The Fire Academy Instructor: Characteristics of a Good Educator

In any profession, an organization is only as good as its people. The latest and most expensive equipment in the hands of the untrained offers nothing more than an illusion of ability. Therefore, a critical component of any organization is its training program.

Is your organization composed of “razors”: motivated members of extremely high caliber, trained to the highest levels, and led by leaders of similar characteristics? If not, maybe it’s time to reevaluate the most basic and potentially most important building block of any organization: its ability to create these “razors.”

The ability to generate quality personnel hinges on the effectiveness of education. A quality training program will lead to a safer, more effective, and more efficient organization. The building block to such effectiveness lies in the quality of the educator.

Three major characteristics usually are present in a good educator:

  • Humility.
  • Experience.
  • Preparation.

THE RIGHT PERSONAL ATTRIBUTES

A critical component of any training program is the selection of its educators. Failure to choose the right people will lead to ineffectiveness at best or injury and death at worst.

Why do you want to teach? Unfortunately, many people want to teach for the wrong reasons. The fire service educator should want to teach because of a desire to contribute to a very enjoyable and rewarding profession. This person must leave his ego at the door. Failure to do this results in entering the classroom with the wrong mindset.

The fire service instructor should view his role as a great responsibility and must constantly reevaluate his performance in the classroom and on the drill ground, ever mindful that he can always do a better job and contribute to the profession in a more effective fashion.

The instructor must look at each student as an individual and strive to make that individual as proficient as the program permits. This is not a profession where bullying or intimidation has a place. Bullying and intimidating a class or student will hinder learning. The goal should be to produce an end result that is extremely effective in performance and attitude. Discipline can be enforced in a number of ways, but to subjugate students to your will because you can is wrong and should never be tolerated.

Attributes that epitomize the quality instructor include decency and humility. For the great majority of us, there is always someone who knows more than we do and can upstage us. Fire service educators must carry themselves with a great sense of humility and treat everyone with the same degree of respect. If you view yourself as the “fire service font of knowledge,” remember it’s a long way down from your pedestal if you ever make a mistake!

Fire service educators should share a common denominator-a technical interest in the job and the desire to make the job better than it is. This mindset and attitude can give you a foundation from which to build and contribute to this challenging and dynamic profession.

EXPERIENCE AND PREPARATION

To offer quality instruction, the fire service instructor must be able to speak from experience. There are many examples of instructors who have been “in over their heads.” This can be awkward and embarrassing. “You can’t come back from some place you’ve never been.”

If you hit the books and critique the calls to which you respond and make everything a learning experience, you are well on your way to being a more experienced educator.

A fire service educator must have an insatiable desire to want to continue learning. For those of us who already have taken most of the courses and programs available, this means an hour or two (or more) of daily self-study. This can include constant reading from various periodicals and case studies and the establishment of an individual library with the potential of having a hundred or more texts and years of back issues of magazines available for constant referral.

Self-study is extremely effective for the devoted fire service educator. With continued fireground experience and constant critiquing and evaluation, the ultimate result will be a more experienced and educated member. A quality instructor has a combination of experience and technical knowledge, allowing the educator to speak from the perspective of experience and how it relates to theory.

Even an extremely experienced fire service educator can still fall short of the goal of being able to deliver an effective program of instruction. Preparation allows the instructor to fine-tune his skills prior to delivering the presentation. Failure to prepare results in an “off-the-cuff” performance that leaves the instructor feeling disappointed at his performance and shortchanges his students.

Preparation allows the instructor to review related works by various authors and to fine-tune classroom and drill-ground evolutions. Preparation also includes the logistics element of a course presentation (hardware and software) as well as classroom and outdoor facilities, with an emphasis on safety. Preparation also can allow the instructor to brainstorm various “what ifs,” preventing a disaster. In an era of heightened liability, brainstorming various potential problems before they occur can prove to be effective in precourse delivery.

The fire service is a technically fascinating profession. To have the privilege to be an educator in this field is very rewarding. It is important that the person seeking such a role do so for the right reasons. It is not a game about ego or power; it is about contributing to something that is bigger than any one of us.

This is a very dynamic field that requires constant daily study and skill upkeep. The day an instructor says there is no need to continue his studies is the time to retire gracefully.

Personal attributes, experience, and preparation are the basic building blocks to becoming an effective educator. Without these, any program of instruction will be limited in its effectiveness. The fire service educator can have the greatest influence over an organization with enough time. Think about it-the newest members will emulate those they respect and admire the most. Who better to set the stage for the organization’s future leaders than its instructors?

Of course, instructors must also focus on management, education theory, classroom logistics, and social psychology. But a basic understanding of the three building blocks is needed for effectiveness.

The next time you teach, ask yourself: “Did I contribute anything of value, did the students learn anything today because of my actions, or did I shortchange my students?” A serious and honest self-analysis of your actions will make you a better instructor.

Special thanks to Fire Marshal Tim Smith and Chief of Training Bill Itinger of the Monmouth County (NJ) Fire Academy and Fire Marshal’s Office for their help with this article.

ARMAND F. GUZZI JR. has been a member of the fire service since 1987. He is a career firefighter and a fire academy instructor with the Monmouth County (NJ) Fire Academy, where he has taught for the past 17 years. He has a master’s degree in management and undergraduate degrees in fire science, education, and business administration.

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