Swift | Silent | Deadly

Instructor 101: The Basics

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I wrote “Lessons Learned as a Professional Instructor” over three years ago. It is still one of my favorite things I have ever written. I wrote it at a time when I made my living surrounded by other professional instructors. At the time I was burdened with the idea that all instructors possessed some level of professionalism and pride in their craft. The paramedic class I have almost finished has taught me this is not the case. Here are some basic recommendations for running a high-value class.

I am going to use my paramedic class as an example throughout. It was full of instructor behavior that can be referenced as a bad example or an example of what not to do. I’m not just trying to vent my frustration; I feel there is some value in seeing some things that have been done wrong. Hopefully if you are called to teach one day and this article will offer some help. Hopefully some random person, charged with teaching a class, will stumble upon this article and give his or her students a better product as a result.

Pretty much all of these are things that I didn’t think needed to be said. Unfortunately this information is not common knowledge and some people do need this information. This article doesn’t contain everything you need to know about instructing. Following this advice will definitely get you started in the right direction, though. In some cases following this advice will set you head-and-shoulders above the competition. Let’s get into it.

If You’re Not Early, You’re Late

I would never have thought to say, “be on time” had I not experienced instructors who were late. Last week I pulled into the parking lot at school and didn’t see the instructor’s car. At three minutes until start time I texted my girlfriend and told her we had no instructor and I might be home early. At 17:59 I was about to turn my car key when the instructor came whipping into the lot. Unfortunately this has not been a terribly uncommon occurrence in our class.

You can show up and be technically “on time” but still waste students’ time. I have seen more than a few instructors who show a few minutes early but fail to use that time productively. Rather than prepare themselves, their materials and training aids they eat, shoot the shit, or smoke. This means that when the students show up the first 10-15 minutes of class are spent watching the instructor prepare. Trust me – as a student this sucks.

If you are an instructor, show up on time. That doesn’t mean roll in at 7:58 if your class starts at 8:00. It means show up in time to get your instructional materials ready and do whatever other prep you need to do. Discipline yourself and no matter how much you’d rather stand around gossiping with other staff or your students or scrolling Facebook or watching Youtube, do the job you’re being paid to do.

Respect Students’ Time

Your students are paying to be in your class. Whether it is an eight-hour, Saturday CCW class, a weekend-long survival course, or a year-long paramedic program, your students are paying to be there. They are paying financially in the outright cost of the class. They are paying the cost of getting themselves to- and from your class. If this last one seems insignificant consider this: I’ve driven 3,800 miles and spent over 108 hours getting to and from class in the past year. Going to a shooting course will often cost a plane ticket, lodging, and several meals out and two to three times the length of the course in travel. Travel time and costs on the part of your students are a huge investment and should not be discounted!

Students are also paying with their time. Perhaps some of you reading this are not yet aware of the value of time but time is a precious, irreplaceable commodity. In the past year I have seen some spectacular wastes of time. One instructor won’t spend his personal time to eat prior to class, so he put us on a 30-40 minute “dinner break” every evening that he teaches. Another incredibly frustrating waste of time is in telling stories. Sometimes stories relate to the class and can be used to illustrate a point; however, I’ve timed stories that have taken well over half an hour, and that ceased being relevant to the class in the first ten minutes.

With iPhones and iPads as “takeaways” you can imagine the cost of this course. Do you think I wanted to risk my reputation and lose repeat business because I was unprepared or showed up late?

There are countless other examples of wasted time – so many that it’s impossible to list them all. Time is often wasted when moving from a classroom environment to a range or lab. I’ve seen this in numerous poorly run courses. Time is often wasted when student questions devolve into irrelevant discussions. I have seen this one one first-aid course that my girlfriend and I took: questions started rolling in about a tangential topic and that conversation ended up dragging on for 45 minutes – almost 10 percent of the class! I’ve seen this when instructors don’t manage breaks well – by providing them too often, not starting class back up on a timely manner, etc. Time is wasted when instructors get distracted with sidebar conversations and don’t start classes promptly once breaks are over…and many, many more.

Specific Tips for Managing Student Time

I have a lot to say about this one so I am going to offer some specific tips. I hate going to a class that is advertised as an 8-hour class to find that an hour of that is lunch, and another hour is spent on breaks, effectively making it a 6-hour class, and meaning that I get only a 75% return on my investment.  Give your students what they’re paying for.

Respect your students’ time. When your students show up in class before you, you should behave as if each one is paying you double – in both time and money – to teach them You should behave as if teaching this class is a job, because it is. You should behave as if you are proud of what you are doing and want to do a phenomenal job, otherwise why are you here?

Not to repeat myself but be on time. Be prepared to start when students show up. You don’t have to sit quietly and stare at your watch until the exact start time…but start on time.

Managing breaks: Take breaks but keep them reasonable. Students need a break – to take care of basic bodily functions and to give themselves a short mental reprieve. In the classroom I generally provide a 5-10 minute break every hour. Sometimes I will stretch a bit longer to get to a good natural break point, but I like to be pretty predictable.

Next, when I give a break I don’t merely say, “take ten minutes.” Instead I say, “take a break and be back at 10:10.” This leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind what time class resumes. Also, if a student was already out of the classroom – say he or she needed to answer a phone call – another student can relay the hard-time much better than saying, “he said take ten and that was…oh, five minutes ago?”

I don’t purport that this works perfectly for every teaching environment. In other settings, like ranges or labs breaks may be naturally built into the changes of relays. In some very demanding classes students might need breaks more frequently. Whatever the case, make sure students are getting adequate breaks, but that you aren’t wasting a lot of time with unnecessary breaks. That’s where the “art” of instruction comes in because I can’t tell you exactly how much that is. But you should always be evaluating your classes and courses to see if you’re doing a good job with breaks.

Prepare yourself for class so you aren’t taking student time for your own benefit. You will need a break. Of course you will have to take care of biological needs, and you will likely wish to stop talking for at least a few minutes. But prepare yourself for class so that the break schedule isn’t designed around your needs. If you’re not sure where the nearest lunch place is, bring your lunch. Also, please avoid another pet peeve of mine: showing up late after lunch. You’re the instructor. Please don’t keep your entire class waiting because you chose to enjoy a nice, leisurely lunch. The only exception to this that I see is if you’re going out with the entire class and everyone is cool with it.

Stories and anecdotes: Stories can provide great value to a class, gain students’ attention, or fill the silence while students are performing some task like picking locks. Be exceedingly cautious with stories, however! This is an avenue where huge wastes of time can occur. Only relate a story if it applies to the curriculum at hand, however. Keep stories brief and omit details that don’t pertain to the point of the story.

Don’t let students drag you off on tangents. I have seen this – students ask an instructor about his or her personal life – a piece of gossip, a recent call, etc. – and the instructor takes the bait. He or she spends fifteen or twenty minutes of valuable class time telling an interesting but completely irrelevant story. It requires discipline to stay on topic sometimes, but students aren’t paying to hear your stories. Fill students’ time away from their jobs and families with what they came for: valuable, relevant information.

Study The Material

Again, this shouldn’t need saying but apparently it does: you need to study the material you are teaching before you are actually teaching it. The first time you see a PowerPoint shouldn’t be as class is starting. This probably doesn’t apply to most of you who are teaching classes that you designed and wrote, like your own shooting courses. But if you aspire to be an instructor at your unit or agency, get “volun-told” to teach a class, or are teaching a very structured subject like paramedic/police academy/etc. you will very likely be provided material to teach.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard the phrase, “guys, I don’t know what that means” in reference to something on a PowerPoint slide. No offense but that’s bullshit. You’re paid to be there, your students are investing their time and money for your instruction. Lives may well depend on the information you convey to your students. If it were a simple matter of having someone read the slides, a college intern could do it for free. But you are being paid because you can interpret the slide, provide a deeper level of knowledge, and add real-world context. You had better know what every bullet on the slide means and be able to relate it to the lesson.

Essential to understanding this is to understand how PowerPoint works (that article is coming soon). PowerPoint is NOT the lesson, it is merely a tool. Though it’s heresy to admit, PowerPoint can be an incredibly effective tool, but it is still only a tool. It does not hold all the knowledge, it is not the instructor. The PowerPoint is merely the cover of the book, the tip of the iceberg. You need to understand the knowledge to a much, much deeper level than what is on the PowerPoint.

Study the material ahead of class time.There are no shortcuts here. You may or may not be paid for your study time and that’s just a fact of life. Knowing the material ahead of time that means you’re going to have to invest some time in studying it. First, open the PowerPoint and read through it. Identify what you understand and what you don’t understand. Read any instructor notes, if available, to see if  they provide context, explanation, or where to go for additional information. Identify what you don’t know. Google the hell out of everything you don’t know. Read articles, watch YouTube videos, listen to podcasts, and read some more articles until you understand what the PowerPoint is trying to convey.

I was a full-time instructor for a decade. I taught at a military special operations school, for myself, and for a company in northern Virginia. I still teach on an episodic basis, usually for military or federal agencies, and I still teach largely the same curriculum. Why do I point this out? I point it out because over ten years into being an instructor I still pull my classes out and look them over before I get in front of students. This gives me the opportunity to refresh my memory on what my classes contain and how they flow. It gives the the opportunity to identify dated information and replace it. I don’t think you’re ever too “advanced” to spend some time studying your material prior to teaching it.

Rehearse Your Class

Some common features of bad classes are instructors who don’t know how to explain a complex topic, instructors who finish way, way early or run way, way late, instructors who get into stuff out of order… This is the product of practicing the class for the very first time live, in front of students. If you’re unlucky enough to be a student in such a class you already know exactly what I’m talking about: the herky-jerky “instruction” from someone who has no idea what the next slide is going to cover…or what this one covers.

I know this is asking a lot, but rehearse your class. I know this sounds so silly and it’s a bit of “inside baseball” but I still rehearse unfamiliar material. I don’t rehearse classes that I’ve taught hundreds of times, but I do rehearse new stuff like the Wildnerness Survival Class I was asked to teach last November. Here is a quick run-down of how I rehearsed  this class and it’s not a bad model to follow. First, I began rehearsing the didactic/lecture portion while driving. Once I had that down I began rehearsing the demonstration portions. This made sure I was very solid in the techniques I was presenting and it helped me get my timing down. I ran through each section a couple of times before putting it all together.

If at all possible, rehearse the class in front of someone else. Because I had a very short window for this class (only three hours) I wanted to give the students everything I possibly could, so I did a full dress rehearsal. I taught the entire class, soup-to-nuts, to my girlfriend in the backyard. This allowed to me to finely tune my timing, to know where I had wiggle room, and to know roughly how much time to give for practical application. It gave the the chance to identify things that I was explaining poorly, and to get some real-world questions from a live human. This was invaluable. After that I fine-tuned my lecture portions based on feedback I had received, and I was ready to go. My class was extremely effective and had almost no wasted time as a result.

Rehearsing does a bunch of things. It helps you know the material. It helps you present the material more smoothly, and provide better explanations. It helps you to understand your timing (nothing is scarier to an instructor who gives a shit than not having adequate material to fill the allotted time), and use your time efficiently. Importantly, nothing – NOTHING – helps you deal with nervousness better than rehearsing. I’m sure many instructors won’t admit it but I will: I’m still nervous when going in front of a new audience. Rehearsal is the cure.

Again, you don’t have to do a full series of rehearsals, up to and including a dress rehearsal for every single class you teach. This is especially true as you become more experienced. In the early days – say the first couple of years – it is a really, really good idea if you have the luxury. Sometimes you may simply not have the time, especially if handed a hot-potato from your boss (i.e., “Smith, I need you to teach ___ tomorrow at 09:00. The PowerPoint is on the shared drive.”). In that case, at least review the material and rehearse as much as you can on the way into work the following day. Sometimes having the first few minutes of a class down cold can help you get rolling and alleviate those opening jitters.

Pretend You Care

I can’t count the number of classes I’ve sat in where the instructor obviously didn’t care at all about what he or she was presenting. Often times these are classes that someone has been directed to teach, like annual safety training, administrative-type classes, etc. The necessity for classes like this is debatable and beyond what I’m talking about here. But half-assing them and/or telling your class up front that you’re only teaching because you “have to” absolutely guarantees that what follows will be a waste of time.

Don’t be that person – pretend you care, even if you don’t. If you are tasked with teaching a suicide awareness class, own it and make it the best damn suicide awareness class that anyone has ever attended. Sure, suicide awareness classes suck. But do they have to, or have they always sucked because no one has really owned one and put their heart and soul into it? Nothing is more soul-sucking that sitting there while someone “checks the box” for some mandatory class. Don’t be that person.

Another great example is a class at the very end of my paramedic course: Career Development. The instructor started by saying, “this is just something we have to get through.” It sounds silly but I would love to have the opportunity teach that class. As the oldest student (by over a dozen years), and being older than the instructor by a few years I can see massive potential in that class…if only someone cares enough to teach it well.

Closing Thoughts

There’s nothing ground-breaking here. All of this stuff is very, very basic. I wouldn’t have ever imagined mentioning most of this stuff…had I not seen it done badly, consistently, by a number of instructors. In a nutshell:

  • Be on time and be prepared,
  • Stay on topic and don’t let breaks and stories get out of hand,
  • Study and rehearse your lesson, and
  • If you don’t care, pretend you do.

Your students look up to you as an authority. They chosen to spend time that they could have spent in any other pursuit to be in your class. They have spent money to attend your class. Make yourself worthy of their investment.


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