My job

Short interview with Tonks Fawcett

The inspirational professor of nurse education talks to Anne Horner about her career, her nursing mantras and rumours that JK Rowling named a Harry Potter character after her 

Some teachers you never forget, carrying their words with you throughout your career. When you talk to Tonks (real name Josephine) Fawcett, professor of student learning (nurse education) at Edinburgh University, you suspect she would be in this category for a lot of her former students.

Tonks Fawcett
Tonks (Josephine) Fawcett was the first recipient of the Edinburgh University
Students’ Association award for commitment to teaching

She has co-edited three editions of the textbook Nursing Practice: Hospital and Home and has won praise from her peers for her phenomenal range of experience and achievement in teaching and research. She was also the first recipient of the Edinburgh University Students’ Association award for commitment to all-round teaching in 2009.

How did your career begin?

In the early 1970s when I went to be interviewed for the standard nursing programme at Barts (St Bartholomew’s), London, Winifred Hector, the distinguished nurse educator, asked me: ‘Why aren’t you doing our new degree course with your A-level results?’ In the 1970s only about 5% of nurses got degrees.

I’m hugely grateful that I followed her suggestion. My career would have been completely different if I had done the conventional state registered nurse training.

What is your view of an all-graduate nursing profession?

It has a lot of detractors, especially from the very worthy population of nurses who never engaged with higher education who are out there doing terrific jobs. But higher education is so important.

Nursing students learn to analyse and reflect rather than just being told ‘this is how it’s done’. I’m not saying that nurses in the old standard registration courses weren’t curious, they just weren’t encouraged to question things. 

Has the move created a more confident profession?

Absolutely, education always makes you confident. Not everyone is going to come out with high-flying degrees but everyone can get the benefit of education. 

The whole notion of care and compassion is complicated, particularly for people with complex needs, severe health or inter-personal issues. We need to educate our nurses in how to help and care for people who have dementia.

New techniques such as understanding the art of mirroring to help you communicate with someone who can’t understand the spoken word helps you think differently. Education gives you that. 

How did you move into nursing research?

I was a staff nurse at Barts and one of my friends showed me an advertisement for a research position at Edinburgh University looking at infant obesity and I thought ‘I’ve got to go for this’. I did three years of research for what was then the Scottish Home and Health Department before returning to practice. 

Do you have any nursing mantras you pass on to students?

I have a picture that my students gave me of all the little things I said to them. When they were anxious I tell them ‘you must smile because it works inwards as well as outwards’.

I also say you can never go wrong with nursing care if you always maintain asepsis, comfort and safety. I tell them always be curious, never be happy with just ‘this is what you do’. Always try to find out why, without being intrusive or rude or asking questions at the wrong time. 

Nymphadora Tonks (a character with bright pink hair from the Harry Potter series) is said to have been based on you. Do your students mention it?

Yes, I’ve had it for about a decade now. I just tell them I’ve stopped dying my hair pink. JK Rowling donated the money for the Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Centre in Edinburgh after her mother died from complications related to multiple sclerosis. She’s an amazing woman. 

Anne Horner is a freelance journalist

Tonks Fawcett is also a member of the RCNi editorial advisory board

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