Lessons Learned as a Professional Instructor
I have spent the better part of the last nine years as a professional, full-time instructor. I'm not a "presenter," "speaker," or “lecturer” - I am a (capital “I”) Instructor and I take great pride in my craft. People walk away from my classes with quantifiable skills. I'm not an expert on many of my interest areas, but professional instruction is a topic on which I consider myself extremely well versed. Today I'm going to share some generalities and observations I've picked up over the years. Before I do that, I'm going to talk about my experience. I don’t want to belabor the point, but I do feel it is relevant to the topic at hand.
My Experience as an Instructor
In early 2010 I was hired as a full-time equivalent instructor for a US military special operations school. Though I had previously done some informal instructing and had been a Marine Corps Martial Arts instructor, this was my first real job as an instructor. It exposed me to an incredibly diverse array of training situations. It also exposed me to a huge array of students and other instructors. Perhaps least importantly, it sent me to a formal instructor course. I can't overstate how much I learned on that job. My instructional experience consisted of large amounts of platform (formal) instruction on a variety of technical and non-technical/tactical topics, many of which I wrote the curriculum for. I also spent a not-insignificant time mentoring, observing, and grading student teams on various field exercises, ranging from "greenside" patrolling and small unit tactics to civvies/hotels/rental car-type exercises. Class sizes in this environment ranged from 10 students to over 100.
Since leaving that job almost five years later, I have been a (mostly) full time instructor. I have accepted some other contracting gigs here and there, but the lion's share of my work has been as a trainer. The majority of my clientele has come from the special operations community. I have taught (and continue to teach) Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and Special Forces soldiers, Marine Raiders, and special operations enablers. I have occasionally taught federal law enforcement officers/agents from the US Marshals Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement/Department of Homeland Security. I have also taught conventional military units and some commercial clients but this is a very small percentage of my overall work. Most of my classes during this time frame have been under 25 students, but not always.
Most of my material is fairly technical and nearly all of it is in a classroom environment. Most of my courses are a 3, 4, or 5-day format, and most of my students are incredibly motivated to learn. I know that only some of this is typical (especially in the firearms training industry) but still, I believe the "lessons learned" below to be fairly universal. I have learned many of these the hard way - by having a less-than-spectacular experience. Rather than say, "well, that sucked" or "I'm not cut out for this" I learned from these mistakes and I got better. Though a few of these lessons can only truly be gained through experience, I hope I can save you a little bit of trouble.
My work has taken me from coast to coast. I have worked on Army, Marine, Navy, and Air Force bases. I have taught in hotel conference rooms, auditoriums, a WWII-era hut on the beach at Coronado Island, in leased civilian training facilities, college campuses, and highly secure government facilities. I have taught at locations of my choosing and (sometimes grudgingly) of my customer's choosing. I've learned a few things along the way in regards to selecting and coordinating training locations.
First, DON'T ASSUME ANYTHING! Don't assume your training location will have basic amenities. . . like tables and chairs. Don't assume there is Wi-Fi, or an A/V system, or a podium. If you have a point-of-contact or training coordinator and you're traveling to the location, don't assume they know what you need. Sure, it seems obvious to you that your firearms class needs a range or your digital security class needs internet. It's probably obvious to them, too, but they assume you know what the hell you're doing and that you're going to let them know if you need something. Don't fall into the trap of assuming because it's "obvious."
Next, RECCE YOUR TRAINING LOCATION! The first time you see your training location shouldn't be five minutes before your students see it. You may have control over your interaction with students, excellent command of your content and your teaching style, but unless you own your training facility, you have no control over it. Ever heard the old saying, "if you want something done right..."? Yeah, that applies here. Go to your location. Hassle to manager to let you in if you have to. Ensure it supports what you're doing, supports your class size, and is set up the way you want it. Of course this also means you have to plan your travel to arrive in time to do this. Again, don't assume that "any classroom will work" or "any range will be fine." It will, until you find the one that isn't, and then your students suffer because of it.
Finally, TEST EVERYTHING! And I mean test it in the way you will use it, with the equipment you will use. This closely relates the previous advice, of "don't assume anything." Just because the projector works with the computer that's sitting there doesn't mean it will work with your computer. Sure, it should be fine, just like it was on your last ten classes, but if you're good with "should be fine" you're probably in the wrong line of work. Leave nothing critical to chance; test everything that is essential to the execution of your class.
I have a lot of thoughts on setting up a classroom, too. I've sat in a lot of classes where everything looked like it was slapped together/thrown on the desk five minutes before I walked in. Usually, this is a pretty good gauge of how the class is going to go down. Here's my advice:
CLEAN YOUR CLASSROOM. Yeah, it sucks to walk into a dirty training facility the night before class and realize that no janitor is going to magically appear and save you. I've definitely been in that situation a couple of times. It doesn't matter that the facility doesn't belong to you - a dirty classroom is going to be distracting to your students and look unprofessional. It doesn’t have to be fancy or perfect, but you can, and should, make it clean. If you're doing everything else right, your students will overlook it, but this is a hurdle you're going to have to overcome right away. In some cases I've been invited to teach at client classrooms that were dirty or cluttered (including, unbelievably, military classrooms). I spent a few minutes sweeping, wiping down desk tops, and tidying up because ultimately MY NAME is on the training. Most students will put the responsibility for every aspect of the training on you. Own it.
MAKE THE CLASSROOM LOOK UNIFORM. Okay, I admit it, this one might get me called "institutionalized" and it is something I took from the military. If your course has student handouts, books, give-away doo-dads like pens, flash drives, t-shirts...whatever, and you're putting them on the desks before students arrive, neatness counts. I get a little obsessive about this, but I believe it pays off. If I'm providing computers for my students, each one will be exactly the same distance from the edge of the desk. They will be the same distance apart. All handouts will be arranged EXACTLY the same, down to pointing the pens in the same direction. If my classroom has height-adjustable chairs, they will all be the same height, and pushed into the same distance. There will be no doubt that my classroom was set up by a professional, and it certainly won’t look like someone dumped a pile of junk on each desk. It's doubtful that your students will really notice this on a conscious level. Unconsciously they almost certainly will, and it sets the tone from day one, minute one.
This is the most important item in this entire post. Students can overlook a lot if you are an expert on your content and good at presenting it.
KNOW YOUR CONTENT INSIDE AND OUT, backwards and forwards. You should know it by heart. You should know exactly what comes next, and how to set yourself up for it. Your PowerPoint (if you use it) should do two things, and only two things:
Remind you of your talking points, and
Present graphics and images that you can't present verbally.
If you are teaching a technical topic, be 100% accurate in your facts; no hyperbole, no guessing - KNOW them. If you're teaching a tactical topic, know the pros and cons, indications and contraindications of everything you teach. Know what to do when demonstrations don't quite work out, and be competent enough to recognize why they didn't. Knowing your subject matter will make you confident. Being confident will make you a better instructor.
The easiest way to intimately know your content is to ABSOLUTELY LOVE WHAT YOU TEACH. If you love it, you'll put in the extra hours. You'll do your own research. You'll invest your own time getting better. Your passion will come through in your classes. If you're reading all your content off of a PowerPoint slide, you probably don't love what you teach. And if you're teaching something you don't love, you should seriously reconsider your profession.
NEVER TEACH AT THE OUTSIDE EDGE OF YOUR KNOWLEDGE. I have long said that you should know your content "two layers deeper" than what you are presenting. If you're teaching at the outer edge of your knowledge you're setting yourself up for failure. You don't fully understand what you're teaching, you're unprepared for questions, and if something goes wrong you will have a hard time recovering. Conversely I think teaching something you're unfamiliar with is a great way to learn it. However, if students are paying for the class you should be paired with someone that knows the content to the appropriate level. He or she can provide context, step up when you stumble, and make sure students get their time and money's worth.
NEVER B.S. A STUDENT. If you don't know the answer to something, say so. There's little worse than an instructor trying to make up an answer on the fly. First, you won’t be confident in the answer and that is going to be apparent. Secondly, someone in that room will know the answer and think you are either lying or stupid. Once you've lost credibility there's no getting it back. If you don't know the answer, don't be afraid to say, "I don't know, but I'll find out and get back to you." Get comfortable with admitting you don’t know everything.
Better yet, ANTICIPATE THE QUESTIONS STUDENTS WILL ASK and familiarize yourself with the answers ahead of time. A great way to do this is to do what I recommend in the next bullet: rehearse your material in front of someone else before going live.
REHEARSE, REHEARSE, REHEARSE. Don't memorize, but rehearse. The first formal class I ever taught was a disaster. I was in a total flop sweat. It was choppy. The reviews were pretty abysmal, and deservedly so. You know why? Because I looked over the material and thought, "I know this stuff inside and out!" And I did. However, knowing a subject and teaching a subject are two vastly different animals. I vowed to never let that happen again. Before the next class I taught, I spent the weekend going teaching it to my living room furniture (and a very confused, but attentive dog). That Monday I grabbed a couple buddies and taught it to them. The military stresses rehearsals - rehearsing inserts and extracts, actions on the objective, immediate action drills - because rehearsal works!
Rehearsing a class will smooth out rough edges. It will get you more familiar with your content. It will help you identify weak spots in your knowledge and things that are difficult to explain. Rehearsals will make you more confident. If you teach for long enough you will reach a point that rehearsals become unnecessary. You will become intimately familiar with your content, the flow of your class, and what's coming next. But if you're new or teaching new material, REHEARSE!
ALWAYS SEEK TO BETTER YOUR CONTENT, BUT DON’T CHANGE JUST TO CHANGE. By its very nature, specifics of my content changes pretty frequently. However, the structure of my classes and modules can remain the same for months and years. This is a good thing. I can teach any of my content on a moment's notice. I can teach any of my core curriculum with no instruction aids whatsoever (though it probably wouldn't be in my students' best interest). On Monday morning (of a five day class) I can tell you exactly what we'll be doing on Thursday at 1 PM. I know my classes individually and I know the course as a whole.
I fully stand behind my curriculum. I believe it is the best in my field, bar none. I LOVE my curriculum because it's mine. But I also believe that I could do it better. I'm constantly looking for ways to improve it. I'm looking for different ways to organize my modules to make a lot of disparate and complicated concepts seem related and simple. I'm not an advocate of change for the sake of change, but if an idea has merit and adds value, I am not afraid to change my curriculum.
Refreshing your curriculum can also impact you. After teaching the same thing week after week, it can begin to feel like groundhog day. Again, don't change your class for the sake of change, but I do sometimes welcome a shake-up in how I've been doing things. This inevitably makes me learn new stuff and gets me excited about my curriculum again.
Running The Class
BE RESPECTFUL OF STUDENTS' TIME INVESTMENT. This means that if students are paying for an eight-hour day, they should get an eight-hour day of training. That eight hours should not include thirty minutes of watching you do your administrative tasks (that you probably should have done the day before). That does not include spending an hour helping you set up or tear down the training environment. That means eight hours of you sharing knowledge with them as efficiently as possible. When the appointed hour arrives, you should be 100% ready to go. If you've done all the things in the previous three sections, all of your admin stuff is taken care of and you have plenty of content to fill your time.
BE RESPECTFUL OF YOUR STUDENTS' FINANCIAL INVESTMENT. Chances are, your students (or their parent organizations) are paying to be at your class. If you are a national trainer, chances are also good that at least some of your students have traveled to train with/learn from you. If students have traveled, they are paying for fuel or plane tickets (and bags), food, and possibly a hotel room - all in addition to your curriculum. Your responsibility in return is to give students the best training possible. They have believed in you enough to book your training, so do your best to live up to their expectations. See the "Course Content" section for more information on how to do this.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE, BUT DON'T ASSUME KNOWLEDGE. This is a two-parter, and it's an inherent paradox. By knowing your audience, you should have a vague idea of what they know, what they don't know, and how your content applies to them contextually. This means you should be able to tailor your content to a specific audience's needs and level of knowledge, going shallower or deeper as needed. You should also know what your audience is looking for. Recently I gave a 1-hour block of instruction for a new client. I thought I knew what they wanted and prepared a “tips and tricks”-type of class. When I arrived I realized my audience was a bunch of seriously experienced industry professionals and my class needed to be more of a high level overview. Lucky for me, I wasn’t speaking until after lunch and had time to modify my class. Lesson learned - ask questions about the audience and what they expect!
On the other hand, don't fall victim to the curse of knowledge. This logical fallacy occurs when you assume that your audience has a firm basis in the topic you are presenting and you talk way over their heads. I’m guilty of this one, too. Be extremely wary of this; it's easy for experts to forget what it's like to have zero knowledge on a topic, and that not everyone learns things as easily as you do. Keep the jargon to a minimum. Watch your audience for signs of comprehension. Ask probing questions. Interact with your audience. If your material permits it, have the students perform on demand. This is as much a test of your ability to teach as it is their ability and willingness to learn.
KNOW WHEN YOU NEED HELP. There is little that bothers me more than attending a course with an inadequate instructor-to-student ratio. This has happened several times; I've paid for a few shooting courses that hosted 15-20 students, staffed by two instructors. I get that the instructors are trying to make money, but two instructors (in these cases) were barely enough to run the line. The little one-on-one instructor time available usually goes to the guys who need large amounts of improvement. As one of the better shooters in many classes I attend, I sometimes leave feeling like I've paid for a very expensive, facilitated range session. I didn't get what I came for - improvement through actual instruction.
If your classes are so big that you can't manage them on your own, you have to recognize that. Don't count on your students to let you know. In all likelihood they probably won't say anything about it. If you're teaching for a full day and can't remember everyone's name by the end of the day, you probably need an assistant. If you're spending more than five minutes an hour with an individual while everyone else sits (or stands) around waiting for something to do, you probably need an assistant.
I think this issue gets right to the heart of being an “Instructor”. Presenters give presentations to rooms of 200 people. They talk and put on a show, but they aren’t transfering a tangible skill to their audience. Lecturers lecture and speakers speak. I will actually instruct you. If your are too busy troubleshooting issues to teach, you have failed. If you’re too busy troubleshooting a single student to pay attention to the rest of your class, you have failed the rest of your students.
THE HALL OF SHAME
It seems like I wouldn't have to say these things. In fact, these things seem so extreme it's a little bit embarrassing to even write them. Even about someone else. Unfortunately, I've had the privilege of working alongside some very bad instructors. It's unlikely that the people that do these things are going to read this article, but maybe some will.
DON'T DIP OR ATTEMPT TO EAT ANYTHING WHILE INSTRUCTING. It's rare, but I've seen instructors attempt to eat a sandwich and talk between bites, and it is about the most embarrassing thing I've ever been privy to. I've seen more than a couple instructors attempt to talk through a massive dip of tobacco. Have a tiny amount of self discipline and restrain yourself until you aren't talking in front of students.
DON'T FLIRT WITH STUDENTS. This one is mostly for male instructors with female students, at least in my military-heavy experience. After your class has ended, I don't care what you do. In the meantime don't openly flirt with your female students. First, if you are so ham-fisted and overt (you are) that she recognizes it for what it is (she will), it creates a serious learning impediment. It will very likely make her uncomfortable. She will get very little out of your class, except a desire to be the first one out the door at the end of the day. And to all of those who have to watch this train-wreck happen, it becomes a huge distraction and looks unprofessional. Such blatant disregard for your craft completely voids your students of any respect they may have had for you.
STOP TELLING WAR STORIES AND/OR TRYING TO MAKE YOURSELF LOOK LIKE A BADASS. By all means, give a bio about yourself at the start of the class. Hell, put up a slide with fine-print writing about all your exploits, schools, and accomplishments. But please - PLEASE - don't spend the first half an hour telling me about your college football position, every duty station your were ever assigned to, all the billets you ever held, and the time you were meritoriously promoted to Lance Corporal. Five minutes into a class I don't care about anything in your bio that does not directly relate to the training I am about to receive. I am convinced that an instructor should be able to say just about everything that needs to be said about about his or her background in 90 seconds or (preferably) less. Give a quick overview of the big picture followed by the specifics that qualify you to teach, not a recitation of your entire curriculum vitae.
And while we're at it... I don't need to listen to every war story you have, either. I already know you're qualified to teach or I wouldn't be sitting in your class. If a story or anecdote applies to the content, I have no problem with that, but I think too many instructors look for excuses to interweave personal stories into classes. My basic rule of thumb for whether a story should be told or not is this: does it make me sound like the "hero" or the "good guy" in the story? If the answer is "yes" I'll usually omit it completely or frame it in some other way. I prefer to be a bit self-deprecating because I'm completely over listening to instructors who spend five minutes out of every hour reminding me how cool they are by dropping, "when I was at in Iraq. . ."
DON'T GET INTO PISSING MATCHES WITH STUDENTS. I've seen this one only rarely, but this is probably the worst thing you can do. I've seen instructors get in heated, red-faced debates about the “right” and “wrong” way to do something. I've seen an instructor ready to go to blows with a student about a disagreement about politics. Seriously?
The thing that makes this one doubly annoying is that it is almost completely avoidable. First, have some tact. What’s another word for tact? Oh yeah: professionalism. Keep your mouth shut. If your primary interest is in proving who’s right and who’s wrong, again, you’re probably in the wrong line of work.
Secondly, you need to realize one thing: there is not a single person in the class that will agree with 100% of your personal opinions. So don't offer them. Unless you are a political scholar or are teaching an overtly religious class, you don't need to say anything about politics or religion, respectively. No one gives a shit what your personal opinions are, but they definitely give a shit when you express one. Be above the fray. I don’t even mind students wondering where I stand on any given issue; I’d rather then be curious and paying attention than pissed off and not learning.
I've had my fair share of smart-mouthed, know-it-all students, especially in some military groups where one guy isn't interested in my class but is forced to be there. And just like everyone else, I want to call them out and put them on notice. But to what end? My students are my customers. If I make one student look stupid I might've won the battle but I've lost the war because now I look petty and - you guessed it - unprofessional.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you are an instructor and you care about what you do, FOLLOW THIS ADVICE. I guarantee that if you actually use all of it, when you walk in to begin class you'll be confident. You will KNOW your classroom is setup. You will KNOW everything works. And you will KNOW if something goes wrong, it's beyond your control and you won't stress about it. You will have mastered your content. Your classes will flow smoothly. You have anticipated any questions that might come up and you know how to answer them.
Ultimately, take pride in your craft. Master it. Own everything that you put your name on.