INSTRUCTING THE INSTRUCTOR: STAYING EXCITED ABOUT FIRE SERVICE INSTRUCTION
BY JOHN C. LEWIS, Ed.D.
Captain Ryers was the very best. Everybody who went through the academy was influenced by him in some way–whether it was the way he had everyone ready to take on the drill tower even when it was just for a ladder exercise or some other characteristic. He just had a way with his students. They listened to what he said, watched when he showed them “the real way you do this,” and sat eager to hear his stories from the field. He was the instructor the commissioner brought visitors in to see; he was just that good.
Gradually, though, over a period of months, Ryers` classes began to become “a drag.” He seemed to be endlessly critical of the “type of probies we get today–not to mention those bums out there who come up here just because the chief orders them to.” He stopped talking about his days in the field. He showed tape after tape and then took out his old notes and droned on. Often, he let the classes go early because “they were not learning anything anyway.” Even the academy cat got up and walked out of his classroom!
WHAT IS THE REAL PROBLEM?
Looking at the captain`s record, we could suggest that it was simply time to move him on to some other assignment-maybe send him back to the field, where he could charge up. True, that just might work. It may be all he needs. But, maybe, it might be that Ryers simply lost his motivation to teach. It just doesn`t have what it used to for him, and he is simply going through the motions. Everyone is losing. If we send him back to the field for “refreshing” and that alone doesn`t work, then we have just lost one of our best instructors and witnessed the death of a legend!
Ryers` case is not all that unusual in fire service classrooms across the country. All too often, instructors lose their “spunk”; provide students with just enough to get by; and hour by hour kill interest, student inquiry, and excitement about the job. If this situation is left to itself, the instructional program will suffer, and the students just will not learn. They essentially are being held hostage to burnout, burn-up, and burnt toast.
POTENTIAL CAUSES OF INSTRUCTOR DETERIORATION
How do we solve this all-too-frequent problem of instructor deterioration and destruction? Recognizing the fundamental premise that “the very nature of field performance lies at the root of instruction,” we cannot simply ignore problems with instruction at our fire schools. One of my former supervisors–a deputy commissioner–was often heard to say, “We play the way we practice.” He didn`t realize it, but he was presenting a mini-lecture on the importance of outstanding instruction as the basis for our often spectacular ability to do our job!
Teaching, though, presents a whole slew of demands from the system and the students who sit in front of countless instructors every day. We often hurry to prepare something to do with them, or we simply mouth the prepared outline over and over with each group. We don`t always insist on quality, and we don`t check up to make certain that they really learn the stuff.
Another set of problems involves the frequently cited “information explosion.” There are new information, new equipment, new hazards, and new dangers. The field has diversified (there are other words to use, but “diversify” will send the message). We have EMS, haz-mat, NBC, RIT … the list goes on. To add to the problem, we are often asked to train the whole department but not to take too much time doing it! Go figure.
Then, the students get into the act, as well. They have a wide range of abilities-from just being with us to near rocket scientists–all with different expectations. There are auditory and visual learners, those who love to get their “hands on,” and those who just can`t get enough of this stuff. There are also those who want this whole training thing to end so they can get back to the station and resume life as usual.
Outside, society sets up a whole new set of expectations. It uses computers, video, the Internet; some of our brightest new candidates are right out of schools where all of these high-tech features are everyday occurrences. The fire service instructor lies at their mercy.
SOME SUGGESTED SOLUTIONS
So, how do we stay afloat? How do we get Ryers and hundreds like him to look forward to going into his classroom every day ready to knock them out of their seats? A set of basic principles can be applied to accomplish this task. None of the principles alone will solve the problem, but when taken as a package, these suggestions have proved in many instances to add the extra spice that may reverse a downward spiral toward mediocrity and ultimate disconnection from the teaching process.
Principle One: Never stop believing that the most important influence in a firefighter`s performance is the teacher.
If we, indeed, play the way we practice, then instruction and the way the instruction is delivered are critical to our performance on the job. One of the problems even experienced instructors face is a steadily decreasing self-image. “I`m just an instructor,” said one veteran teacher not very long ago. We need to rework that statement so that it goes this way: “I am the most important person with whom the firefighters work every day; I set the standard for how they do their job.” Now, that statement alone may not solve all the motivation problems, but it sure goes a long way in correcting a “me last” self-view.
Principle Two. Apply the four-step
The program is simple to remember, but it takes a bit more than casual attention to make it work. However, when instructors get down to the five basics of the program, they are destined to want more from themselves and their students. Here is the U-REV program in a nutshell:
1. Update skills. Reverse roles, and become a student in somebody`s class. All of us can pick up something from others (even if it is reinforcement of what we know doesn`t work). Optimistically, though, we usually learn both new content and new approaches and really enjoy the update process. One instructor recently returned from attending a basic firefighting class in another state. While he was quick to reassure everyone that he knew all the content, he picked up lots of new ideas to use back home. “Those folks aren`t any different from the ones we get up here; we can do that stuff.” The temporary transplant was beginning to take.
2. Read. None of us can go to all the conferences and meetings to which we are invited. The way around that limitation is to read, read, read–and then read some more. Journals, newsletters, Internet pages, flyers, vendor advertising–all work as personal tutors for the instructor. Here again, we can learn both content and method–and maybe learn about some new materials to use as well! It is a self-paced and unlimited activity. One inexpensive and ever-growing way to learn about new equipment and technology is to make frequent and abundant use of the Reader Service Card found in nearly every trade journal or educational magazine. If the academy doesn`t get any educational journals, a quick visit to a local college or university`s education department will supply the inquiring instructor with sample issues and blank response cards. Simply fill out the card with your name and the words “faculty, ______fire school,” circle a few corresponding numbers, and sit back and watch the mail flow into your mailbox as if it were being delivered through a five-inch line. This mechanism provides a virtually free method of learning about new products and services available to instructors.
3. Experiment. Armed with some new ideas, the instructors must try them in class. Move boldly into a way of doing or presenting something, or use a new techno-aid with enthusiasm. What might work for Lieutenant Rothwell might not work for Captain Ryers, but you won`t know what will work for you until you try it. Now, don`t waste time getting to the fourth step.
Percentages in the pie vary for each instructor as they rev up their skills. Some may have to update more and read less, but for the process to work, some percentage of each element must exist.
4.Verify and practice. This step is key. Find out if the students have a better handle on positive-pressure ventilation or the hydraulic principles of delivering water with a large-diameter hose. Right after the experiment phase, it`s time to find out. Maybe, the test scores or practice anecdotes from the last class will provide a control group for comparison–did the experiment improve performance? If so, progress! If students` performance is not that spectacular, don`t give up right away. One more go-around will help in the verification process. If the results are still not satisfactory, chalk it up to experience, and go back to any of the previous three steps! U-REV!
Principle Three: Find the funny bone.
A philosopher once advised, “Don`t take life too seriously; you will never get out of it alive!” Good advice, especially in the classroom. While none of us condones clowning around at the expense of accomplishing objectives, almost everyone enjoys a chuckle or even a good laugh during the learning process. At least a light touch of humor helps the learner to absorb tedious and complicated content. The most serious of topics can be dealt with in a manner that stimulates interest in and interaction with learners. Humor, appropriately applied to any topic, can enhance learning. Of course, not everyone can evoke laughter; in fact, instructors who have difficulty in this area should not consciously try to be funny. They can “lighten up,” however, by using techniques such as using humorous names such as “kinkchaser” or “Harry Hoseman” when relating a war story, just to get started. Most instructors have seen this technique applied and can adapt it to their own style. Lighten up–it will motivate you first and then the class!
Principle Four: Tell war stories.
Most instructors at sometime in their training have been told to avoid telling stories. That`s bad advice. When properly used, stories about real incidents perform two functions for the instructor. First, anecdotes allow the students to relate with the instructor`s experience; they show that the instructor has been out there and knows how things go. If a teacher has been there and done it, the truth should be known.
Second, the story bridges theory into practice. Often, we get so caught up in the procedure manuals that we forget the incidents that led to the development of the procedures in the first place. An incident involving a prison riot and the subsequent development of an operational procedure comes to my mind as a prime example. Students wanted to hear what it was like to operate with prisoners and guards during an extremely stressful scenario–telling about it got the brain juices functioning and the question buttons activated.
Instructors may want to set up a file for quick notes about incidents that illustrate some facet of the lesson involved. It is surprising how much of real life can be called into the classroom as a valuable aid. For those who have been warned about stories–yes, there probably was a grain of truth in the warning, but the right warning is to add the words, too many, to any kind of caution. Overuse of stories can be harmful, but the same can be said for overuse of any technique, so go ahead and pick some good street examples and use them to best advantage.
Principle Five: Set up a personal feedback system (PFS).
The personal feedback system (PFS) is a sure-fire way of monitoring effectiveness and the way students perceive instructors. Gather your courage and assemble fellow instructors, one or two students, maybe even family or friends, and get them to see you teach and let you know how your teaching style affected them. Let the students know that visitors will come to class and that it will be business as usual while they are present. Chat with visitors before the class session, and coach them on the areas you would like them to comment on when you sit down over coffee after class. Ask them to listen to your voice and look at your appearance, posture, gestures, and facial expressions. Get them to jot down what they thought your major learning objectives were for the class during the session. Then, ask them to offer any other comments they think should be shared.
During the post-class conversation, listen carefully. Try not to be defensive. Listen. Listen. Listen. Then, listen some more. After your “jury” has left, evaluate what they said and see if you agree. You might not, and that may be all right. If, however, you hear the same themes repeated, they are probably not hallucinating. Insight from outsight is valuable and can make you work toward your U-REV total package. Good self-criticism is great motivation.
GETTING BACK THE GROOVE
Trying out all of these suggestions as one package may lead to a plan that might help Ryers find his groove again. He may find that just practicing one suggestion has increased his motivation to return to the classroom every day with a healthy respect for the process. The U-REV scheme may be difficult to follow on a regular basis, but applying it once in a while certainly will not hurt. We have all sat though endless hours of instruction that we might gladly exchange for root canal therapy. Motivated instructors motivate learners. There is no doubt about that. Is that in itself challenging? Yes, by all means. Is it rewarding? You be the judge! n
n JOHN C. LEWIS, Ed.D., is chief, Second Alarmers Association and Rescue Squad of Philadelphia.