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2023 APNA Award for Excellence in Education


Nominated by Laura Kimble

“Educators have a responsibility to foster the skills of our future workforce to better cope with the work,” says Kate Pfeiffer, Assistant Professor at Emory University, “In our pandemic-shaped new normal, nursing education must evolve.”

“Landscapes have shifted rapidly, so as educators, we need to do more than teach what’s needed. We must also be at the forefront of providing the tools to improve well-being. It’s our responsibility as nurse educators to advance change and shape trauma-informed learning to help nurses successfully work in today’s environment.”

Kate launched her career in an inpatient psychiatric acute stabilization unit, despite colleagues who discouraged her from a career in psychiatric-mental health nursing as a new nurse. Observing the spectrum of inpatient care, she was drawn to studying what happened after a patient is released from hospitalization. Kate joined an assertive community treatment (ACT) team to provide wrap-around services to patients with severe mental illnesses. Kate explains, “It takes a village to help people who have been released from inpatient mental health care – especially those who were conditionally released from incarceration. If they are unhoused, we found them and help them stabilize their lives with a place to live and a job.”

After earning her PMH Nurse Practitioner and Clinical Nurse Specialist board certifications, Kate became an outpatient NP providing therapy and medication management.. She accepted a part-time Associate Professor position at Emory University – using her day off from private practice to provide clinical instruction.

Since Kate often had to advocate for nursing students interested in psychiatric nursing, she decided to expand her career as a clinical instructor to support student psychiatric rotations. Kate explains, “I saw firsthand the need to reduce the stigma of PMH nursing to expand the pipeline of professionals entering the field.”

Through groundbreaking coursework and mentoring, Kate also actively strengthens the numbers of nursing professionals and faculty by preparing students to not only be researchers, but educators too.

As Assistant Director of Emory’s PMHNP Program, Kate developed a Post Graduate Certificate and a Doctor of Nursing Practice, increasing advanced degree offerings in PMH nursing. She also began to discover strategies to retain nurses in PMH throughout their careers.

“Nurses are vulnerable witnesses to trauma and nursing students carry their own trauma. I can’t just teach my excitement for the profession. I need to prioritize teaching safety…

…to enhance the mental health workforce, we must maximize both learning and safety through a philosophy of trauma-informed teaching.”

Kate advocates for a new approach to nursing education informed by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic— teaching the soft skills of personal and professional development to help nurses be good stewards of their own primary and secondary trauma and enable longevity in their careers.

In line with this thinking, Kate pioneered a new inter-professional simulation program. Theater and dance students join in role play of psychiatric safety situations, practicing self-awareness and developing therapeutic communication skills. Nursing students learn from new trauma-informed curriculum under safe conditions where it’s okay to make mistakes. The program offers benefits to students from each discipline, from stage presence and interviewing skills to de-escalation communication and the latest professional development practices.

In another of her novel programs, undergraduate nursing students gain experience in rural and urban settings throughout Georgia and northern California. Students spend a week with those in active recovery from substance use disorders and have the chance to explore personal biases and stigma, collaborate with local agencies, and gain a better understanding of trauma and patients’ lived experiences.

In another surprising interdisciplinary learning partnership founded by Kate, undergraduate nursing students collaborate with business students to improve resilience, well-being and professional development skills. Students participate in asynchronous learning and in-person retreats to learn self-compassion, manage perceived stress, understand microaggressions, improve negotiating skills, and develop increased self-awareness – soft skills that are highly valuable to employers and that create agile professionals who can lead in our pandemic -influenced healthcare environment.

Kate’s inventive work is reshaping how a new generation of PMH nursing professionals are educated to better equip them with the skills needed to succeed within the lingering impacts of the pandemic and the nation’s ongoing shortage of mental health professionals.

Kate explains, “We are asking students to go provide complex care in a field in crisis. We must shift the culture of education to develop stable, safe providers, who can build strong and sturdy therapeutic relationships. We won’t be able to help close gaps in access to mental health care if our professionals are burning out. Nursing education must help expand the pipeline of agile new professionals entering the field and ensure they are well prepared to practice within this new normal.”