Jan. 8, 2024

Nursing Roots: Michelle Cullen, BN’01, MN’18

Nursing educators at UCalgary Nursing share more on their teaching philosophies in practice
Michelle Cullen, BN’01, MN’18
Michelle Cullen, BN’01, MN’18

At UCalgary Nursing, we recognize and value diverse ways of teaching and learning and how our faculty members use different strategies to engage and impact students that align with their personal teaching philosophies. This new monthly series will feature our nursing educators at UCalgary Nursing and highlight their teaching journeys and approaches.

Michelle Cullen found harmony in her second career when she made the switch from music to nursing. During her bachelor’s degree in music at the University of Lethbridge right out of high school, she played the trombone, and even performed in Europe as part of an international orchestra. While Cullen says she loved music, she quickly realized she wanted a career that was more directly involved with helping people.

Cullen, assistant professor (teaching), pursued her Bachelor of Nursing degree as part of the conjoint program between the University of Calgary and Mount Royal College and graduated in 2001.

“I think that my music degree helps me to be a good nurse,” she explains. “When you play music, there are so many things to keep track of at once. You have to have the right notes, you have to be listening to how you’re playing with your colleagues. If there’s a mistake, you have to be willing to adjust on the fly otherwise, it’s going to sound terrible.”

Cullen points out more parallels between music and nursing and adds, “the context in which you create music changes how you play it; there are different types of notes, short or long, how they’re connected together – it's a complex system of its own. Having to think like that to play music actually influenced how I think as a nurse. It’s probably why I like mental health nursing so much because it's taking all these components and thinking about how they fit together.”

Cullen has worked the whole spectrum from older adults to GI surgery at Calgary’s Rockyview Hospital but notes mental health nursing was a clear calling for her. 

“Older adults are so complex in their health care; there are lots of comorbidities happening and being able to put the whole medical piece together, along with the mental health piece and the medications and the interventions, it was really exciting for me because it was the whole person,” she says. “I worked with adults for probably 14 years and truly loved every second of it. I just thought that the opportunity to change people's lives was incredible.”

From 2008 to 2011, Cullen worked at the University of Lethbridge teaching the mental health curriculum and clinical theory in health sciences. But in 2011, she moved back to Calgary when she got an opportunity to work as a clinical nurse educator for South Health Campus ahead of the new hospital opening in 2013.

“My role there was to do a needs assessment and develop an orientation for all the mental health nurses, on the in-patient unit and in psychiatric, emergency. I helped with the child and adolescent mental health too,” she says. “Overall, I trained probably about a hundred registered nurses.”

Cullen says the experience was a real crash course in leadership but that it also provided lessons in conflict resolution and managing transition.

“I thought it was a really forward-thinking model to be able to cross-train employees to work in a variety of areas and to kind of understand what the roles of nurses are in different areas, which I think helps with things like when patients transition home or when they come to emergency and then to the unit. I think when nurses understand the system, they actually become better at helping their patients.”

In total, Cullen spent 18 months doing the needs assessment, developing the orientation and the classroom training for all these nurses. This experience for SHC solidified for her that she had a penchant and love for teaching.

In 2013, she joined the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Calgary as a limited term nursing instructor. She also started her master’s program at the same time her thesis was focused on how virtual simulations could help students learn therapeutic communication. Juggling teaching and graduate school, Cullen continued to pick up weekend shifts to maintain her clinical practice, all the while raising two small children in grade school.

“My whole teaching philosophy revolves around experiential learning and how we can offer opportunities like that to our students, even in the classroom. With the complexity of learning, it’s not just tasks and not just information that we memorize or that we say apply to a patient. We also need to understand the process of learning. How is it that we actually gather information? How do we then synthesize it and how do we apply it in different situations?”

She says teaching and learning is also about how disparate parts fit together and educators have a role in helping nursing students understand what the different parts are and how to put them together to make a coherent plan of care.

Cullen says one of her favourite questions is to ask ‘What else might be going on here?’ because it forces the individual to think broader. Through her teaching, she wants to see students make nuanced connections around concepts and that she lives for those a-ha moments.

For her, the end goal is training and mentoring students to become well-rounded comprehensive nurses: “someone who can see the whole person, who can respond to the whole person in the moment - even when it’s not a part of their nursing plan - who can be flexible, adapt and practice safely.”

In 2021, Cullen started her own company to help develop virtual patient scenarios for the purposes of education and training. She’s worked with nursing organizations [like Canadian Association of Critical Care Nurses] and physicians and healthcare providers to develop training materials for the Universidad Santo Tomas in Chile. Some of the virtual sims she’s created have been used in the Faculty of Nursing at UCalgary as well as other nursing schools across Canada and for Simulation Canada.

Currently, she’s also working with two nursing students [Tolu Adewole and Mercy Ofiuvwo] on a Taylor Institute Development Grant to develop virtual patient simulations to help students learn and practice verbal de-escalation skills. Collaboration is integral to Cullen because she says, “no great nurse does it alone.”

In addition to practicing collaboration, Cullen’s advice around teaching and learning is to “be curious and inquisitive. And try to get as much experience as you can. Every single thing you do creates knowledge that you're going to use.”