The 4 Pillars of Better Instruction
I. Content Knowledge – Seems silly but there are instructors that have never stepped foot in the real world of their topic but can read off of a PowerPoint slide like a pro. If you were drawn to this article, I assume you have been in a class like that. Typically, the first tough question the poser gets will either throw them off their “game” or will result in them belittling the questioner about the lack of applicability to their question. (Read: I have no friggin’ idea what the answer is or how to answer it.) Not having reality-based content knowledge may not be perilous in some instances but in the real world of preparedness, response and other highly consequential topics, not having real world experience can cost someone a lot of money, an injury or worse. You can’t fake it ’til you make it when it comes to being a subject matter expert (SME).
“Experience is not always the kindest of teachers, but it is surely the best.”
~ Spanish Proverb
Now this is not to be confused with the instructor who is early in the development of their knowledge, skills and abilities. We were ALL new at some point and being an apprentice to a competent instructional mentor for a while can go a long way to building or strengthening your 4 pillars of Better Instruction. Remember, nobody knows everything. Although there may be that guy in the back of the room that sure does want to convince you that he does.
II. Classroom Management – Students that are hard chargers are the ones that are wanting, needing and requiring that your instruction makes them better. And why wouldn’t they? They’ve traded their time and money for your time and instruction. If your instruction doesn’t enable them to be better by the time they leave they will eat you alive and then spit you out for having wasted their time. And deservedly so. While I’m not suggesting that you bite back … its important to know what motivates each participant to be there, to listen and to engage. And the expectation of being better off when they leave your class is one of them.
When I first started teaching professionally, I learned the old adage of “finish early and be funny” and there’s some truth to that. Nobody likes to be late – regardless of the excuse – and when you’re standing between them and their next meal, their certificate or their precious time off, you don’t want to run late. Not ever. As for humor, this requires a delicate balance between being self-effacing, inserting a humorous story to make an instructional point and even tossing in a little sarcasm. There’s also a fine but very solid line between the blue humor that is sometimes appropriate for crusty responders and the even subtle or inappropriate humor that can offend even one person; jokes dealing with race or sex usually lead the list of those references that are off-limits.
If you don’t get to pick your students (most of us don’t) then you also have the other end of the spectrum: students that want to hijack your class, pontificate about their way or run his/her extra job by phone during the class to the detriment of your other students. Like dogs, kids and politicians, this type of student will continue to do what they are reinforced for doing. And allowing any aberrant behavior to continue will only cause it to increase … while your reputation as an instructor goes in the toilet. In private preferably but in public if you must … get these fringe elements under control before they start controlling the flow of you and your course.
Effective classroom management can be like racing to the finish line with one foot on the gas and one on the brake. <– Click to Tweet This!
III. Instructor Ability – Teaching adults is not the same as teaching children. Teaching most children is like pulling a 3-wheeled wagon across sand. Scholars of learning theory call this pedagogy – or dependent learning. Teaching most adults however is like racing across the icy tundra on a mountain bike at night (andragogy – autonomous learning). Furthermore, teaching hard-charging, experienced responders like most law enforcement and firefighters is like driving a convertible Ferrari through the Serengeti, backwards, during dinner time. Some of these folks eat their young so being a weak instructor can prove to be nearly fatal. Fear not though, time-in-service as an instructor builds the skills needed to deal effectively with these adult learners.
“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”
~ William A. Ward
One such skill is knowing when to apply the gas or the brake by carefully and systematically scanning the class to gauge their level of engagement and comprehension. By being aware of signs of stress, excess animation, distraction/disinterest, a state of confusion or snoring (a great indicator of lack of engagement by the way!) the adept instructor will ramp their rhetoric, their animation/stimulus or their cadence up or down to meet the vibe in the class. Just like a gas pedal and a brake pedal. To do this while the class is ongoing takes some practice but real-time adjustments to the flow of the course makes for happy students so the effort is worth it.
IV. Humility – Just because you are the instructor does not mean you are the smartest person in the room. Allow me to emphasize this point: You are not the smartest person in the room. Even after 20 years of instructing thousands of adults, being classified as an expert witness in state and federal court and earning a specialist designation at a handful of skills … believe me when I tell you that there will ALWAYS be someone smarter in the room about something. I’ve had the honor to work with some world-class instructors … the kind that you can’t wait until they speak again because you know it will be golden. Regardless of their topic, the ONE (1) common theme is their humility. Kids and the uninitiated may be impressed with the chest thumping and sparkling resume but most adult learners will simmer quietly, dismissively and remember more about your arrogance than anything you tried to teach them. Check your ego at the door (or don’t invest in one to begin with!) because a good instructor also learns from the student and then uses what they learn to use to help future students.
“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”
~ C.S. Lewis
Another mentor of mine suggested years ago that I keep a record of my classes both as a student and as an instructor to verify my activity by date, topic, number of students, hours, etc. Fast forward to today I can honestly say that the effort has been well worth it. While I’ve captured the exact number of classes, number of students and number of hours, they also tell another tale … and that is the number of repetitions that have allowed me to make mistakes, make strides and make adjustments.
And for that, I am eternally grateful for the mentors, students and clients that have trusted me with helping them be better. These pillars of instruction have helped me build a reputable body of work. How about you?