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CFI to CFI

Empathy

The CFI's strongest tool

Training trends

April 2005

Student pilot certificates are the number of student pilot certificate applications processed during the month of April, and includes renewals as well as original issuances. Airline pilot hiring is all professional pilot hiring during April as reported by aviation career consulting firm AIR, Inc. and includes major, national, and regional airlines as well as fractional operators.

Student pilot certificates

Airline pilot hiring

2003
2004
2005

4,273
4,559
4,381

2003
2004
2005

454
851
833

As educators go, CFIs are pretty unique because we have the luxury of a true one-on-one teaching experience.

Many in the education community would kill for that opportunity. Others, recognizing the inherent need to personalize each lesson to the individual, would shrink from the challenge, preferring instead to send out a generalized message aimed at an audience in which the individual differences are averaged out by audience size. We, on the other hand, have no choice: If we're going to do a decent job of educating, we have to recognize and deal with each student's differences. Nothing will help us more in that than a healthy dose of empathy.

Empathy is just a fancy way of saying that we'll put ourselves in a student's shoes and try to see learning to fly through his eyes. This is easy in some cases, hard in others, but whether we are successful isn't as important as simply making the effort. By trying to be empathetic, we not only make our jobs easier, but we also send a subliminal message to the student that we do care and we are trying.

No one can tell us how to be empathetic and, in fact, some people simply don't have the ability to see things as others do. At the same time, some can instantly put themselves in the other's place. Regardless of where you fall in the spectrum, making the effort will help both you and your student.

Whatever that intangible process is that generates empathy, it starts with remembering when we were students. Even though each of our student experiences is unique, there are still some general impressions that all of us carry with us. Tapping into those memories is the first step toward seeing and feeling what the student is experiencing.

Think back to the very first time you sat in an airplane during a takeoff. Do you remember the way the runway looked as it rushed toward you and the crazy feeling that enveloped your senses when the nose came up and the runway suddenly fell away? Ignoring all the ethereal aspects of stepping over a threshold into a new world, remember the little twinge of fear that was meandering around amongst the sparks of wonder.

And then the horizon tilted and you were looking over your shoulder at the ground and an entirely new series of sensations rushed over you. How did you feel? Were you exhilarated, terrified, excited, nauseated, overwhelmed, surprised by the sudden introduction of the third dimension? You may have experienced all the foregoing and much more. And your student is experiencing the exact same thing.

Remember your first instructor? Try to think about what you liked and disliked about him or her, and about every instructor you've had since. Just as we remember our favorite high school teachers, we remember those flight instructors whom we liked and learned from best.

Now put yourself in your student's position. Do you suddenly hear yourself yelling? How about the inflection in your voice? It's easy to unintentionally use a condescending tone that seems to insert the unspoken word "dummy" at the end of sentences. "See final coming? Don't wait so long to turn (dummy)."

You may find that when he is having a difficult time with something and you've gone over it a number of times, frustration creeps into your voice. Think of yourself as a student with a frustrated instructor talking to you. How does that make you feel? Not good, right? Flight students generally struggle hard enough without us loading them down with emotional baggage by unintentionally berating them because of their lack of progress.

Think about how you react to praise versus criticism. Even though we swear we have no ego and say we will freely accept critical comments aimed at making us get better, the reality is that we don't really like it. No one does. At the same time, even the faintest praise makes us feel good. Think about that and build an instructional approach around it.

Try hard to balance your comments and lead with praise and follow with criticism, the same way you'd like to be treated. "Wow, great touchdown. Very nice. Now, when you were on final, you let the nose get too high and..." as opposed to "When you were on final, you let the nose get too high, but the touchdown was good." It's a small thing that can make a big difference.

A good percentage of empathy is based on monitoring the student's mood as well as his performance. We shouldn't forget that this is a very intense learning experience that can be greatly affected by the student's mood. Every student has good days and bad days in their performance, but they are also going to have emotionally "up" days and down ones that are driven by other factors. A bad performance can trigger a negative mood, but if the student came on board in a bad mood, then that compounds the problem. We must see it coming and do our best to mitigate it through positive actions and comments. If we were in their shoes, what would make us feel better? At the same time we have to recognize there's only so much we can do. If a student is in a really bad mood, it's sometimes best to simply shorten the hour and cut our losses.

Another way to deal with a downward slide in both confidence and mood is to shift the lesson and have them do something they normally do well in an effort to balance things out.

One of the major differences between a good educator and a really great one is that the latter isn't satisfied with simply treating symptoms (bad technique, mistakes, etc.) by beating them into submission through repetition. He goes inside the student's mind, seeks the causes (misunderstandings, personal reactions, etc.), and fixes the symptoms from within. The performance gained that way is based on conceptual understanding that will last a lifetime, not rote rituals that disappear with disuse.

The only way to treat the root cause is to understand the root cause, and that can't be done from the outside. The instructor has to mentally assume the personality, physical traits, and moods of the student. Once the instructor is able to see clearly through the student's eyes and hear through his ears, he can finesse his lesson plans and his teaching methodology so they fit that student like a glove.

Each student requires and deserves a carefully tailored instructional approach. And that approach can only come from inserting at least a part of our mind into the student and giving him instruction in the same way that we would like to have it given to us.

Budd Davisson is an aviation writer/photographer and magazine editor who has written approximately 2,200 articles and has flown more than 300 different types of aircraft. A CFI since 1967, he teaches about 30 hours a month in his Pitts S-2A Special. Visit his Web site.

By Budd Davisson

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