By Michael D. Finney
Fire instructors play a critical role in the development of firefighters. When recruits begin training, their first exposure to the fire service is through the instructor, who often determines the firefighter’s attitude toward training and future classes. Looking back through our fire service career or life in general, it is easy to pinpoint teachers and instructors who made a great impact on us. What were some of the characteristics of these instructors? What was it about them that made them stand out? Instructors also are greatly influenced by those who teach them. Having an understanding of the characteristics of a good instructor will not only improve your teaching skills but will also benefit generations of your students. There are five major “helmets” for the fire instructor:
Leadership is defined as the ability to set the direction for an organization or program that others become motivated to follow. These individuals are visionaries who have the capability to draw followers. Although this definition sounds simple, it takes years of experience to achieve this level. Anyone who wants to be a good leader can develop leadership skills over time.
Many times, we tend to associate a mystical quality with leadership and believe that leadership skills are bestowed only on the chosen few. This, of course, is not true. It is among the top five myths concerning leadership:
4. Once the leader of a group, always the leader. History has proven this myth wrong. Look back over time, and you will find that great leaders rise and fall.
5. Leadership is a component of management. Some view leadership and management as being equal and intertwined and that leadership automatically develops from management. This is far from the truth.
LEADERSHIP THROUGH TRAINING
THE MENTORING HELMET
Mentors aid those in need. They ensure the success of those they are teaching. Make their success your success, and soon a student’s improvement becomes everyone’s success. This way, the team is built to last well beyond the classroom. Building other mentors into the training program will help it flourish beyond the monthly training and classroom time.
Coaching through Modeling. Being able to coach firefighters in training brings a new dimension to the classroom. Training and education involve more than delivering materials and testing people. You must push people beyond their comfort zone, get them out there on the edge and challenge them to go even further. The instructor’s role as a coach is to motivate the people in the department to go to the limits. Helping them grow can be one of the greatest challenges of an instructor’s career and result in some of the most rewarding times. Reflect on your time as a recruit. Many of the skills you had to practice and the information you had to learn were new. Over time, you developed the skills and integrated the information. However, at first this meant moving beyond your comfort zone.
Modeling refers to the fact that the students and staff will look to see if what is taught in the classroom is what takes place in the department and on the scene. Take every opportunity to show that you live by what you say on the fireground, in the station, and on the drill field. These opportunities not only add credibility to the class; they also add to your personal integrity.
THE INNOVATOR HELMET
The innovator is always looking for new ways to do tasks. They always think outside the box and look for ways to improve procedures, processes, equipment, and resources. In the classroom, the innovators look for new ways to teach material. They are never satisfied with tradition; they are on the cutting edge in course delivery and presentation.
THE CHANGE-AGENT HELMET
The change agent is similar to the innovator; they are intertwined in many ways. The key difference is that the innovator puts the new approach into action, whereas the change agent helps implement change throughout the organization. Look within your department or organization for the person who drives change within the ranks. The issue of rank does not apply.
Each helmet is important to the fire training officer or instructor’s success. Each represents a learnable skill that can be mastered. For some it may take work, but the rewards will pay off.
Michael D. Finney is a 25-year veteran of the fire service, having served at all ranks from firefighter to chief. He has served as the Principal Partner of the Joshua Tree Group (www.joshuatreegroup.com) and the Executive Director of the Open Fire Academy (www.openfireacademy.org.) He previously served as the Director of Public Safety Services for Great Oaks Institute of Technology and Career Development and the fire chief for the Village of Glendale, Ohio. He is also an adjunct instructor with the National Fire Academy for the "Fire Service Course Design" program. He holds a bachelors degree in Economics from the University of South Carolina, a masters of Divinity from Columbia International University, and is currently completing a doctorate in education from Oklahoma State University.