September 1, 2009

Twelve years of vet nursing education in Christchurch, New Zealand

When I lived in the far north of New Zealand, Whangarei, I had a dream that I would get a job teaching vet nurses. Our practice often had students who were doing their training by correspondence and I loved helping them. Also, in those days, many of our vet nurses were employed and we then trained them on the job. What was most distressing to me was the appalling way they were often treated - and as the only female vet in the practices I worked at, I often landed up as the go between when they had been treated unfairly. The injustice always concerned me as these wonderful people were a vital part of the practice, supporting the clients and the vets, as well as nursing the animals and the other 1001 tasks they are expected to do. They do not deserve to be yelled at, diminished and left crying in a cage room! I wanted to improve their employment conditions and make them valued members of the practice!

After investigating the possibility of living back in Auckland, where I knew there was a chance of getting work training vet nurses at what is now Unitec, we soon realised there were too many issues about living back there and relocated to the South Island, spending three wonderful years in Queenstown before arriving in Christchurch in July 1997. As soon as I had the children settled into schools, I went looking for some locum work, and was stunned to discover the local polytech was looking for someone to run the new National Qualification in Vet Nursing! Wow.. my reaction was - you mean they do it south of Auckland!!!!

Twelve years ago this week, they flew me down to Dunedin (felt so strange to be that close to Queenstown again within a month of moving north!) to learn from my mentor and good friend, Terry Marler, who was the first in New Zealand to run the new vet nursing course at Otago Polytechnic. The date is indelibly etched in my mind because it was the week that Princess Diana died and I spent it learning everything I could by day, and watching CNN news all night in the hotel...hardly sleeping because of the time difference.

I returned to what was probably the strangest few months of my life. I was employed half time as a vet, and the rest planning what was needed for the new programme, all with four children aged between 6 and 14. I attended a workplace assessment training course, and I remember the same feeling of a light going on that I got when I first decided to be a vet. It was exhilarating to be back with people, learning. The bubble burst for a while when the staff were so negative... scathing that a vet had been employed to run the programme with no teaching background... I spent some time at my desk getting my head around all the new jargon and requirements, occasionally crying in frustration and exhaustion! Gradually I figured out what was needed and started the programme with 20 real students and two fantastic part time vets to help. I ate and slept that course every spare moment, writing every assessment, upgrading handouts and teaching. All in 20 hours a week - yeah right!!!!

It was a sweet moment four months into the course when we had a visit from the National Accreditors. My bosses put on suits. Everyone, staff, students, clinics were interviewed. All the written material was scrutinised. We passed... they cracked champagne and toasted me!! I realised they were surprised. That there had in fact been some expectation I might fail. Not only did we pass, but there was nothing I had to do better! Highly unusual apparently. The only thing expected was the polytech was advised it was unrealistic for expecting me to do it all in 20 hrs a week, and that I was to be given more hours, more pay, and more assistants!!! The staff who had belittled me apologised. Hey - that champagne started to taste better and better. With that wonderful gift of hindsight, I do realise what a gamble they took; that those staff were right to be concerned about my lack of teaching knowledge and skill, and that the pressure on me was probably unfair. It does not happen today - stringent interviews and requirements are now in place. I still get to work with both of the wonderful vets, Cath and Francesca, who helped me through that first year, both still working for our wonderful clinic , that teaches the students.

Francesca also still teaches with me today and is running her own website - The Pet Hub..

Since then, as part of our philosophy of life long learning, I have completed my adult teaching certificate, and am now working on my diploma and post grad online education papers.

To the first class of 20, some of them pictured above, we have added new programmes; this year we have had 130 students training with us, and in a couple of years, we will be offering the diploma in vet nursing... steady expansion.

It has also been a pleasure to be involved with the New Zealand Veterinary Association, to oversee the training of para veterinary staff in New Zealand on a national level, working closely with the NZ Veterinary Nursing Association, many animal industries, other vets and training providers all over the country.

We work with the Agriculture Industry Training Organisation to write the National Qualifications in Animal Care and Handling. As providers, we get together evey year and share goals and ideas.

See Terry Marler - front row :) 2004

 and 2006

This year it was in Rotorua.

I have made so many friends and enjoyed some fantastic times with them all. It has been a privilege to be involved, to feel part of such an exciting industry, and to have made a contribution, as I always wanted to all those years ago.

Have I made a difference? Truly improving their employment conditions will take many years yet, but I hope I have been part of the process that is making it happen :)


  1. Making a difference?
    I'm sure you have and still are. What you have learned from your own experience will benefit the teachers, vets and students that you help choose through this progam. Maybe you be willing to "take a risk" and take on people who turn out to be HUGE shakers and movers in the vet world.
    My boss took a risk with me ......straight out of Teachers College, small child, and potential to have more babies. But I also took that job by the horns and made it work for them and me.
    Isn't it amazing the people you meet through teaching. Even in my short career I have met such a range. Most are incredibly passionate and hardworking. Let's hope salary rises will match this skill one day!!!!
    Good on you for making Vet training in Chch a better place to work and learn!!

  2. I got this comment from Sid at

    Sid emailed this to me as he is having technical issues with his computer, and I asked if I could add it to the comments - thanks Sid :)

    I was going to say on yours about the teaching. I was once appointed Teacher Development Director for my Church and had to teach a class on teaching techniques. All of my students were full time teachers, I was a mechanic and soldier. They complained to the Bishop before the first class. By the third class they were saying "why weren't we taught these things in Teacher's college we have been using them and they work even better than you said they would.

    I asked them a question " What is the most serious consequence if one of your students does not learn what you are teaching him" The most common answer is he repeats the grade. " I said in the Army especially the Infantry the most likely consequence is someone will get killed. Probably the student maybe his fellow soldiers and perhaps even the person who was or had trained him. I have had acquaintances killed in training. One by a grenade when a student released the handle and froze not remembering the drill for what to do in that case. Two from climbing accidents that would not have happened is things had been done right. Once a fall where the anchor didn't have redundant backups something that is supposed to be always done and once from being hit in the head by falling rocks because he didn't want to wear a helmet. I also got my job as a mountain climbing instructor when the person who was to do it did both of the above he didn't die but was paralyzed."

    I then went on " Some of the things I teach for the Army are Rifle, Pistol, Sub_Machine Gun, Light Machine Gun, Medium Machine Gun, Grenades, Use of Plastic explosives, Winter wilderness survival, Wilderness survival. Each of these allows the same number of mistakes. You make darn sure your student knows exactly what he is doing before he handles any of the real things or faces the elements for real".

    There was silence before one said " We never thought of that ".

    Often those who consider themselves professional teachers have never done the thing they teach in real life. Our universities here work the same as yours but our colleges require someone to have worked in the field they will be teaching for five years before they will considered to be allowed to teach.

  3. wow terry marler, you brought back good memories .... he was my teacher and he was direct, funny and a great teacher....., you taught me as well in a different context, in our clinic in queenstown. You are the perfect person to be training our vet nurses and installing the hard work ethic and love of the job that is needed to migrate through the highs lows of working in the veterinary world.


Comments welcome....always love to hear what you think!


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