Notice the title is not “How to be a good fire instructor.” There is a distinct difference and the definition of “good” is relative anyway. You may be thinking that as an instructor, you have already taken all the classes and have become a subject matter expert, but have you really?
Let me be clear on something first and foremost; for those of you who believe that because you have achieved a certification in a particular discipline (i.e. technical rescue, hazmat, EMS, etc…) that means you have nothing to prove to anyone, and because you are certified that makes you qualified… nothing could be further from the truth. Being certified simply means that you have met and been tested on the minimum standards to attain that certification. That does NOT make you a subject matter expert. What makes you an expert in that field is dedication, training, and knowledge over and above what is the accepted norm.
Having said all of that, I have heard the arguments that you can be extremely knowledgeable about a subject and not be certified. My opinion on this matter is that if you want to be taken seriously by your peers, get the certification to back that knowledge up. I have personally been on both sides of this coin in my career, and I finally realized that I needed to put up, or shut up. Moving on…
To be an effective fire instructor, you MUST have the following traits and characteristics (among others) :
I remember sitting in classes as a very young and inexperienced volunteer and assessing the instructor as he made his introductions and pleasantries. I would look around the room at the (what I considered to be, at the time) old guys with the classic fireman mustache and gray hair and watch how they would struggle to relate to the younger, hard charging kid that looked like he had just graduated rookie school the month before. I took many classes where this exact same scenario played out month after month. I started to question how the local fire service had gotten to the point where the “kids were teaching the adults”. The funny thing was, that I was only a few years younger than the instructor. My own perception of what an experienced fireman was is what skewed the impression in my mind. Now, if you think back to the classes that you have taken in your career, you’ll recall classes that were better than others, and had instructors that were better than others. There’s a good chance that you have met some amazing teachers that were “old and salty” and some that were “young bucks”.
To clarify this point, I am not saying that you have to have 25 years on the job in order to be a good instructor. A person in a busy department or company with only 3-5 years can be just as effective as a person with 25-30 years in a rural community where call volumes are much lower. I am also not just referring to how many calls you have run, or how many classes you have taken. It is a balance of all of these. If you happen to be in a department that does not run many calls, and is a very young department, I encourage you to utilize the passion and dedication of people who want to better the department and themselves.
You have to be dedicated to the task at hand. You must, therefore, be a good student. It cannot be overstated enough. It is essential that you have the basic knowledge of theory and the skills to demonstrate to your students, but also learn about the new techniques and technology that is changing on a day-to- day basis. Have you ever taken a class where the instructor claims to be a guru in his field, but is teaching techniques that are over 20 years old and outdated? Dedication also means that you are accessible to your students, even after class has ended.
The original saying is “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” A more recent FaceBook meme shows a photo of a horse with the caption “You can lead a human to knowledge, but you can’t make it think.” I have personally shown this in classes to kick it off. It helps to lighten the mood just a bit, but also drives the point home…that you will not just breeze through one of my classes without being challenged, and then expect to get a certificate out of it.
You must find a way to motivate your students. This means that you show up and can show them how passionate you are about the job. You cannot teach people everything that there is to know. But you can give them a strong foundation when you teach the classroom theory, and then the basic skills required to do that job. You have properly motivated someone, if when after they have left your class they continue to learn, to drill and train, and to develop.
4. Approachable Personality:
Let’s face it… Some of us come across as military drill instructors, either from past experience or from the projected idea that this is how it is done. It is important to let the students know that you are approachable, and that you care about their development and absorbing as much of the course content as possible. Whether they are paying for your course, or they were assigned to your course, you must treat them as the internal customers that they are. That being said, that does not mean that you go soft on them, or they get the certification just because they may have paid to be there. That degrades our craft, and is outright dangerous for all parties involved. Look for an article from me on this topic in the future.
5. Desire to be an instructor:
This applies especially to those who are seeking that full time role. It is one thing to be an “in-house” instructor, where you are still assigned to operations and running calls. It is an entirely different animal to make the transition to a full time training position. Trust me on this. The work schedule changes, the job responsibility changes, and there is less of the camaraderie and adrenaline than you have in the station. You have to WANT to be the very best that you can be. This applies to either type of instructing. You will never take a class again, if you keep finding bad instructors who act as if they do not want to be there.
6. Ability to Adapt:
This includes learning all you can about the subject that you are teaching, but also means finding ways to relate the material to your students in ways other than what the book says. You had better know how to think on your feet. I have known some amazing firemen in my career, but some just cannot teach what they know how to do. Not everyone is brought up the same way, and we all learn differently. Just because you were taught a specific way, does not mean that you are successful in delivering it the same way.
7. Reinforce the idea that training is where we make the mistakes:
It is said that some people do not like to train because it will show everyone how much they do NOT know. Mistakes on the training field or in the classroom are where we can take these and use them for learning and comprehension. It is the basic principle of Cause and Effect. Of course, we must monitor these to ensure that safety in training is always of the utmost importance. The real world is an unforgiving place, and even when we do everything right, sometimes things go badly. It is crucial to drive home the message of the VALUE of making mistakes in training. I have made many mistakes in my career, and will continue to do so. I just do not repeat the same mistake twice.
8. Do not BS:
Seriously, when a student asks you a question that you do not have the answer to (Trust me on this…it happens) do not make it up if you are not completely sure. This is one of the fastest ways to lose all credibility with your students. This can take you from a perceived subject matter expert to a complete fraud in a matter of seconds, in the eyes of your students. If you do not know, you can tell them that. But reinforce it with telling them that you will find out what the correct answer is. WARNING: Follow through is critical here! Do not just tell them that to blow them off or buy time. There are some who may criticize you for not having all of the answers as an instructor. I do not believe that anyone knows everything. Research the right answer, and then pass it along in the manner you deem appropriate.
Regarding hands on skills abilities…you had better be able to perform. There are several old sayings that would be appropriate here, but “Practice what you preach” is probably the most relevant. If you are teaching a ropes and knots class and cannot tie a bowline knot, then there is a problem.
Above all, be a good student. Try to place yourself in a student’s position before you teach a class. Know what you would want to get from it, how you would want the instructor to interact with you, and how relevant the material is going to be. Find ways to inspire and motivate students to continue learning after they have left your class. After all, we are all brothers and should continue sharing knowledge and experience with each other to help us operate as effectively as we can.
9. Know how to deal with classroom distractions, and don’t become one in your own class.
I took a class a few years ago where one instructor started the class. On day three, after all of us had acclimated to the instructors teaching style, and our surroundings, a guy opens up the door in the middle of the lecture, and strolls in wearing a hula shirt, cut off cargo shorts, and flip flops. Needless to say, we were all pretty shocked that someone would just interrupt an ongoing class that way. We were informed that this would be our stand-in instructor for the next few days, due to a family situation. The next day, that new instructor showed up in professional attire, but now we all needed to adapt to his teaching style, compared to the previous guy. And to say that they were different is an understatement. One instructor would read E-V-E-R-Y, S-I-N-G-L-E, W-O-R-D (making those 160 slide presentations really painful), while his colleague would interject a (somehow relevant) story about a scenario from 1982 after every slide (also making a 160 slide presentation very painful).
Knowing how to deal with distractions from your students, without in turn becoming one as well is a craft all of its own. If you have a student who is actively disrupting the class, and you call them out on it every 30 seconds, but don’t remove them from the learning environment, then you are creating as big of a distraction as the “attitude problem”. And yes, this includes the Know-it-all attitude in your class when they want to hijack your class. Find a way to deal with it, without punishing those who actually came to learn. Sometimes a bit of validation goes a long way with this type, or sometimes you may have to take a class break, and have a word with them, that it cannot continue.
10. Get out of the PowerPoint slides.
Firefighters don’t learn by PowerPoint. They learn by actually doing. But if the slide presentations are kept to a minimum, are relevant, and don’t try to teach an audience all they will ever need to know about the theory of swinging an axe, then I’m not opposed to them. But, KNOW your presentation. Put good info, or illustrations up on the screen, but get the class to focus on you. They will get a lot more out of the class, and you will be surprised at how much of a connection you can make. If you’re the person who never looks up from your Instructor Guide book, or you teach by reading the screen out loud with your back turned on the class, then it’s time to brush up on some solid instructional techniques. That presentation is not intended to be read word for word. Otherwise, we could just email that presentation to people, do a completion record, and that’s all she wrote. People attend classes to have an interactive experience. Many times, students can learn as much from each other, as they can from the lead instructor. That is something that is unique for attending classes, as opposed to online training or PowerPoints.
11. Are you ready?
How many years on the job do you need to have? How many fires under your belt? How many??? The answer is not simple. Yes, experience does, in many cases, demonstrate credibility. But it’s only the perception of credibility. My advice to someone who wants to teach, is to approach your appropriate officer about it. Start small. Teach an in-service session on a topic that you know well, and are passionate about. From there, move into more in-depth training that lasts a full day, but not multiple days. If you survive this experience, and you get positive feedback from your students and peers, then you’re probably ready for a multiple day class. Like anything else, it’s all about the progression of things. Go too fast too soon, and you may have a less than ideal experience which can lead you to never wanting to do it again. And learn how to take constructive criticism about how to improve your delivery techniques.
Being an effective fire instructor, in my opinion, is one of the best ways to be sure to leave the fire service better than we found it. But only if you’re dedicated to that ideal completely.