Virginia Health Services’ apprenticeship program, which graduates Care Assistants to eventual Certified Nurse Assistants (CNAs), is undergoing a transition in instructors.
The VHS education team is adding instructor Princess Henderson, who has been with the company since 2008.
She is being guided on the ins and outs of the apprenticeship class by instructor Nora Gillespie, who after a career in nursing and education, is retiring.
Well, semi-retiring. Gillespie says she’ll be focused on education for VHS two days a week.
Ann Armstrong, who instructed the apprenticeship classes on the Middle Peninsula, also is leaving. She joins Rappahannock Community College as an instructor for their Nurse Aide program and will lead instruction for their clinical LPN and RN programs.
That means she won’t be far – the LPN and RN programs train at VHS’s Walter Reed Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Gloucester.
The coursework was revamped earlier this year by Gillespie and Armstrong based on the state’s criterium changes. Gillespie refers to it as a “bootcamp.”
The students have to go through pages of presentations, tests and learn 22 clinical skills, such as how to take blood pressure and wound care.
The fifth apprenticeship class is slated to graduate Oct. 26, with the sixth class to start Nov. 1. It will be the last group of apprentices for the year – another class is slated to start in January.
Armstrong’s final day with VHS was Oct. 14. Her students in this fifth cohort completed their coursework and clinicals, working while awaiting graduation.
The 11 students enrolled at Walter Reed and at the EEE Center in Newport News will work as Nurse Aides at James River, Coliseum and Walter Reed while completing their certification exam reviews to become CNAs.
“They’ve been great,” Armstrong said of her three students. “I’ve learned a lot from them, that’s for sure.”
Teaching is getting to know someone. “I wanted them to succeed, and they have,” Armstrong said.
“It’s amazing to see when someone comes here with no (clinical) knowledge, then they leave this classroom with the skills. Amazing to see someone learn; to see that lightbulb go off.”
Armstrong has been a nurse for 23 years, and an instructor since 2017. She joined VHS about a year ago from Riverside.
Her advice to students, current and future: “Study. Be open. Healthcare is ever changing. Be open to change. Do the right thing every time. You do that, you cannot make a mistake.”
Teaching the course during the COVID-19 pandemic has meant adjusting, Gillespie said. Infection prevention is covered on the first day, and that now includes emphasis on COVID and the proper way to wear the additional layers of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
Students are tested regularly and encouraged to be vaccinated. They come into class with familiarity, having learned to navigate the precautions in their buildings while working the floor as Care Assistants.
The sixth class will be led by Henderson.
Henderson has been with VHS since 2008, and she took the course then while pregnant to become a CNA.
“It’s a lot different!” she said.
“The program has evolved. It’s come out of the ‘Dark Ages.’ It’s so much better and easier to understand. … I did it back when you had to pay for the class.”
How the course material is presented and how clinical skills are taught are “more effective,” Henderson said.
“She’s a role model,” Gillespie said.
Henderson became an RN, moving up through the ranks with Virginia Health Services to become Assistant Director of Nursing at Coliseum. Her career has been dedicated to long-term care with VHS. She worked at James River and the team worked with her as she went through nursing school to help schedule her shifts with her classes.
“I’m glad to be with VHS,” she said. “They really worked with me, and I plan to stay with them as they work with me to meet my goals.”
One of those goals has been to go into education. She views Gillespie as the role model.
“I strive to be as inspirational and firm as her,” Henderson said. “Firm but fair.”
“My goal truly is for her is not to need me, because then I’ve done my job,” Gillespie said.
Words of wisdom
While Henderson’s addition is a win for the education team, the departures of Gillespie and Armstrong sting.
They built out the current program with Director of Education Bryanna Rhodes earlier this year, and both have been instructors for several years.
“I can tell them a whole bunch of stuff,” Armstrong said of teaching students information off PowerPoint slides, “But I also can give them the real-life experience. … People can relate better when you make it reality.”
While Armstrong handled teaching in-services and more at Riverside, Gillespie helped her feel at ease with the material when she joined Virginia Health Services.
“Nora is a great instructor, she’s the real deal,” Armstrong said. “She’s awesome at what she does. I hate to see her go. She is one of the best instructors I have ever seen teach this class.”
But Gillespie is ready to retire – if for no other reason than to not have to wake up at 4:30 a.m.
She says that with a grin, though. Gillespie became a nurse in the 1970s. She worked in critical and acute care, including on a Nightingale air ambulance.
“That was the best,” she said. “I still have my combat boots.”
Gillespie said she is content passing the torch to Henderson.
“In my career, I know I have saved lives. In teaching, I know I have touched lives. And I am good with that,” she said.
Part of her hand-off to Henderson is helping her understand all that is involved in teaching the class – its organization, flow, schedule and timing.
It’s also helping her learn to be an instructor, looking for that spark to ignite someone to learn a skill or grasp material. It’s helping Henderson feel comfortable on being flexible to the needs of the class and being able to adjust to help students “get it.”
Gillespie has spent seven years teaching this class. “It’s a part of me,” she said. “The program is very important to me, and I see tremendous benefit in this program. VHS is committed to it.”
“Princess shares my desire to bring out the best of students,” Gillespie said. “Princess is open, friendly, she has a smile that lights up a room and a grasp of what to do.”
Henderson appreciates having Gillespie train her.
“She’s involving me in the class and has had me do tasks to get me ready. It’s been a lot of organization, learning how to keep up with their records. Then it all comes back around to developing relationships with the students and show them how to bring what they’ve learned to how it applies to their patients.”
Retirement, for real this time
Gillespie has threatened to retire for about a year, but had difficulty stepping away from the class she has taught for seven years and helped revamp.
Her students recognize her impact. The two previous apprenticeship classes honored her at graduation ceremonies with T-shirts of her best phrases, a retirement banner and gifts — so many meaningful gifts, such as a framed selfie she let them photograph her in.
She says she doesn’t know how to be any other way, in how she teaches and how she treats others.
“You need to bring joy,” Gillespie tells students. “You see individuals when their bodies have betrayed them. You have to treat them with respect and dignity. Being kind should not be hard.”
She’s at peace with the timing of her retirement this time.
“I can walk away with a smile on my face.”
VHS apprenticeship program
The apprenticeship program is a great opportunity, Armstrong said.
“They’re getting paid to learn. That’s a huge incentive.”
There have been more than 40 enrollees in the apprenticeship program since its launch in March. The VHS earn-as-you-learn apprenticeship program is part of the Healthcare Apprenticeship Extension Program, which is partially funded by a grant from the Department of Labor.
Apprenticeship students are brought on as Care Assistants and spend about 30 days working in a VHS nursing and rehabilitation center before coursework and clinicals begin. Following completion of the classes, students then return to work at a facility and undergo review sessions to prepare for the state certification exam to become a Certified Nurse Assistant (CNA).
The apprenticeship program covers the cost of the course and clinical work, and the cost of the exam. It also provides the benefit of Family Scholarship House, which can offer resources and funds to help cover academic coaching, affordable housing, transportation, child care, emergencies and more. It is available to those in the HAEP grant program at no additional cost.
The VHS apprenticeship program has plans to expand, including pathways for LPNs, and in pharmaceutical, dietary, housekeeping, and administration and leadership.
Learn more about the program here.
Applications to the program are accepted on a rolling basis. To apply, visit our job listing.