Effective Teaching Strategies

BY SEAN WILKINSON

I have served as an officer in the fire service for five years. During that time, I have made sure that I taught drills to my firefighters at least twice a year or once every drill season. My educational background in secondary education has provided me with different techniques for sharing the information I want to pass along to other firefighters. As the lead drill instructor, you should be excited about what you are teaching and the way that you are presenting your material. If you are hesitant about or not thrilled with your material or presentation method, your drill will be lacking, and firefighters will tune out shortly after it begins. Presented below are tips and tidbits that will help revamp your teaching style and presentation methods.

REVAMPING YOUR TEACHING STYLE

Let’s start with a few things some instructors take for granted.

  • Know your material. It’s important to know what you are teaching. Firefighters will know when you are not prepared, and you will know the second you stand in front of the students. It’s okay to have notes, but don’t get stuck on them for the entire time.
  • Be prepared. Make sure everything you need for your drill is set up well before you begin. There is nothing worse than discovering that the projector is broken at the beginning of your presentation or that you don’t have enough fuel for a training fire.
  • Be ready to adapt and overcome. Even if you have practiced your material, everything works, and it all seems to be a go, something will inevitably happen to set things awry. When this happens, you will show your mettle. Try your best to handle it gracefully, and always prepare a backup plan.

Instruction Styles

Generally, instruction styles fall into two broad categories: classroom and hands on. Both are challenging, but they can be equally as rewarding if you are fully prepared. In a classroom session, you have a set topic and a specified amount of time to cover it. This is the time you can lead yourself into trouble because you are the center of attention for the duration of the drill. Whether sitting at a kitchen table for discussion or setting up a projector for a slide show, you are expected to present information to the whole group. If you are unprepared or not confident in what you are teaching, the firefighters will lose interest shortly after you begin.

Classroom. To prepare for a classroom lesson, set some objectives your students should be able to meet at the end of your presentation. This will help guide your research and make sure that your research doesn’t become too focused or too broad. You can also list the objectives at the beginning of the lesson to engage people during the presentation and keep them focused on the important points. If you list objectives in the beginning of the lesson, go back and refer to them throughout the lesson to keep yourself on base and to show the firefighters the exact points on which they are to focus.

Once you have developed a few objectives, focus on them when preparing for the class. Make sure that you do all the research. Cast a wide net in your targeted topic to encompass all viewpoints. Sometimes tunnel vision can occur while researching; it may be caused by fatigue or finding a source that has a good amount of information. This can be a pitfall for instructors with all levels of experience. That is the reason it is good to begin preparing for the drill weeks or months in advance; you will have time to walk away from it for a time and then come back with fresh eyes. Remember, the first time you teach a drill is the hardest because of all the legwork for the initial presentation. If you ever have to teach it again, the material will already be there. The only other work you need to do is to update your material.

Once you have your research finished and compiled in a presentable manner, it is now time to practice. Going over your presentation once the night before isn’t acceptable. Practice your presentation several times. Time the lesson, make sure it flows, and start to get a feel for the slides. This will help you to build a level of comfort so that you can have your back to the presentation and still speak confidently. You will also be able to make mental notes of anecdotes to use with certain slides to bolster your lesson and support your research. This will help your students make real-world connections to the material.

When creating a classroom lesson, develop a statement or use some method to draw the audience into your lesson. It may be a question on strategy to get people talking and to loosen up a bit or a short video clip that is entertaining and lightens the mood. These “ice breakers” can show some of your personality in the lesson while starting off on a light note and drawing people into the discussion.

If you are using slides, use them as tools and not your sole source for teaching. Placing all your information on the slides and reading verbatim is not an effective teaching method. Students will lose interest because they can get the same information from a textbook. When people show up to a classroom drill, they are looking for a little flash and a little sparkle. Your slide show should present bullets of information on which you expand, not paragraphs of information.

There are several methods for creating a successful slide show, something that will have your students talking about it later. The first method is to use a formula of three slides with text on one slide with a picture or a video. This change in pace every few minutes will spark different parts of the learners’ brains so that they remain interested in the presentation. This will prompt their minds for a small break and a change of pace, disrupting any mental fatigue from seeing the same pattern of slides repeatedly. Limit your text slides to a few bulleted points, three or four at the most. These points will engage people and keep them interested in the lesson without overburdening them with information.

Another approach is to insert on occasion an entertaining and appropriate slide or photo with your program slides. This can keep people engaged and lighten the mood. When using action pictures, try to dig into your department’s archives and use photos from older times (this will do a great deal for department pride). Using photos from other departments is obviously fine when trying to get a point across, but there is a certain pride factor involved when using your department’s photos.

These tips have helped me quite a bit over the past five years while instructing; hopefully, they can help you.

For other kinds of indoor drills, you do not have to sit around the table or in front of a projector. Go down to the floor and get the saws running; take them apart, and make sure that they are in working order.

Aside from drivers and officers, how many firefighters have thoroughly gone through all the compartments on the rigs? Some days it’s good to have everyone go through the compartments of their rigs or, better yet, have them learn what the other companies store in their rigs and in which compartments so that at large incident scenes firefighters save time when looking for equipment.

Hands-On Lessons. Once the weather is cooperative, you can focus on your outdoor or hands-on lessons. They tend to draw a larger crowd or can be good quick little hour lessons to do on the fly while at the firehouse. Many times, though, we can fall into the same routine with our lessons: We throw ladders, we practice our extrication skills, and we lay hose. After time, we begin falling into the same pattern of just putting up a couple of ladders, making sure that we know the different parts, and that’s that. We stretch hose, make sure all the kinks are chased, and practice packing hose. The practice and building of muscle memory for these skills are good so that proficiency is built for use at any time of day, but eventually members lose interest.

As the instructor, you can change the way your department does these hands-on drills and make them more enriching for everyone involved. It takes a little bit more planning and scheduling with your firefighters, but sometimes little deviations and change-ups can motivate people by make drilling less of a repetitive task and more of an opportunity to think outside the box. Small motivational changes can also make it so that mistakes can be corrected and new procedures can be tried and discussed.

When time permits for companies to be out of service for training or on a designated drill night, auto extrication is usually a chosen drill. Sometimes the scenario becomes repetitive as a result of the kinds of calls your department may get that require extrication. Someone takes a door, cuts the A posts, and rolls the roof back. Over time, firefighters get that ingrained in their systems and can become rusty in using other techniques. It’s important that we practice these “bread and butter” techniques, but at the same time it is also important to change the scenarios such as putting the car on its roof or on its side or finding a way to create damage to make firefighters think about the scenario and create a scenario where the “muscle memory” cuts aren’t the immediate answer.

Laddering and hose advancement are skills essential to good fire extinguishment, and they are skills that your company will present to the public and high-ranking officials at an incident. Although your company’s competence will be noted by your ability to complete these tasks, these skills are good to practice as company-building exercises as well. Many times camaraderie is built at the kitchen table and during downtime, but to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your firefighters, teamwork exercises will establish who does what work best.

On top of the team building, you can mix other aspects and challenges in these drills so that the main focus is on something other than just laddering or hose “humping” while still providing the necessary practice. Adding time for hose advancement to make it more of a race or creating a maze that has many bends can add unique challenges that create a quick work environment that can loosely recreate the same skills necessary to successfully put out a real fire.

While practicing laddering a building to the roof or window, throw in different challenges that can occur at a fire—for instance, bars on windows or a parapet on a roof. What precautions does a firefighter need to take? What tools need to be brought to the work scene? How many bodies will this work take?

When training for personnel issues, practicing one- and two-firefighter raises and then going into vent-enter-search mode are scenarios that can make the drill different from the regular lift-and-raise practice. There are many other quick drills you can do while practicing with laddering, and many related topics can be brought up for firefighters to discuss among themselves and with you. As a younger officer, this is a good time for discussion with more senior members who have had different experiences. These stories from earlier dates can give an insight into how fires have reacted in your area and what to keep in mind when responding to one.

The final aspect of effective teaching is doing it. These methods only work if you go out and make yourself available for training. If you aren’t practicing by teaching hands-on drills or by setting up classroom lessons, these tricks won’t magically make you an engaging speaker. Going out on your drill night or during your tour and training with your firefighters is the only way an officer can teach and work on his presenting skills while also learning where his firefighters are in their skill levels. A fire officer who knows his firefighters’ proficiencies and deficiencies can develop quality drill time to bolster the weaker skills and maintain the proficient ones.

SEAN WILKINSON is a nine-year member of the Snyder Fire Department in Amherst, New York, where he is a captain, drill instructor, and police dispatcher for the Amherst Police Department. He has a B.A. degree in history from the University at Buffalo (State University of New York) and is completing the requirements for a master’s degree in education from the University at Buffalo.

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