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Dealing with A Difficult OT Fieldwork Educator

by Devin Diedrich


Fieldwork placements come with all sorts of “new”: new setting, new commute, new knowledge, new experiences, new co-workers, new clinical instructors. And as if juggling all this newness isn’t challenging enough, some OT students get the added bonus of dealing with a clinical instructor who is not so inviting and supportive of their learning experience. What do you do when you wind up with a difficult OT fieldwork educator?

By using our empathetic OT lens, we can see that our difficult CI is also trying to juggle many responsibilities, just like we are. Maybe they are a single parent, working multiple jobs, stressed about personal issues, still learning the confusing documentation system at work. Or maybe (just maybe), your new CI and you just don’t mesh well, and that’s okay, too. Regardless of the reasons, you are trying to graduate! And you need to pass this fieldwork placement. Below are some tips and tricks to help you succeed in your placement and navigate your difficult OT Fieldwork educator.

Be prepared

If your CI sees that you are putting in the time and effort both in and out of the hospital (or whatever setting you happen to be in!), they will be more likely to “play nice” with you.

Don’t give them any reason to dislike you, and don’t add any unneeded work or stress to their day.

Communicate your concerns

If you feel as though there is a disconnect, e.g. in expectations, have a conversation with your CI about it. It can be intimidating to speak up for yourself, but if you and your CI are not on the same page about deadlines, expectations, treatment plans, philosophies, etc., it’s asking for turmoil.

Story time: I had a level I OT Fieldwork educator who always told me I was doing poorly, that I needed to improve my chart reviewing, that I should know more about cognition (even though I hadn’t had the class yet), when in reality, I was a level I student with only one full semester of OT school under my belt. I was too scared to communicate with her that I wasn’t clinically or scholastically ready to live up to her expectations.

On the last day, during the evaluation, I mustered up the courage to say something like, “the only feedback I would give you is to make sure the student has learned certain skills or information before you expect them to perform in a real-life setting.”

I could immediately tell that she felt awful.

She then apologized and admitted that we were on two totally different pages regarding the expectations of the clinical experience. It turns out, this CI who I spent a month and a half thinking was so mean actually seemed like a nice person and a good OT — we just hadn’t communicated effectively.

Moral of the story: those 8 weeks of dread could have been much more enjoyable and effective for my learning had I spoken up in the beginning and not waited until the final evaluation to express my concerns. Learn from my experience and spare yourself the distress.

How, you may ask? Sooner rather than later! The quicker you communicate the issues, the faster it will be resolved; It also opens the dialogue between the two of you should it be needed in the future.

When having a difficult conversation, three points may be helpful in conducting a valuable, respectful dialogue:

  1. Action - what’s the reason for the conversation?
  2. Information - what specifically are you trying to convey?
  3. Relationship - what kind of relationship do you need/want to maintain with this person?

Use these three points when deciding how and when you want to talk with your CI. Additionally, practicing what you are going to say in front of a mirror or with a trusted friend/spouse/family member can increase your confidence and comfort for when it’s time for the real deal.

Set regular meetings with your CI from the beginning

Try to find a time each week that’s designated for you and your CI to meet and discuss any potential concerns or questions. Even if you don’t have a “reason” to meet one week, spending that extra time with your CI helps build a relationship and hopefully you’ll both be more comfortable providing feedback to one another in the future should you need to.

Taking initiative and suggesting regular meeting times will also show your OT Fieldwork educator that you genuinely care about your experience as a student, which should only help your cause.

Pick your attitude

I am a firm believer that each day we choose whether we have a good day or a bad day. Sometimes we must deal with situations that are not ideal, but we have the power to perceive these obstacles in a way that provides self-growth and valuable learning experiences.

Schedule “self-care” into your planner (daily!)

Especially during level II placements, it’s easy to get run-down and when time gets tight, the first thing we tend to do is nix our self-care. You know, crossing out the dinner we had planned with an old friend, skipping your favorite workout class, or skimping on sleep because you feel as though you MUST get a few more things done before you hit the hay.

If you’re not firing on all cylinders, you will not be able to treat your patients to the best of your ability. So in my eyes, self-care is a 100% must-have in your daily schedule, in whatever capacity serves you best!

Buck it up!

Anyone who knows me personally knows that I hold my home state near and dear to my heart (Wyoming Cowboys, anyone?!) Back in Wyoming, you often hear sayings like “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” or, “When the goin’ gets tough, cowboy up!”

So even if you and your CI are having a difficult time working together, sometimes you do what you have to do to pass your placement and make it through those 12 weeks. Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.

*pictures cowboy riding off into the sunset after a long, successful day’s work*

“If you want to be successful . . . know what you are doing. Love what you are doing. Believe in what you are doing.” - Will Rodgers

Reach out to your fieldwork coordinator for support

So you’ve religiously tried tips 1-6, you’re 4 weeks in, and it’s a clinical disaster. How are you going to survive this placement?!

Their job is to make sure you have a productive, valuable, and successful fieldwork experience, and they are there to help support you! They too were OT students at one point, and have likely held CI positions as practicing OTs. They can provide support, offer advice on how to deal with specific situations, give an outside opinion, and ultimately help you navigate your circumstances. Remember, your school wants you to succeed!

So there you have it: 7 tips to help you survive a clinical rotation with a challenging OT Fieldwork educator! Now go forth and conquer, you fieldwork ninjas!

You can find more information regarding level II fieldwork places and how to navigate different scenarios in AOTA's fieldwork resources!



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