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A website for young nurses and the young at heart in Aotearoa

Head of Nursing - University

Deb Spence (RN, RM, PhD)

Senior Lecturer/Joint Head of Nursing, AUT University

How I got to where I am: an interactive spiral of practice and ongoing education

I began nursing straight out of school aged 17 having always wanted to be a nurse since my pre-teen days of reading ‘Sue Barton’ books.

I entered a hospital based programme in Auckland with University Entrance when the entry level was School Certificate and qualified 3 years later with awards for top marks in medicine and best clinical nurse. I commenced my staffing year in a large medical/infectious diseases ward before travelling to the UK and Europe for 2 and half years. Staff nurse roles overseas included medical and intensive care work along with completion of a year long Joint Board of Clinical Studies Certificate in Emergency Nursing. On return to New Zealand, I took positions in A&E, then orthopaedics. I also qualified as a midwife at St Helens in Wellington prior to its closure.

In 1979, during an interview for a charge nurse position I was asked whether I would consider university study. A seed was sown and in 1980 I began a Bachelor degree part time majoring in education and graduated eventually in 2000 with a PhD which explored the experience of nursing people from cultures other than one’s own. It was a wonderful way of stretching my mind while continuing to develop clinical expertise and, when people ask me about those years, I say “I would happily do it all again”.  In a sense, I remain a student – always reading, thinking and learning.

A transfer to Sydney with my husband’s job, during this time, provided opportunities in orthopaedics and plastic surgery followed by an invitation to join an undergraduate teaching programme. Then, back in NZ as a mother of 2 daughters, my nursing career continued part time. I worked as afternoon supervisor of acute adult services during the late 80s and early 90s then job shared an undergraduate teaching role at Unitec. In 1998 I returned to clinical practice, again in orthopaedics, before being encouraged to apply for a lecturing position at what was then AIT. My role began with teaching students transitioning from RN to BN and the development and teaching of clinically focused postgraduate papers in nursing was the next challenge. The granting of university status to AUT has since provided opportunities for research, participation at international conferences and publication.

My current role

Leading nursing in any context requires advocating for and promoting the profession. In the context of education, it means doing likewise on behalf of nursing programmes, nursing research and students.

Holding the Head of Nursing position jointly with a colleague whose skills and attributes are complementary has enabled me to continue teaching and researching while sharing administrative responsibilities. I have a strong background in education and practice, which is complemented by my colleague’s expertise in leadership and management.

As a facilitator of learning, I actively work to develop the expertise of nurses and, as a leader within the discipline of nursing, I seek to promote effective, flexible and innovative partnerships between education and health service delivery.

Values and attributes

I have a strong work ethic and enjoy working collaboratively.

I believe that nurses are the ‘glue’ in the health system but that they are not always recognised for their potential  and/or supported to maximise their contribution. Advancing nursing practice and assisting nurses to ‘make their mark’ has thus become my mission.

I try to lead by example, preferring flat leadership structures and team practice to hierarchies and professional silos. I encourage and support nurses in practice to gain the skills and confidence essential for earning respect and professional visibility.

I believe that teaching, learning and research at the tertiary level are reciprocal processes rather than teacher directed products. I focus on  ‘en-couraging’ and not ‘dis-couraging’ the courage shown by students participating in ongoing education. 

I also believe strongly in person centred nursing and the delivery of high quality care.