For almost 40 years, Moms have snuggled little ones onto their laps to read Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It’s a marvelous book, full of wonder and enchanting illustrations. It chronicles the gastronomic adventures of a singlemindedly voracious caterpillar, what happens to him next, and what happens after that.
First, our caterpillar learns he likes to eat. He samples, nibbles, and gobbles everything in sight. His palate grows more sophisticated as he tries exotic meals, like leaves and cakes. He keeps growing. At last, he’s so full that he creates a cocoon, where he can retreat to rest and digest. When he wakes up, a miracle has transformed him, without his notice—Now, he’s a magnificent butterfly. Now, he graces the world.
One of my deepest delights as a Dean always has been observing new faculty hires as they navigate their first academic appointments. They’re exactly like caterpillars. Everywhere they go—teaching, practice, service, scholarship—they search for more nourishment. They try to devour every morsel, to make all of it part of themselves. Sometimes guiding voices offer diet tips: “Perhaps more leaves, fewer cakes, dear.” It’s hard to intervene on their self-focused sustenance search—using teaching resources, developing new pedagogies, updating clinical practice skills, advising students—absorbing the world of academe.
When they finally feel full, they, too, build cocoons. They retreat to concentrate on what they’ve ingested, pondering how to fulfill faculty roles and demands so they can survive and succeed. Energies direct inward, to assure they’ll ace all academe’s examinations, demonstrating their excellence in teaching, publishing (not perishing) enough to earn advancement and permanent appointment. Usually, they do this alone, apart from other faculty members.
When tenure standards command service commitments, they might venture out enough for a few interactions. But many just show up for requisite committees. They might ask a senior colleague’s guidance in their pursuit of professional certifications (e.g., Family Nurse Practitioner or Certified Nurse Educator), or elected honors (e.g., American Academy of Nurse Educators or American Academy of Nursing).
When their full citizenship in academe is secure, they’re safe to leave the cocoon behind forever. They are transformed. They’re magnificent butterflies now, all grown up, generous, facile and poised educators and scholars. They grace the academy with their wisdom and calm presence. When they move from blossom to blossom, their very presence pollinates, potentiates, and connects. Those around them thrive and grow in beauty. Their wise generosity is natural, intuitive now.
And when they reflect on how their dreams came true, it’s quietly revealed to them that all their achievements were gently guided by other faculty members who’d earned their own wings before them. They were taught to teach. They were guided in their choice of publications for their work. They were nominated for awards and appointments. Even without their notice, the system nurtured them into their new and glorious wingspans.
That recognition of the many subtle ways they’ve been nourished brings a new perspective on the academy. Now, they recognize the essential nature of unselfish peer-to-peer interactions and administration supports that helped them succeed. And they recognize that they can pass the miracle forward. It becomes our responsibility and our joy to grow the next generation of fine nurse educators. That’s what others did for us. That’s how it always is in the Garden of Nursing Education.
Except when it’s not.
And it’s not, more and more, in many schools of nursing. The climate change is real. Fewer butterflies remain in the Garden, long term or full time. (Sometimes you can smell the fear—of the shortage, of the profession’s future, that the workloads will be too heavy.) The population of caterpillars is shrinking, too. Not all who arrive are nourished amply enough even to make it into (much less out of) their cocoons. There isn’t time to select foods and eat. Little is tasted. The few butterflies are also very busy and don’t notice that the caterpillars are starving. But they must see that the caterpillars are nourished if the Garden is to flourish as it must.
Protecting this ecosystem is our moral obligation—to the generation before, the generation ahead, the Garden itself, and those it seeks to serve to assure a strong, beautiful, and productive butterfly population. It’s more difficult now, but the outcomes are no less miraculous.
The transformation of a faculty newcomer into a generous, wise senior faculty or administrator mentor remains the greatest joy of full-fledged butterflies who had been taught to fly years earlier. It fuels us to nurture the next generation from the time they’re hungry caterpillars and insures the future for every stakeholder of the profession we love.
- Carle, E. 1981. The very hungry caterpillar. New York: Philomel.