QUALITIES OF A GOOD INSTRUCTOR

BY SCOTT CARRIGAN

Throughout our fire service careers we will encounter countless “instructors.” Some conduct or assist in a class in which we are enrolled. Others may be informal instructors with no educational background, such as the seasoned 20-year veteran who helped you learn the ropes during your first days at the fire station.

As time passes and we encounter more and more instructors, we begin to classify them, rather unscientifically, into the good, the bad, and the indifferent. The vast majority of fire service instructors find themselves among the indifferent. They do a fine job explaining the subject matter and seem competent, but the students are not overly impressed. When the students get back to their fire stations and their chief or officer asks them, “How was class?” they will usually respond with, “It was okay.” The evaluations from the class have few, if any, constructive comments, and on we go to the next subject.

Occasionally, these same students will give the chief a report such as, “It was great!” and will expound on the subject matter and the activities presented in the class. Their enthusiasm gives the impression that they learned something, and the difference is usually because of the efforts of the instructor.

Many people would point out that the subject matter makes the biggest difference, not the instructor. However, if you’ve attended enough classes, you would know that this is not true. Many times I have attended a class that I thought would be great, and indeed the subject and materials used during the presentation were excellent. The instructor, however, was terrible, and learning ceased almost immediately. In contrast, I have attended classes I had been dreading attending for months because the subject was so dry. To my surprise, when I finally did attend, I found the class was great, largely because of the instructor’s performance.

THE CHARACTERISTICS OF A “GOOD” INSTRUCTOR

What makes a “good” instructor? We all could put it into our own words, but there are certainly some common traits good instructors seem to possess. In IFSTA’s latest edition of Fire and Emergency Services Instructor, a good instructor is said to possess the following qualities and behaviors that contribute to their success and effectiveness:
• the ability to understand and work well with people,
• the desire to teach,
• competence in the subject,
• enthusiasm,
• motivation,
• ingenuity and creativity,
• empathy, and
• mediation skills.

Any of these qualities could be discussed at length; each certainly contributes to an instructor’s success. But, good instructors may not necessarily possess all of these qualities, only some of them. Which of these characteristics are most important? What attributes should the new instructor first try to develop, and what are the core characteristics of a good instructor?

According to Gilbert Highet (1950), in his classic work The Art of Teaching, a good instructor has three primary characteristics.

1. Know what you teach. “First, and most necessary of all … he must know what he teaches. This sounds obvious, yet it is not always practiced.” A good instructor must have a masterful knowledge of the subject matter, far beyond the minimum standard or what might be covered in an examination. A fire instructor who teaches foam fire streams, for instance, should be an authority on that topic and should be familiar with the industry’s latest technological and strategic developments. The knowledge should be based not only on prior training but also, more importantly, on personal experience from which the instructor can draw. Effective instructors should be able to give relevant examples and draw conclusions based on what they have personally witnessed. The fire instructor who has not used foam to extinguish actual fires has no business teaching that topic.

Relying on “off-the-shelf” or canned training packages has diminished an instructor’s need to be knowledgeable. I have heard it said, “These presentations are so good that a monkey could teach the class.” Unfortunately for many students, that is in fact what is happening-a monkey is up front trudging his way through colorful PowerPoint® slides with animated graphics. Therein lies the shortest route to becoming a mediocre instructor: reliance on the material in the lesson plan and not on your own knowledge and experience. When the instructor uses lesson plans and visual aids produced by someone else, the instructor will have to put significant effort into becoming very familiar with the materials’ content and the developer’s intent. What makes visuals good? Being produced by an instructor. What makes visuals sell the message? Being produced by an instructor.

Even though an instructor may be able to deliver the lesson adequately enough to cover the essential points to achieve the objectives, the fact that the instructor has only rudimentary knowledge of the subject area may be exposed and adversely affect the student’s capacity for learning. Effective teaching generates interest among the students, which leads to their asking questions. An instructor’s ability to answer these questions would most likely require a greater knowledge of the subject than can be gained by reading the text; otherwise, the student could find the answer there. If the instructor cannot come up with an answer or, worse, bluffs a response, the students may conclude that the topic is not interesting and that the instructor does not know what he is talking about.

2. Like what you teach. If you enjoy the subject matter, it will be easy to teach, and your teaching style will be more motivated, energetic, and effective.

Unfortunately, fire instructors are often motivated by a paycheck or power and find themselves teaching any number of subjects in which they have little interest. If you are not interested, the students will sense this, and the value of the lesson will be lost. Let’s look at salvage, for example. Although the value of salvage can easily be conveyed to students, it is not the most exciting topic in a Firefighter 1 class. Many instructors would rather not teach it, but they choose to do so anyway. As they flip through the slides, their tone of voice is dreary and they often glance at some bulleted items and moan, “This isn’t really important for you to know.” The class will probably end early, because there will be a lack of questions and only limited discussion. The students will be happy to leave early, as they probably did not enjoy the class any more than the instructor did. When the next class begins, the students will be looking forward to the possibility of an early dismissal instead of at the importance of the subject at hand.

Highet presents this perspective: “Think how astonished you would be if your doctor told you that personally he really cared nothing about the art of healing, that he never read the medical journals and paid no attention to new treatments for common complaints, that apart from making a living he thought it completely unimportant whether his patients were sick or sound, and that his real interest was mountain climbing. You would change your doctor.”

If you, the instructor, are bored or not interested in the subject matter, the students will be also, and learning will be minimal. Be careful not to blame your lack of enthusiasm on the teaching materials. A seasoned student can tell when a good instructor is teaching bad material.

3. Like your students. If you don’t like working with groups of people, teaching is probably not for you. Even if you are a “people person,” the nature of fire service training makes it difficult for instructors to appeal to students. Instructors often walk a fine line between showing that they care for the students and enforcing course standards and discipline. Firefighting involves hard work, and fire training must mirror the rigors of the profession. Students have to be motivated to perform, and there will be many occasions when they fail. Unfortunately, mistakes made on the training grounds after graduation can cost lives and property. Negative feedback is necessary, but it should reinforce the value of proper performance. Students need to understand how they messed up and the real-life consequences that could result.

Many fire training academies operate with a boot-camp mentality, where the instructors spend much of their day yelling at, intimidating, and harassing the students. This type of training environment does little to promote the candidates’ self-esteem or confidence and serves only to create resentment and animosity between the students and instructors. Occasionally, these environments may even become dangerous. During the past few years, there have been several well publicized accounts of fire recruits’ being severely injured in training environments that had a boot-camp mentality. Although the fire service is a paramilitary organization, fire training academies do not serve the same purpose as military basic training institutions. In military basic training, there is a well-organized effort to influence a person to attain and uphold personal qualities and virtues that will make them more successful in their career, and in so doing much of their personal identity is changed. This does not serve a practical purpose in fire service training. If you are on the training grounds and reliving a scene from Full Metal Jacket, maybe you should consider buying a bus ticket to Paris Island.

Instructors should be cautious of becoming overly friendly with pupils. One instructor made a habit of bringing in pizza for the students at the start of class. Naturally, his evaluations were great. However, the attention of the class was centered on free pizza and not the lesson at hand. Instructors will sometimes go to great lengths to be liked by their students, giving them the impression that they are “buddies.” Such a relationship undermines the ability of other instructors and staff members to maintain class order, discipline, and accountability. Moreover, personal favors or an overly casual attitude will not convince the students that you are a “good” instructor. A good instructor has a genuine interest in the students and their learning.

Regardless of the relationships you form with your students, always treat them with respect. Showing a legitimate interest in their academic success, their welfare, and their future shows them that you are not merely an authority figure but also a resource, a guide, and a mentor.

• • •

Knowing what you teach, liking what you teach, and enjoying your students sound like remarkably simple principles, yet I can’t count the number of times I have seen others, and even myself, abandon them. When you hear yourself saying, “I hate teaching this subject” or “I can get by, but it’s not my favorite topic,” you are probably headed down the road of mediocrity.

As an instructor, it is your job to see that the student succeeds. This will often require going the extra mile and will involve more than reading PowerPoint® slides. You will realize very shortly that you cannot please or impress everyone. There are far too many learning styles; differing sets of expectations; and age, gender, and maturity levels represented in each and every classroom you enter. By paying attention to the core principles of successful teaching, you will positively influence more of your students and have a much better time doing it.

SCOTT CARRIGAN is a full-time firefighter with Nashua (NH) Fire-Rescue and a senior staff instructor at the New Hampshire Fire Academy. For the past 10 years, he has been involved in entry level and advanced firefighter training. He is a graduate of Oklahoma State University’s School of Fire Protection and Safety.

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