What Makes a Good Instructor?
By Steve Crothers
Published Tuesday, March 1, 2016 | From the March 2016 Issue of FireRescue
Constant self-improvement as an instructor is imperative. How do you get better? How are you truly challenging yourself and seeking to improve? What tools are you using in your teaching? As instructors, we should focus on elevating our teaching to a higher level by engaging with the students and maximizing the traits that go beyond just being a subject-matter expert. Whether you are new to teaching or have years of experience, there is always room for improvement and growth so that your classroom teaching experience can be impactful and dynamic.
Styles and Techniques
As you develop your teaching and presentation skills, you learn to overcome the common pitfalls that instructors encounter. Some of those pitfalls are lack of organization, poor communication habits, inadequate subject matter, involuntary distractions, lack of variety in instruction, death by PowerPoint®, and teaching without clear learning objectives. Do you incorporate motivational, interactive videos or visual aids? Are you effective at reading the audience? Is your presentation structured? Do you fully engage the participants, and does your presentation leave a lasting impression with the students? Do you recognize the importance of self-assessment/accountability and the critical role that “rehearsal” plays in your preparation? All of these points are critical to being a good instructor.
An effective instructor needs to try to master and examine different teaching styles and techniques. For example, the inductive teaching method allows instructors to encourage participation and reinforces student observations. By simply asking the students a series of questions while teaching, you have the ability to evaluate the individual’s understanding of the concepts. This allows you to develop the student’s observational skills and it also makes the activities more interesting. Recognizing when to ask questions can change the tempo of your classroom and boost student involvement.
It is imperative to ask students the right questions; questions that require a yes or no answer are not productive. Does the student really understand the question, or is he answering yes/no because he doesn’t want to reveal to the class that he doesn’t comprehend the concept? The questions must be probing, which requires the student to demonstrate his knowledge of the idea being taught. This teaching style is an indicator that helps identify if the students are retaining the information and can apply the principles. This method also allows you to figure out which students may need more explanation. The inductive teaching method is a very interactive teaching strategy that increases learning for the student and the instructor. This technique takes practice and skill but can greatly enhance a teaching point that needs to be emphasized.
Beyond Subject Knowledge
So much more goes into being a successful teacher than simply knowing the material. Being a subject-matter expert builds credibility with students; however, a good instructor must pull in his students by building a connection with them in the classroom. This occurs when you are able to passionately demonstrate why the subject matter is meaningful. This type of teaching resonates with the students and demonstrates your beliefs in the concepts being taught. Students will recognize and respect true authenticity. Even the most mundane topic can come alive if you can give the students a reason to listen.
You can demonstrate that you care about the subject in many ways. Using humor, entertainment, videos, or stories can hold students’ attention and connect them to the topic. By using these techniques, you can add significance to the lecture, which helps keep the class alive and engages the students. Keep in mind, though, that in no way should these methods take the place of content. Well-placed and appropriate humor can be used to make the point or enhance a concept being taught. Learning does not have to be boring. However, if humor is overused, you can come off as fake.
Another strong technique is using a story to communicate a point. Stories can be extremely effective in reaching your students and giving context to what is being taught. Stories add a visual element and connection to a concept. Students are much more likely to remember a certain idea if they can relate to it by understanding how it played out in a story. A story can add interest and help illuminate facts. Striking a balance between different techniques and practicing versatility adds variety to the lecture.
How do you know if you are hitting the mark when using these techniques? To become a stronger instructor, you also need to be willing to have peers evaluate and critique your teaching style and instruction. You will fail to reach your full potential unless you are open to self-assessment and allow others to identify areas that need improvement. Massive growth can only happen when you are willing to explore your weaknesses by exposing yourself to peer review. Exposing yourself provides the opportunity for a potential gold mine of change and improvement. Self-reflection is a positive tool that can result from experiencing the pressure of teaching back to peers.
Feedback from other instructors is crucial in learning how to develop and become a greater teacher. One great way to achieve this is by using the “teach-back” technique: Other instructors take turns participating as the students, mimicking commonly seen issues that new students observe. This creates a real-life classroom environment to see if, as an instructor, you are able to identify the instructional issue and if you can properly correct the problem with the appropriate response and instruction. Peers are able to quickly evaluate your effectiveness as a teacher as well as assess your knowledge and understanding of the curriculum. It is very difficult to fool or bluff fellow instructors who are also subject-matter experts in the curriculum. They will give real-time feedback on the proper use of definitions, concepts, and technical information. The teach-back technique provides real-life scenarios that build confidence as you gain experience and face the trials of teaching. Teaching to peers can be extremely challenging but serves as a great opportunity for improvement.
Developing skills as an instructor requires hard work but can be incredibly rewarding. We, as instructors, should all strive to foster a positive learning environment and encourage success by delivering informative and appealing information with a multimedia approach. Having qualified and effective instructors will encourage the students to participate and interact. Self-improvement must continuously be a part of the process, regardless of how many years you have been teaching. It is important to always be open to learning so you can become a stronger, more impactful instructor.
Steve Crothers is a 20-year veteran of the fire service, with 17 of those years in the Seattle (WA) Fire Department, where he is the officer for Ladder Company 9.