VOLUNTEERS CORNER: ENTERTAINING INSTRUCTION
BY LUKE STEELE

Published in Fire Engineering Magazine, July 2003.
Reprinted with Permission

I sometimes rag on (with concealed envy) my friends who teach for career departments. Just think: a room full of bright, young faces eager to soak up the pearls of wisdom that you’re about to bestow upon them. Even if you’re not part evangelist you’ve got a rapt audience. They’ve worked hard to clear the mental and physical screenings to get to this point, they’re getting paid to be here, and if you miss something they’ll be putting in the study time outside of class to make sure it doesn’t matter. They’re also not going to complain about your style, since you made sure they understood at the onset that you’re a shift Captain first and an Instructor second, and if they’re REALLY good, they might wind up working for you. So you’re not going to get nailed if you say something incorrect, and they’re not going to tell the Chief after you’re gone that they had more fun getting a vasectomy than they did listening to you. If by chance they do start whining, well it’s "Survival Drill" time.

When you teach outside of this environment it can be a little tougher. In order to teach, you need to get invited back. This requires more than the thorough knowledge of the subject that is the trademark of a good Instructor. You also need a professional and complete presentation of the material and the ability to communicate that message to your pupils without putting them to sleep. The best (and most popular) Instructors also have the ability to "fit in" wherever they go and seem to always figure out a way to make people laugh. One of my favorite teachers was an older Captain from a nearby career department. He couldn’t have taken the same Instructor Methodology class I took, since he’d show up for class at our Volunteer department in surgical greens (non-professional attire), chew tobacco while teaching (never use tobacco in front of your class), and waste no time in stretching your neck when you ignored his advice (pick a number). Get him excited or mad enough and he’d even start stuttering. However, even the dumbest guy in the room figured out in the first ten minutes that not only was this class going to make him a lot smarter, he was going to enjoy every minute of it. This pro was always turning down offers even when there was a surplus of people qualified to teach the subject.

The other side of the coin was another career officer who taught years ago. He chose his words carefully, averaging 10-20 a minute. There was always a cigarette present, either being smoked or painstakingly shredded as eye contact with the class was carefully avoided. The only things gained from his classes were "training hours" that looked good on a transcript but contributed nothing toward making better or safer firefighters. When standardized tests were implemented (like I said, years ago) he disappeared as an instructor.

Anyone who’s been in this business long knows that there is two types of training. There’s "transcript" training, where the primary objective is to generate training hours to satisfy state requirements. The class emphasis is on the material needed to pass any required tests, and the instructor’s job is to make sure that no one is mad when the class is over.

Serious Instructors do serious training. They’re hard on their students and they cover the material, all of the material in as much depth as possible. The students who listened will pass with no problem, and the serious instructor will offer remedial help to those who did not listen in the hope that they’ll see the light. NEWS FLASH, guys and gals: If one of your PPE students goes out a week after "acing" the test and gets burned because he didn’t know how to properly don his gear, it’s your fault! And if you don’t believe that he can find a good personal injury lawyer to explain in loving detail about how it’s your fault and not his, you must not follow the news.

Right or wrong, a lot of departments don’t put the emphasis on training that we as Instructors think they should. It’s not uncommon to cancel a class because you don’t have enough students to justify the expense to whoever pays the bills. Complicating matters is the sad fact that some Chiefs don’t seem to have a problem if only half of the people that started the course are there when the class ends, so if you can’t keep their attention you’ll lose them. Finally, the students won’t hesitate to tell the Training Officer and Chief what they thought of your efforts. It’s not enough to know your subject: you also have to make it interesting. If you can’t, your opportunities to instruct in that venue are going to be limited.

"Making it Interesting" pays other benefits. You don’t have to beat people back into class after breaks. You’re not constantly trying to silence the class clowns. You avoid the pointed questions from people who realize (now that the test is in front of them) that they don’t have a prayer. But the most tangible benefit is that you can go home at night believing that you made a difference in someone’s ability to perform a dangerous job or to survive when survival depends on making the single correct decision out of three or four options. Humans in peril act on instinct and the only way to change instincts is with training. A good instructor whose hammers the lessons deep is much more valuable than the finest turnout gear and the latest advances in gadgetry.

So how do you become the kind of Instructor that people ask for by name, the guy that when the Training Officer says "let’s do...", the department personnel say "Can we get..?". There are many routes, but they mostly boil down to knowledge, relevance, and excitement. The knowledge part is the easiest. You have to know the subject matter!. Go ahead, roll your eyes and think about something else obvious I could tell you. Then put a little thought into that sentence: do you really know the subject? Are you getting ready to go to a rural department to teach them how to shuttle water when your whole district is hydrant served? The guys in Podunk may not be able to tell you the friction loss on 200’ feet of 1-3/4" line at a 150gpm flow, but they can probably teach you a thing or three about dirt roads, septic tanks, and pond banks. Stand up there and confidently explain how easy it’s going to be to surpass the ISO requirements for water flow and watch the old guys start making faces. After the break, they’ll be in the lounge watching WWF and you’ll be wondering if you’re going to have enough people to man the trucks for your ingenious and unworkable master plan.

If you’re still determined to teach this class, you need to do some homework. Water shuttle sounds simple and logical, but the devil is in the details. If you can’t iron them out before class, get them while you’re there. Start off the lecture with "I expect to learn as much in this class as anyone here, and I’d like to start by finding out what problems you’ve had keeping water flowing smoothly in shuttle operations". Help them find their own solutions, take good notes, and the next time you teach the subject you’ll be on top of the material.

Getting the class involved is where relevance comes in. The best way to get people onboard with you is to present scenarios that they can easily see happening to them. If you’re teaching, say Auto Extrication, ask them what ugly wrecks they’ve had recently. Take the time to get several points of view about what went right, what went wrong, and what they wish they had tried. Then, set up an exercise that matches the "real life gone bad" incident. The "what-if-we-had-done-this" guys will queue up against the "it-would-not-have-worked" team. You become the referee and moderator, and everyone on the training ground carries home knowledge that will come in handy on a future incident.

Along the way, you have to get the class excited about your material and your presentation. Keep in mind that these are Firefighters: if they wanted to sit in a chair all day long and stare at a screen they would have become computer programmers. The best way to get firefighters excited about a class is to let them set something up or tear something down. They will tolerate lectures as a means to an end, i.e. they’ll let you talk about wall breaching as long as you hand them a halligan and point them at some sheetrock when you’re done talking. The best Building Construction class you can teach will spend a chunk of time in an old house with an ax and Pike Pole and another chunk taking apart floor trusses. Show up with a 140-slide PowerPoint presentation and a monotone and pretty soon they’re be counting the ceiling tiles or snoring.

So is this the surefire route to becoming the next (your favorite Instructor here)? Hardly. Some Instructors elevate teaching to an art form, prompting people to drive a long way to listen and learn. Some of it is reputation: this person has proven beyond the shadow of doubt that they can do the job when most people can’t. Some of it is presence: it’s obvious that this guy has a message that you want to hear. But in the end, it’s the presentation: a thorough knowledge of the subject, the experience to validate the opinions, and a sometimes self-deprecating sense of humor that makes him or her human and keeps the class participants leaning forward waiting for the next line. Just like Water Shuttle, the devil is in the details.