By Matthew B. Thorpe
Promoting a positive and safe fireground environment is essential, and the preparation begins on the training ground. However, in some jurisdictions, the training ground has become anything but an environment that promotes positive and safe attitudes.
A number of fire service personnel will become instructors without any idea of how to teach a class. They are told that they have to be an instructor for promotion. They are thrown into the mix and told that they have to pull a rotation at the training academy. These are not the type of instructors that our future fire service leaders need. Face it; some people are just not built to teach.
Think back. Can you recall a fire instructor who influenced you positively? Negatively? What were the major differences between these instructors? Several attitudes, practices, and attributes distinguish the positive instructor from the negative one.
1. Create a safe environment and in turn you will produce safety conscious firefighters. A safe environment includes not only the training ground, but the classroom as well. Students need to know that they can ask questions without fear of retribution. As an instructor, you are not just there to teach, you are there to mentor. When you mentor a new firefighter, recap safety in everything you do. This will teach them to consistently maintain a safety-conscious attitude.
2. Be passionate about their development and you will generate firefighters who are passionate about the job. To be a truly great instructor does not require one to be an expert; it requires one to be passionate. Being passionate about teaching will have a trickle-down effect on your students. They will be motivated to do the tasks rather than drooping their shoulders at the thought of another drill. They will retain the information because they were excited to learn it. These things added together produce firefighters who are passionate about their jobs. I often hear from instructors that the courses are boring; there are no boring classes, only boring instructors.
3. Exercise vulnerability without sacrificing integrity and firefighters will learn humility. Some instructors portray themselves as the chosen specialist whose main purpose in life is to impart their vast knowledge into the empty minds of firefighters. They know all of the answers before they are even asked. They are the be-all and end-all of the fire service instructor.
You do not have to know all of the answers. Showing a little lack of knowledge is not a sign of weakness, rather, it shows your true integrity if you just say, “I don’t know.” Conceding the fact that you do not know it all shows that you are still learning.
4. Reiterate important safety tips and firefighters will learn to think twice. William H. Rastetter said, “The first time you say something, it’s heard, the second time, it’s recognized, and the third time, it’s learned.” This is the way firefighters learn. You have to say it, say it again, and then let them put their hands on it. If we stress and re-stress safety points in everything we do, firefighters will learn to think and think again before they act.
5. Reiterate important safety tips and firefighters will learn to think twice
6. Don’t lecture–TEACH! Then firefighters will truly learn the basics of the job. The definition of “war story” is an account or anecdote about one’s personal experiences or a story about hardships, ordeals, or adventures one has undergone. I have personally had instructors who told war stories for an entire class. Although a war story may help illustrate a point, they do not teach. I have also had instructors who began the class by opening the textbook, turning to the appropriate chapter, and started reading. They ended the class by reading the definitions at the end of the chapter and closing the book. Instructors who tell war stories and read the book do not know the course content.
To truly teach, you need to understand the material and compel the students to get involved in the learning process. Ask questions that will ignite the imagination and spark meaningful discussions.
7. Shut up and listen! You will teach students the importance of hearing what is said. Instructors must learn that communication is a two-way street. As instructors, one of the most valuable lessons that we can learn is how to listen. Although this sounds easy, it is actually something that must be learned. Most of the time what occurs is that while someone is speaking we are already thinking of how we are going to respond. This is not active listening. Listening is the clearing of the mind and allowing the information to sink in. Sometimes silence is the best answer. Silence in the classroom, although sometimes awkward, can lead to dynamic thinking by your students.
8. Do not assume that all firefighters are able to learn at the same level. Some students learn well from reading, others from visual stimulation. Most firefighters are kinesthetic learners; they learn by getting their hands dirty. The instructor must study his students and clearly understand of how each individual learns. Some will require extra time to grasp the concepts. The great thing is these are the students who an instructor gets the most reward from. By spending that extra time you can watch the individual grow and they will never forget that instructor who spent that extra time with them.
9. Adopt a problem-solving approach to teaching and you will have firefighters who can think through serious situations. Water supply is one of the main obstacles that rural fire departments face. This obstacle is not just thrown to the wayside; you need water to extinguish the fire. These fire departments have become experts in getting water–they had a problem and they solved it. The same holds true in life. We must first realize that a problem exists and then figure out how to solve it. What better time to teach a firefighter these real-life scenarios than when they are new? Don’t give your students all of the answers–make them work for it. Give them homework assignments and have small group exercises that promote problem-solving techniques.
10. If you are creative and adaptable to change, your firefighters will not fear change when it rolls down the pipe. Using creative teaching techniques is another way to lead the students into a positive teaching environment. There are so many different things that we can do that vary from the old boring teaching methods. An example: When teaching building construction, print off some National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) reports which detail how firefighters have lost their lives in collapse situations. Group the students together and give them a report and have them compile information relating to the incident (type of construction, age of building, fire origin, and so forth). Then have them write down three or four recommendations that would help prevent these incidents from occurring in their own jurisdiction. Have them present their findings to the class. Daring to be different from other instructors and being adaptable to different teaching methods shows students that they do not have to fear change.
Putting these 10 items together will improve the level of teaching that your firefighters receive. Now does anyone have any questions?
Matthew B. Thorpe is a 14-year veteran of the fire service. He was the assistant chief of operations for the City of King (NC) Fire Department from 1992 to 2008. He is a Certified Level III instructor for the state and teaches for numerous community colleges across North Carolina. He has taught in the FDIC HOT program and is currently working on the test bank for the fourth edition of Building Construction for the Fire Service. He holds numerous state certifications and has just completed the Fire Officer III course.