By Rick Markley
Berrien County, Michigan recently hosted an invitation-only educational symposium for fire service instructors. And while the topics were not geared specifically for hazmat instruction, many of the key lessons have carryover to hazmat training.
Joe Knitter is a retired fire chief from Wisconsin who has nearly two decades of teaching fire service courses at the college level under his belt. Hazmat instructors — in fact, all instructors — will be more effective teachers if they follow these five rules. Because, he said in his presentation at the symposium, if students are not learning, you are not teaching.
ONE: Be Prepared
This is as simple as starting and ending class on time to getting there soon enough to ensure all the technology you will use works as it should. Deeper than that, it means having a solid plan for what you are teaching. And if it is within your power, have a plan for the overall training program. Part of preparation is that it is only as good as its implantation; instructors have to execute on the plan.
It means anticipating student questions and having answers at the ready. However, being prepared isn’t knowing everything. If you don’t know, say so; trying to bamboozle your way through an answer will only damage your credibility as an instructor. In short, don’t bluff or lie.
TWO: Set High Expectations
Set the class up for success. Nothing, he says, will more quickly torpedo good training than will unachievable goals. Be sure to have a way to measure for success. That can be done with testing both classroom materials and hands-on skills. Also, try to go beyond that and look for successful application of what was taught in the field. Be prepared to account for the accidental successes and know the difference between that and a purposeful success.
THREE: Remember, Teaching is a Privilege
This is largely about instructor humility and being thankful for the opportunity to teach. Leave ego at the door. This means knowing your own limitations as an instructor and a person, as well as those of the students. Getting to this level of self-awareness requires a deep-dive self-assessment that is ongoing, he says. That assessment should lead to knowing where to improve on the instructor’s weaknesses and knowing what things should simply be dropped from the training. It also comes down to approaching instruction with a high degree of respect for the students.
FOUR: Never Stop Learning
This includes some directly related subsets like having passion and teaching beyond the PowerPoint slides. The instructor needs to be lifelong students of the fire service. This gives you the flexibility to teach the significance of past incidents in the context of modern threats.
The ABCs of being a top-flight instructor are: Acceptance, Buy-in and Credibility. The lifelong learner gains acceptance through student trust. Buy-in comes from the students wanting to learn the material. And credibility is built on acceptance, buy-in and competence. All of these require continuous learning.
An instructor who is always learning demonstrates passion and is able to teach beyond what is typed on a slide. That, in part, is how you establish those ABCs.
FIVE: Be Clear, Be Professional
You would think communicating would come naturally, that it is easy. Yet doing it effectively is far from easy. There are racks of books and numerous college degree programs dedicated to improving communication. Effective communication is key for instructors to establish acceptance and trust, which are precursors to credibility.
Be sure your verbal delivery shows your passion for the topic. One method for building a more dynamic speaking style is embracing the use of longer, purposeful pauses, he says. Don’t get stuck hiding behind a podium or staring down at notes. Move around the room and use your gaze to sweep the audience to make eye contact with the students.
Communicating professionalism goes beyond a few performance tips, however. One common pitfall is bad-mouthing or discrediting the materials an instructor is about to teach. Likewise, don’t engage in reputation-damaging things outside the classroom or training ground — such as uncouth or embarrassing social media posts.
Another key component of effective training communication is to diligently document all the training that occurred. This documentation needs to be professional, concise, well organized and accessible. It is also important to evaluate every training session. Negative feedback about an instructor or training session can be a hard pill to swallow. But, encouraging and embracing honest feedback will help the instructor improve both the content and its delivery, which ultimately improves student learning.
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