THE GREAT COMMUNICATOR
A fire officer arrives at his class a few minutes late. As he prepares to teach, he senses animosity on the part of some of the students. He begins his presentation—a lecture on building construction—and finds the students disinterested. He continues his lecture only to find that his words are falling on deaf ears. As the instructor becomes more and more aggravated with the lack of interest, he begins to speak harshly to his students. Losing the respect of the students, he completes his lecture, tells the students that the class is over, and leaves.
Sound familiar? This scenario is not uncommon in our fire departments, irrespective of type, location, or size. Often, we’re not getting the most out of our training sessions because of lack of communication. The problem can’t be taken lightly: Communication is at the heart of training and therefore is fundamental to the future effectiveness of the fire service. The instructor’s desire to communicate may be his greatest contribution to the safety of 21st-century America.
The fire officer instructs personnel on a wide range of topics. He must understand that there are many different techniques and methods of instruction and that each one is designed to communicate certain types of information. Furthermore, if the officer is not careful he may inadvertently communicate an unwanted message. By understanding the scope of listening, motivation, different delivery techniques, visual aids, mannerisms, evaluation, and testing, the officer will be better able to educate his students.
Dick Sylvia says in his book Modem Suburban Firefighting, “Whether they realize it or not, every officer in the fire service is an instructor to some degree.” The National Fire Protection Association formalizes his opinion, saying that a fire officer shall meet the requirements of NFPA Standard 1041 for Instructors. As part of that standard, the officer must demonstrate knowledge of both written and verbal communication skills and understand different methods of instruction. Some of these methods include lectures, discussions, and illustrations.
The reasons for this interest in varying types of instruction are explained by the international Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA): IFSTA studies show that 11 percent of a student’s learning is through hearing, while 83 percent is through sight; and that learners retain 50 percent of what they see and hear. These facts illustrate the need for all officers and instructors to understand the communication of instruction.
It is imperative that the instructor understand the knowledge level of his class. In an article in the November 1987 issue of Rekindle, Harry R. Carter writes, “It is important to be sure that people really belong in your class. If someone gets in over their head, they will feel threatened and receive less than no benefit from your teaching efforts.” The instructor will trigger those feelings of inadequacy in his students whenever he teaches over their heads in an attempt to reach those with more knowledge. Feelings of inadequacy inhibit a student’s ability to learn. The instructor must supplant them with a more positive attitude sparked by motivation.
Anthony R. Granito explains motivation and its importance in his book Fire Instructor Training Guide: “Motivation is the conscious effort of the instructor to establish student motives which lead to sustained effort toward the learning goal. Motives create a desire to learn. Motivation is the very heart of the learning process and one of the instructor’s fundamental problems—since without motivation, students learn very little. The instructor must foster an atmosphere in which the students feel free to put forth their ideas and their questions without the instructor rejecting or deriding them.” Simply put, if you fail to motivate and subsequently lose the interest of the student, you’ve wasted the class. Motivating and maintaining interest takes many forms: a little humor to ease tension, praise for a job well done, submitting a challenge, being open to all questions. The instructor who’s sensitive to his students knows when and how to take effective motivational steps.
Every instructor must decide which type of delivery is best for him and for the particular student group. Four common types of delivery methods are lecture, discussion, conference discussion, and demonstration. Each communicates certain types of information, some better than others.
The lecture is one of the most common methods in use in the fire service. Granito says the lecture has three major advantages over other methods of instruction:
- The instructor can be interactive and dynamic so as to arouse interest in his subject with audience variances.
- He can impart extra information, particularly material that is not available in any other form.
- He can present much material in a short time to a large group.
The second most often used method of delivery is the demonstration. It is particularly useful when trying to teach manipulative skills and works best in smaller groups.
A more casual approach to instruction is the discussion. The discussion can pass along knowledge and experiences dealing with ideas and attitudes. It also communicates group ideas well. Granito says, “The function of the discussion is to bring about a progressive development in the ideas of the participants by a process of interchange and analysis of their experience.”
Some problems that need group decision call for the conference method. This involves an open discussion among a group of anywhere from six to 12 people.
Next the instructor must decide where to stand, which is more important than some might think. The choice can either aid or hinder the delivery method you choose. In Teaching for Results, Findley B. Edge says that standing in front of the class “accentuates the dominance of the teacher and the inferior position held by the class members.” On the other hand, he writes that when the instructor “takes his place along with all of the other class members, each class member faces every other class member and feels himself as a responsible part of the group. The arrangement contributes to the attitude that the class members have a right to express their opinion and speak up at any time they desire.”
Be careful about the type of delivery you choose and the way you position yourself. For instance, if possible you should avoid appearing as the dominant overseer, because this puts the class members on the defensive. By the same token, the conference method may not be as effective as you would like it to be should you stand in front of the group as a lecturer.
Once the fire instructor has chosen the type of delivery, he must consider supplementing his material with a good visual aid. Visual aids are a vital part of the instructor’s repertoire because they assist with the communication in several ways. Granito makes the following point concerning audiovisuals: “They can arouse and focus attention and set the stage, they can make people want to learn, they can reinforce words that might otherwise fall on deaf ears, they can provide information, they can hold attention, they can convey concepts and organize ideas, they can transmit attitudes, and can play on human emotions as they put an idea across or motivate action.” Since we learn 50 percent of what we see and hear, IFSTA says that aids make “use of senses other than hearing and reduce the tendency to depend on words to carry ideas and that the instructors demonstrate their creativity by developing or using training aids to supplement material.”
The NFPA requires that an instructor speak in an easily understood manner that is reasonably free from distracting mannerism. Common mannerisms such as jingling keys and repeating annoying words can be distracting. Profanity, repetition of acts, and unintentional actions also can become a problem. Granito points out that the use of profanity and obscenity results in a lack of respect. Sarcasm and ridicule cause resentfulness on the part of the student.
Sometimes students mistake certain words, phrases, and actions and attach the wrong connotation to them. For example, if the instructor forgets to give short breaks during class, students may interpret it to mean that they are insignificant.
A very important element of instruction is questions. The instructor asks questions during class to ensure student comprehension, increase students’ self-image, and generate interest. It also gives the students a means to fulfill a need to answer questions correctly and take responsibility for subject matter. In short, questioning benefits the learning process.
Questioning is backed up with a more formal written or practical examination. Good results on written tests prove comprehension. Poor results may indicate a need for alternate teaching methods.
Of course, there should be questions directed toward the instructor as well as the student. These can be a valuable asset to the instructor. They not only indicate comprehension or confusion, they’re also motivational. IFSTA’s Fire Service Instructor states, “Students expect honesty and want an instructor who is willing to assist in finding answers to their questions. When a question is asked that cannot be answered, the instructor should not be embarrassed or shaken. The instructor should follow through on students’ questions and project a high degree of interest in the subject matter. Enthusiasm is contagious.”
Time is another important factor in the training session. The instructor should arrive on time, prepared to deliver the lesson. Beyond the issue of simple courtesy, when an instructor treats his students’ time as if it is as valuable as his own, students will appreciate the training—and the instructor—that much more. Time can be a factor throughout the presentation. Use the time efficiently but not hurriedly, allow for short breaks, and don’t be a clock-watcher—that gives the impression that you have somewhere more important to be and can ruin an effective presentation.
Communicating effectively is a multifaceted task. It involves speaking effectively, understanding that different delivery methods impart different kinds of information, and motivating the students by showing that you are interested in the subject and in them. Remember, too, that listening is a vital part of communicating.
Granito says: “Communication is more than just talking. It is the means through which you and the trainees share knowledge, feelings, emotions, and ideas. For better or for worse—as in marriage—the things you do, the things you say or write, the things you fail to say, the gestures you make, the physical setting you provide are all forms of communication. They are forms of communication that will lead to an interaction between you and the trainee or you and the group. This interaction can lead to greater understanding or even still a greater misunderstanding.”*