Kucharski wins Educator of the Year award by selflessly cultivating Saddleback nursing students

Saddleback College nursing instructor demonstrates techniques in a lab setting for students (Anibal Santos)

Zach Cavanagh

One Saddleback College instructor is writing the prescription for success for nursing students and they have refilled the order with gratitude.

Phillis Kucharski was nominated by students and won the National Organization of Associate Degree Nursing Educator of the Year in November.

“She believed in me and made me believe in myself,” nursing student Jacqueline Novak, 25, said. “She made me realize I can do this and how to do it in a really great way and be a great nurse.”

Novak was one in a group of students who nominated Kucharski, a nursing professor at Saddleback since 2001 and the oncology educator at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach since 1999.

Kucharski embraces humor and participation in her teaching style and her colleagues describe her as humble and selfless.

“She’s not about Phillis,” Saddleback director of nursing Dianne Pestolesi said. “She’s about the whole program. My view is without Phillis at the head of [the second semester medical surgical program], we wouldn’t have students that perform as well as they do.”

The students of Saddleback’s nursing program have shown success on a national level. The program ranked No. 1 in the country on the nursing licensing exam with a 100 percent pass rate in 2010. Up to 85 percent of recent graduates have found jobs six months after graduation based on graduate surveys according to Pestolesi.

“I felt very proud for our school,” Kucharski said on the award, “because this is not a one-person job. This is all of us working together collaboratively to do the best we can for our students and make them be successful.”

The nursing program is pushing even farther away from being a one-person job as the program has gone from allowing only 44 students into the program per semester previously to 66 students during the fall 2012 semester.

Kucharski’s section of the program hasn’t been a one-person job since 2006 when she was joined by her teaching partner Janine O’Buchon; who was recognized in her own right as Saddleback’s Teacher of the Year in 2008.

O’Buchon and Kucharski teach on different days and teach different concepts, but both employ humor to keep the students engaged.

With class beginning at 7 a.m. even before the building’s air conditioning turns on, the teachers have to be locked in as well.

“When she teaches, she is very engaged,” O’Buchon said. “She heats up,”

O’Buchon recalled one warm morning when Kucharski was teaching at Saddleback.”I come in and Phillis is standing at the front of the classroom between these two fans [set up on chairs] with all the hair blowing,” O’Buchon said. “She just has a ponytail sticking up and her hair is blowing all over the place. She just goes, ‘What I say is important, not how I look.’ Students started laughing and she started to teach.”

The student appreciation of Kucharski can be seen in that classroom’s laughter and in the student nomination for Kucharski’s award.

“She’s done more for me than she knows or will know,” Novak said. “This was the only thing I could think of to say thank you.”