Gemma Irwin-Porter

Gemma Irwin-Porter leads a team of 27 tutors who are responsible for the pastoral care of student veterinary nurses at the University of Bristol.

Gemma Irwin-PorterNurses at Bristol who need a role model for how to cope with moving away from home, dealing with academic pressures and unlocking the resilience needed to manage four years of further education, need look no further than their programme tutor: Gemma has walked that very path herself.

“My granddad had a farm, and I grew up around animals, so I was used to the rural life, but it was still a shock to the system going to the University of Bristol because we were way out in Langford in Somerset. There wasn’t really much out there and there were just eight of us doing nursing so you had to get on with each other!

“These days the vet nurses are in Bristol and much more integrated into the university, but I think those issues of being 18, being away from home, having an academic workload, EMS in the holidays, those pressures are still the same. I’ve been able to relate to my students throughout my career because I know how it feels to move away from home and suddenly be faced with a four-year professional programme.”

"We’re not just teaching them to be qualified veterinary nurses with a BSc. We’re also turning them into a manager, a leader, a role model: someone who can educate and inspire others."

For Gemma, a key concept in training and leadership has been resilience: showing that in her own life and work, and instilling it in the nurses at Bristol. There are currently 38 in the first year, and plans to grow that to 50, with Gemma and her team passionate about training them not just in veterinary nursing, but also equipping them for broader life challenges.

“There were two figures in my own development who really stick in my mind: Sue Badger and Andrea Jeffery, who both taught me at Bristol,” she said. “They were both pioneers in veterinary nursing and very inspirational veterinary nurse educators. They taught me the importance of treating every animal individually, and a lot about professionalism and resilience. And they inspired me to become involved with education.

“Andrea is very strong, dynamic, empowering. She is passionate and confident. Sue is more reflective, quieter. Their very different personalities show up in their leadership styles, and I try to blend the two of them in my own leadership.”

Due in part to the work of Gemma and those like her, these are changing times for the veterinary nursing profession and how it relates to other animal-care roles.

“I would hope the nurses I train see themselves as leaders,” she said. “Certainly, here at the university and throughout my career of teaching them, I’ve tried to inspire them to be leaders, so many will go on to be a head nurse or head of section or into roles where they need to lead, I think any nurse needs these skills: it might be leading a first-aid situation, or managing a practice.”

However, Gemma explained that veterinary nursing has at times in the past had to fight for respect. “I’ve worked in practices where vet nurses, including myself, have been belittled by surgeons. I think that’s just because of their lack of understanding of what a qualified nurse can actually do. It can be extremely demoralising for a student to witness that sort of poor working relationship.

“Inter-professional working relationships have improved and a lot has changed in practice. Vets are far more aware of what nurses can do legally and practically and I think use them a lot more. And that is in part because there’s more clarity on the role of vet nurses, as well as research looking at inter-professional relationships within the vet profession as a whole.”

For Gemma, effective working for vets and nurses alike has to stem from communication and accountability, and she believes that good leadership flows from these – and poor leadership from their absence.

“Inter-professional working relationships have improved and a lot has changed in practice. Vets are far more aware of what nurses can do legally and practically and I think use them a lot more. And that is in part because there’s more clarity on the role of vet nurses, as well as research looking at inter-professional relationships within the vet profession as a whole.”

“I’ve seen some pretty poor leaders in my time in education: autocratic leaders who are very authoritarian, pretty much looking out for themselves and not working as a team,” she said. “I’ve also seen some very charismatic leaders who are actually very selfish leaders: they feel they must impose their views on the rest of the team. That made me reflect on the sort of leader I wanted to be, which is supportive, democratic and honest.”

Gemma noted that vet nurses have many more options and paths open to them than once they might, be it pharmaceutical companies or research, and also that veterinary nursing graduates have a 100% employability rate.

“We’re not just teaching them to be qualified veterinary nurses with a BSc. We’re also turning them into a manager, a leader, a role model: someone who can educate and inspire others,” she said. In the case of Bristol, Gemma herself is testament to the fact that the system is working very well indeed.

Gemma Irwin-Porter BSc(Hons), RVN, PGCE, Programme Tutor and Teaching Fellow Veterinary Nursing, University of Bristol