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How to find good instruction
(and good instructors)

Copyright 2007 Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

Over the years, I've both given and received a lot of instruction in various topics, both as a licensed instructor and for topics where I happen to have a fair amount of knowledge and wanted to learn more. Some of the instructional environments were very formal (academia, military), others less so.

It wasn't until I had become an instructor myself that I began to identify the traits of good instructors and also the ability to spot the ones that weren't so good. Perhaps it's because when you are trained as an instructor you're taught the correct way to teach people (which is defined as behavior modification) and by implication, what not to do.

I have seldom seen any articles that address this topic or that provide guidance to potential students in identifying good instructors so that their learning experience is rewarding, challenging and enjoyable. Some instructional experiences, by definition, are not and never will be (the military comes to mind.) But for most of the instructional experiences you'll have you usually choose the instructor. Make your choice wisely.

Characteristics of good instructors

A good instructor has a passion for their subject

This is the first and most obvious trait. Passion is defined as enthusiasm with discipline which is the discipline to transfer knowledge and skills to others. Both are required. On the one hand, it is possible to have instructors with much enthusiasm but who lack the discipline necessary to be an effective instructor. Conversely, you can encounter those with much knowledge and skill but who are emotionally ‘dead' when it comes to instilling enthusiasm in others.

A good instructor has empathy - balanced with achievement standards

Empathy in the instructional environment is an appreciation for what the student is going through and the use of the instructor's superior knowledge to create a good learning environment. At the same time, the instructor's skill is the ability to turn frustrations into challenges such that the student knows the skill is within their grasp, but they have to work on it

A good instructor also listens

Listening is a very important trait in communications and instruction is also about communication. An instructor has to determine if the student comprehends the concepts and can put that understanding into practice. Active listening is a key part of that. Show me an instructor who doesn't listen and I'll show you an instructor who doesn't understand, or know how to grow, their students.

A good instructor will adjust their teaching style to your learning style

Many students mistakenly assume that they have to figure out the instructor's style and conform their learning to the way the instructor teaches. In certain contexts this may be the case, such as large-scale training environment (lecture-type) and teaching environments where the students are rigorously pre-screened (fighter pilot school, medical school.) But the closer the instruction gets to one-on-one, the more the instructor has to adapt their teaching style to the learning style of the student. This is because the instructor, by definition, has (or should have) a wider bandwidth than the student. A tell-tale of this taking place is when the instructor questions you about your experience level and also asks some questions or puts you through some exercises to determine your skill level.

It's helpful if an instructor is friendly - but not necessarily your friend

An instructor who is friendly will encourage communication, which, as mentioned before, is key to the learning environment. For example, if the student had a bad day at work, or is encountering personal problems, that's important for the instructor to know. The instructor needs to assess if the student is too distracted to participate in learning at that point in time. Experienced students will temporarily remove themselves from the environment during these times, but not all students have the confidence or ability to do this. On the other hand, the instructor who is trying to be your friend doesn't do you any good if they "cut you a pass" and let you slide by. Later on when you have to perform on your own, you will need the benefit of that feedback to know if distractions are going to affect your performance or judgement.

A good instructor will separate opinion from fact - their way is not the only way

Much of the instructional process involves interpretation of fundamentals, principles and concepts. These interpretations can vary widely from instructor to instructor (and be equally valid) but is important to know what is an instructor's opinion and what is a fundamental principle. Some instructors present their interpretation as the be-all, end-all way of doing things. You will find this more typically in self-taught instructors or those whose knowledge base (or self confidence) is rather limited. In fact, this behavior is a tip off that you are dealing with this kind of instructor. I've encountered folks like this from time to time, where what they were presenting was a limited viewpoint or in some cases, pure misinformation. I usually don't correct them but simply move on so they don't waste my time.

A good instructor makes learning transparent

In other words it is clearly spelled out, it's not a mystery in terms of performance criteria and both the acceptable and desirable outcomes. Some examples are standard training syllabuses and abundant reference materials. Ever had an instructor where you were never quite sure what they wanted, or want was acceptable, or that the criteria changed from day to day? That's a poor instructor. They might not know how to teach, or they may be masking ignorance. It doesn't matter, just find someone else. I'll never forget a student who remarked to me about his instructor: "I was expected to know the answers, and didn't even know the questions to ask!" That situation should not exist (I advised him to find another instructor.)

A good instructor will point you to other resources - especially when you have outgrown them

Some students will have a real passion for the subject and are clearly on a path of self-improvement and education. A good instructor will recognize and encourage this. This involves pointing the way to additional opportunities or paths to additional instruction including those areas where the instructor may not possess the skills necessary to accompany the student in their growth. In other words, a good instructor recognizes passion in others and encourages it.

A good instructor will force you to grow - they will not allow you to be dependent on them

There comes a time when the student needs to practice on their own - to implement the skills they have been taught and develop their own style. Also, in a limited way - to begin making (small) mistakes and learning from them (any student who says they never made mistakes is either a self-deluder or has not really done anything.) A good instructor will monitor the student's growth and encourage a dialogue so the student is comfortable admitting errors - and the instructor uses that as a "teaching moment" to either reinforce previous concepts or introduce new material. The goal is to prepare the student to teach themselves - and an important part of that is error recognition and correction.

How to identify good instructors (and instruction or schools)

Look for an emphasis on instruction

Some learning institutions have an emphasis on something other than instruction. For example, a flight school may be ancillary to aircraft rentals or in academia the teaching is ancillary to research, or the Phd program. It is important to determine this emphasis during your assessment of the school and if instruction is your primary goal, make sure that it is also the goal of the institution or organization. This is not to say that you can't find excellent instructors in such organizations. It's just that the probability of finding them is much higher in organizations that put an emphasis on quality instruction.

Don't assume that the individual is a good instructor just because they hold the position

This is very typical in academia but not unique to that environment. I recall several "name" professors I had who were horrible instructors. Obviously, the assumption was made that they could teach, but they clearly were less than competent in that regard. However, their ego would usually not permit them to admit it. The situation is somewhat better these days, because academia has instituted a feedback mechanism that considers student ratings of instructors (when Muffy and Buffy's parents are paying $30,000 to $40,000 a year, they better not get complaints of bad teachers.) But you will still find this situation in various organizations. In other words, always look for, and expect, demonstrated competence in instruction, don't just assume it.

A good instructor is always learning

All of the subjects that I am licensed to teach are changing, as our world changes. Sure, the principles of aerodynamics may not change, but FAA regulations, technology and the flight environment change constantly. I have to stay on top of these changes and also continue to learn new material, techniques and technology. However, there are instructors who become "stagnant" by teaching in an isolated environment, who do not have feedback or new input, or who are perhaps at the end of their career and burned out. Doesn't matter. If the instructor doesn't stay on top of their material then their ability to instruct is limited. For an instructor, continuing to be a student themselves also serves to keep the ego in check.

What to avoid

There are several tell-tales to look out for when evaluating instruction programs, many of which have been covered. Here are some more, which tend to be more intuitive:

Part of insuring that your learning experiences are rewarding and self-fulfilling is to both seek out, and have the ability to recognize, good instructors. It need not be something that is left to doubt, but rather a process that will identify the best learning environment for you. It has often been said that if you know what you want, and where to look for it, you will find it. That applies to instruction as well.

© 2007, Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

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