge. It encapsulated everything that was important for me as a military nurse and since. I want to leave my mark as making a difference to humanity in some way.

Nursing Lecturer and Education

What inspired you into academia and lecturing?

I think I was always destined to turn to education. We had incredible lecturers when I went to uni. They inspired a deep love of education and learning, challenging us to question and think. Our Head of School, Professor Barbara Hayes, was deeply inspirational for all of us. We worshipped the ground she walked on. She had a vision for nursing education that challenged us to combine the art and science of nursing, rather than accept the status quo.

After completing my Honours degree, I was always seeking knowledge and learning, taking as many opportunities as I could throughout my career to continue my education and growth as a RN. I started thinking about undertaking my PhD while I was still in the Army and developed my proposal at this time to explore the experiences of army nurses who served in the Vietnam War because I was quite surprised how little we seemed to know about them and how we could learn from them in our professional development as Nursing Officers.

Much of the training of Nursing Officers was based on the experiences of our nurses who served in Vietnam – how unprepared they were for military nursing. I started my PhD in 1999 and submitted it at the end of 2000. Those two years were the most intense, but enormously satisfying, years of my career. The honour bestowed upon me by these incredible women who served in Vietnam was something I have never forgotten.

Upon completion of this degree, I knew I wanted to work in academia. As a spouse of a serving military officer, however, home is where the Army sends us, so I have been in and out of academia since 2001. I have always continued my learning with a view of always returning to academia.

What is the role of a nursing lecturer?

A nursing lecturer is one of the most misunderstood roles in our profession. It’s always interesting to watch new academics come to the realisation that it is way more complex and involved than it appears on the outside looking in.

As a nursing academic, our role is to integrate and deliver contemporary clinical and theoretical knowledge – the art and science of nursing and midwifery – using best practices in education to ensure students meet the necessary subject and course learning outcomes to enable them to practice as safe practitioners.

Of course, it is more complex than that, but defining it is difficult. The academic’s role is a lot like the image of an iceberg. What is seen above the surface is only a very small component of the work of an academic.

So much more work happens under a cloak of invisibility almost, and I think that a lot of this work the most important part of our role: ensuring quality in the learning experience, the learning content, the assessments, fulfilling our governance requirements to our discipline, our University, and our authorising and governing bodies, how our content fits within the wider course or program of study, how our teaching teams work within the subject to ensure consistency of experience, engaging with industry for clinical placements that provide the students with the best opportunities for learning and development, and so on.

On top of that, we strive to maintain our place in contributing to the body of knowledge through research along with reading and consuming knowledge and evidence to inform our teaching and our education practices. For many of us, we are also supervisors or advisors for research students, so we also support our students through their own research journey as they contribute to nursing and midwifery knowledge.  

The pedagogy of online learning

For the past four years, I have been the course coordinator of fully online and intensive postgraduate courses. One of the misnomers in education is that teaching online is just everything we do in the traditional face-to-face model, but just placed in an online platform. The study of online learning as a unique pedagogy certainly tells us otherwise.

I think what we saw happen in the education space during COVID-19 reinforces how necessary the study of the art and science of online learning and teaching is for educators moving forward. A colleague and I conducted a study of nursing educators who have taught into entirely online courses in nursing and midwifery and we found that their experiences were very challenging, especially when compared to their experiences in traditional face-to-face settings. The time it takes to prepare to teach, to develop content that is appropriate for the online learner, to engage and support students, as well as complete the necessary governance, was grossly underestimated by Universities and the staff themselves.  

Please tell us briefly about your books

I was a little bit lucky as an author, as my experience is certainly not normal! Leading into ANZAC day in 2001, I was approached by a journalist from the 7.30 Report to do a story about the Australian Army nurses’ experiences in the Vietnam War. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity to discuss my research and showcase the incredible women who nursed sick and wounded Australian and New Zealand soldiers in war.

The day after it aired, I was contacted by an editor at Random House, asking if I was interested in writing a book. I just so happened to have a book proposal ready to go (one should always have a book proposal up their sleeves!!), so I sent that off and the rest, as they say, is history. My first book, Tears on My Pillow: Australian Nurses in the Vietnam War, was published in January 2004. Unfortunately, it’s no longer in print but second-hand copies can be found through online book sellers.

I think I should look at getting that back in print again, as their stories need to be kept alive for the next generation of military nurses. I was also a script consultant for a documentary that screened on SBS in 2005 called Vietnam Nurses, which was a fascinating experience. Then, during my publicity tour around Australia (which was so much fun – although taking my 3-month-old baby with me did make it quite the challenge at times!), my publicist asked if I had ideas for any more writing and again, I just happened to have an idea I’d been mulling over for a little while and thought, “Well what’s the worse he’ll say? That’s a dumb idea? I can handle that”.

I chatted with him about my idea and he excitedly passed it on to an editor at Random House, and they offered me another contract to write my second book. This book, Modern Military Heroes: Untold Stories of Courage and Gallantry, told the stories of past and present members of the Australian Defence Force who had received decorations for bravery, courage and gallantry over the past 20 years.

This was published by Random House in 2006 but is now back in print with Echo Books. Both books were a privilege to be involved in and I feel so honoured that I got to spend time with incredible Australian men and women who have done so much in service to our wonderful country. Truly humbling.

What are your experiences with the transition to online learning for a nursing degree?

I am an enormous cheerleader for online learning as a means of teaching and learning. With excellent integration of the right instructional design with good educator presence, modelling, and engagement, online learning can provide greater access to education for more students regardless of location, socio-economic status, and learning abilities.

Engagement at the community level may open doors for students who don’t have the technology at hand – local libraries and community centres can be instrumental in their support of students who don’t have computer or internet access in the home. This allows people to stay in their communities whilst learning. I don’t, however, believe that everything can and should be taught fully online.

There is always a place in courses like nursing and midwifery where blended learning opportunities (such as face-to-face and workplace learning experiences) is essential. Having said that, online learning can be done poorly when the program or course doesn’t integrate teaching best practices, quality educator participation and engagement with student participation and engagement.  

What’s next for your nursing career?

In 2022, I am moving into a new role as Deputy Academic Head in the discipline of Nursing and Midwifery at James Cook University. I am looking forward to this new challenge.