TIPS FOR IMPROVING YOUR CLASSROOM INSTRUCTION

BY BILL HOPSON

When looking to improve your effectiveness as a classroom instructor, start by identifying those areas in which improvement may be warranted. This article identifies seven general areas in which an instructor can improve effectiveness in the classroom.

CERTIFICATION

Not every state has the same standards for initial instructor certification. Although some may argue that the initial certification process is a “local” issue, there remains a noticeable difference in quality of instruction in those states that require a stricter set of initial certification standards and those that do not. This is true also for the recertification process. When you are trained properly, you will train others properly. Instructors who could have benefited from better initial training must rely on the continuing education unit (CEU) process to acquire many of the basic instruction skills needed. While the issue of quality CEU programs continues to be debated, the real challenge is how to design, implement, and deliver consistent, credible, and effective CEU programs. To meet this challenge, agencies that certify fire service instructors must understand the essential components for effective fire service instruction.

A key component is competency. A competent fire service instructor should have knowledge of the subject material beyond the basic level. A specific method for determining your effectiveness is a self-assessment test.

Divide a clean piece of paper in two columns. Entitle the left column “Excel,” and write under the title the numbers 1 to 5. Give the right column the heading “Improve,” and, again, list under it the numbers from 1 to 5.

In the Excel column, list five characteristics you believe make you an effective instructor. In the Improve column, list five areas in which you believe you could improve your effectiveness as a classroom teacher. When you have completed each list, understand you must continue to do those items you have identified in the Excel side on a consistent basis. You must also understand that if you can identify areas for improvement, so can your students. Once you commit to eliminating the items on your Improve list, the next challenge is to identify the best way to accomplish this.

During this assessment, you must be your own harshest critic. When you are not, you are accepting mediocrity. When instructors accept mediocrity, it is often difficult to acquire additional skills that will make them more effective. When the self-assessment is not used, an instructor must rely on student evaluations for the same information. Relying on evaluations is problematic because, often, the evaluation forms do not ask the correct questions, and most standard evaluation forms are not designed for critical instructor feedback. I believe students will form opinions about an instructor by the first break and hold that opinion, favorable or unfavorable, until the instructor does something that causes the students to change their minds. When an instructor does not demonstrate effectiveness or com-petency early in the lecture, it can be difficult (but not impossible) to change the students’ perceptions by the end of the lecture. That is why you should not accept mediocrity.

COMPETENCY

On completing the Excel/Improve list, we can move to the next general area, competency. Competency in its simplest form is an instructor’s ability to deliver the material so that every student can absorb it. A specific method for measuring competency, again, is to create two columns on a sheet of paper. In the left column, list five characteristics you believe a fire service instructor must possess to be deemed competent. In the right column, list five characteristics you believe indicate an incompetent instructor. Once you have compiled each list, match the items against your most recent batch of student evaluations. If those evaluations reflect three or more of the “competent” characteristics, chances are you need make only some subtle changes in some areas to improve your effectiveness in the classroom. However, if those evaluations reflect one or more of the “incompetent” characteristics, this is a clear signal you need im-provement and you are not reaching your potential effectiveness.

An appropriate analogy is to recall courses you attended in which the instructors demonstrated a command of the class and a total knowledge of the subject. In this instance, it is highly likely you rated that instructor as “excellent” or “outstanding” because it was worth your time to attend that course. While competency continues to be a high priority in improving your effectiveness, there are additional areas to examine.

LIMITED CONTACT TIME WITH STUDENTS

A large obstacle in improving effectiveness is the instructor’s lack of contact time with students. Far too many instructors fail to improve their effectiveness because they lack instruction opportunities or they fail to experience enough contact hours during a year to maintain their skills. An instructor’s ability to maximize contact time says a lot about his initial and recertification training. It is often frustrating for students when an instructor fails to apply the skills needed to properly deliver the material in a method they can understand. Limited contact time often leads to basic, fundamental mistakes on the instructor’s part that result in a disorganized and ineffective presentation. The opportunity to instruct may not be under an individual instructor’s control, but the desire to improve is. Administratively, those who schedule instructors should not create an organization that promotes slow growth or unequal opportunities. It is fair for organizations to expect their instructors to be knowledgeable, competent, and masters of their craft. Organizations must be the conduit toward achieving these expectations.

CONTROL

In addition to competency, an instructor must understand and correctly apply control to every classroom setting. Included in the term control are the issues of student participation, seating arrangements, the length of the tabletop exercises, breaks, application of material, the delivery of the material, and the general flow of the class. Mastering the craft of complete control takes patience, experience, and understanding that not all students will be able to absorb the material at the same rate. Instructors who understand and correctly apply control also will know when to adjust once control has been lost, and they will understand how to maintain control once it has been reestablished.

Although the term control is broad-based, two factors greatly influence control.

Student integration. This refers to the instructor’s ability to successfully and smoothly incorporate students into the lecture discussion. By using positive mannerisms, using verbal skills, and developing a “flow” to the lecture, all instructors can successfully integrate any student into a lecture. An initial step toward achieving successful student integration is for the instructor to lay out the blocks of instruction at the beginning of the lecture. Fire service instruction should not be a mystery for your students. Let them know what you expect from them. Energize your students by explaining your expectations for the course. Invite them to meet or exceed your expectations. Do not use terminology only you understand, and avoid the common mistake of employing the “point and click” method when attempting initial student integration. Use open-ended questions early in the lecture. When specific questions are used too early, or if the instructor uses the “point and click” method for initial integration, the student’s fear of “don’t pick me” will dominate the classroom and confront the instructor with an unnecessary problem he will have to solve. It is also very ineffective for an instructor to complete a block of instruction and then ask, “Does anyone have any questions on anything we have covered to this point?” When this is done, the silence is usually deafening.

Positive mannerisms are the facial, body, and hand gestures an instructor uses in response to a question, statement, or situation within the classroom. An example of a positive mannerism would be the following hand position for the instructor at the beginning of a lecture, when the instructor is typically nervous. Place your hands in front of you, belt high, with the fingers touching one another, forming a “pyramid.” This hand position will provide “balance” and will eliminate the potential distraction of excessive hand movement as you speak. Another positive mannerism is to slowly move across the front of the classroom at the beginning of the lecture to help dissipate some of the nervous energy. Positive mannerisms may also be used to solve potential situations that may arise in your classroom, such as your response to a student who initially attempts to answer every question you ask. To address this, move toward the “offending” student while continuing to lecture. Do not make significant eye contact with this student. Position yourself so that the student is to your left, and then ask an open-ended question. As the question is finished, slightly extend your left hand (palms down) in a “stop” or “hold” sign. Use your right hand (palms up) to extend an invitation to the other students, should they wish to respond. Continue to “hold” the student until you are ready to hear from him.

Positive mannerisms may also be used in reaction to wrong answers or a student statement with which you disagree. Avoid placing both arms across your chest or both hands on your hips when listening to a student response. When listening to your students, face the same general direction as the student and remain still until the student is finished. Position your hands in front of your body about belt high. When the situation presents itself, allow other students to offer answers to the question unless the question is phrased in such a way that only you can answer. A healthy dose of patience is needed when dealing with unexpected situations that may arise inside the classroom. Provide your students with a perception that all ideas and responses are accepted and will not be instantly dismissed. Using positive mannerisms will also enhance your effectiveness when emphasizing specific lecture points, underscoring an important segment in a video or on a slide, or congratulating a group of students on a job well done in a particular exercise.

CLASSROOM ANGLES

An instructor’s ability to correctly identify and effectively use natural classroom angles will greatly improve the “flow” (moving the lecture from point A to point B) of any lecture. Classroom configuration determines the manner in which an instructor can move about in the classroom. For example, not every classroom will allow for moving across the room, whereas almost all classrooms make it possible for the instructor to move through the room. When you can move across and through a class, do not turn the classroom into a track and field event or move the students to the point where it appears as if they are attending a tennis match. An effective use of movement deals with videos, slides, and overheads. Position yourself near the back row, and face in the same direction as the students. Learn to “talk over” video segments by lowering the volume, staying in the room while they are playing, and augmenting key sections with your comments. The proper use of a laser pointer will also be effective on slides and overheads. By placing yourself in this position, the student’s focus will be on the material, not you.

When placing your students in a group for a tabletop or chalkboard exercise, position yourself so that the greatest number of students will focus on the group that is presenting. Again, student focus is directed to where it was intended—on the material, not the instructor. In general, students’ seating arrangements will be determined by the physical configuration of the classroom. When an instructor moves through the classroom, students are able to slightly change their body positions. This is effective during longer blocks of instruction. When an instructor remains stationary, the students become stationary. No instructor has any defense or skill to combat a student’s body clock that remains stationary for too long. When an instructor is forced to add a break to combat student fatigue, it is well past the point of where the problem occurred.

PITFALLS TO AVOID

Following are some general pitfalls to avoid. They will reduce your overall effectiveness inside the classroom.

  • Substituting “war stories” for lecture material. Too often war stories dominate a lecture, and the instructor fails to properly manage his time.
  • Not managing your time. You don’t want to have too much material and not enough time at the end of the lecture or too much time left and not enough material.
  • Relying too heavily on “gimmicks” to get through the delivery of material. Innovation and imagination are viable ingredients in terms of instructor effectiveness. A reliance on gimmicks, rather than skill, to deliver the material is not an effective way to deliver quality fire service instruction.
  • Thinking you are exempt from the rules. Although most instructors are able to craft the rules, NO INSTRUCTOR is exempt from them. For example, instructors may not abandon the Uniform Fire Code when arranging student seating. Do not block exits with chairs. Do not create tripping hazards with extension cords, power cords, or props in aisles or exit paths. Do not compromise aisle widths or overcrowd classrooms. Prior to the lecture, be sure to state the facility’s fire alarm evacuation policy. As the late Don Manno, one of the fire service’s great instructors, always espoused: “As an instructor, set the example, and look out for the welfare of your students.”

UNDERSTANDING STUDENT ASSESSMENTS

Students will attend a course or lecture for three main reasons: They are “required” to do so for certification, they “need” to attend because of existing policy, or they “want” to attend to further their knowledge and education. An effective technique to gauge why your students are in class is to ask them before starting your lecture. This will only be effective in groups of 35 students and under.

When the majority of your students say they are “required” to attend the course, you should be put on notice that you will have to use all of your skills to change the students’ perception from “having to be there” to “wanting to be there” by the end of the lecture. To find out if you have accomplished this, take time at the end of your lecture to offer your students a chance to tell you so. An effective technique for doing this is to explain to your students that you would like them to tell you in 15 seconds or less what their perception of the class was before and after the class. Explain to the students that you are not looking for a verbalization of their written comments but rather an assessment of the impact you had on them during your contact hours.

If there are more than 35 students in the class, ask every fourth or fifth person in each row. Asking each one individually may give the impression that you are simply looking to fill in time. Be gracious when positive comments are offered, and do not engage in a debate when nonpositive comments are offered. Keep in mind that some students are better at verbalizing their feelings than writing them and that not all evaluation forms can provide you with this valuable information.

Never forget why you decided to take the oath as an instructor. As the old adage goes, “You cannot build a reputation on what you are going to do.” When your catch phrase becomes, “Son, I’ve forgotten more than you’ll ever learn,” it is well past the time for you to recall those very things that qualified you to make that statement. Would you want to be the instructor who hears a firefighter’s ghost return and say that your training let him down? When we get it right in the classroom, we get it right at the end of the nozzle, and that is a reflection on all of us.

BILL HOPSON, a 24-year member of the fire service, has been an instructor since 1982. A New Jersey Level II certified instructor, he teaches for the New Jersey Division of Fire Safety and Rutgers University.

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