More than just learning
Academy teaches prospective CFIs to teach
Kevin Huffman stood at the front of a classroom at Addison Airport just northeast of Dallas, Texas, and explained the pitot-static system and aircraft flight instruments to a group of students.
"Now you go from how they work to how they don't work," he said.
The students grilled him about the operation of the vertical speed indicator--and while they didn't necessarily seem displeased with Huffman's answers, all offered comments or elaborations.
"This would be a good time to mention pitot heat before you go into the next part," said one student.
"It's a good idea to check that on your preflight," said another.
"Include the alternate static source in your drawing--it gives the complete picture you need to present and reminds you to discuss those points."
Huffman considered the comments. He wasn't teaching a class of enthusiastic prospective student pilots; rather, he was participating in the CFI Academy offered by American Flyers. His fellow students were providing the critique--and the academy's unique format enabled all of them to learn from the experience.
"I need to draw everything out [at the beginning of the presentation], not draw it as I go," Huffman decided.
"Teaching's a little different than just learning it," observed Heath Szczesniak, an assistant chief flight instructor for American Flyers at Addison and the lead instructor for the CFI Academy. Huffman took his seat, and fellow student Joshua Talley presented his lesson on IFR holding.
"Why do I need to intercept that [inbound] course? Why can't I just fly inbound to the station?" Szczesniak asked, adding, "I'm not trying to be a pest--I'm acting like a student will act."
Szczesniak's experience flying overnight air freight allowed him to provide valuable insights about IFR flying and the air traffic control system. It's not unusual for prospective flight instructors to have little practical experience flying in the IFR environment, he said.
"The sequence you did was just right," he told Talley. "But I think you should spend more time with students on clearances. Don't move on [to holding pattern entries] until they get it--otherwise the entries will be all wrong."
Szczesniak reminded the class about the law of primacy--a student's tendency to revert to what he or she learned first. "Don't teach shortcuts like using your hand to determine holding-pattern entries. If things get hairy in the airplane, they don't have anything to go back to."
Other tips focused on student motivation. "Make sure your students know they don't have to meet the practical test standards the first time," he said. "Many students, if they don't meet the standards, will be discouraged--and their motivation will drop. It's a challenge to keep students motivated."
American Flyers' CFI Academy is a learning experience, and the number of comments--from the class as well as the instructor--doesn't necessarily correlate to the quality of the lesson being presented.
"Good," Talley was complimented after he completed the lesson. "Real nice." "Nice job."
"You can buy lesson plans," observed Mike Simmons, director of the CFI Academy. "But when you research and write your own, you'll know the material."
Nationally, an average of 80 percent of applicants fail the flight instructor practical test on their first attempt, he said. "It's not that they can't do it--they're not prepared to do it."
American Flyers has offered the CFI Academy since the early 1990s. It includes 120 hours of classroom instruction--most of it involving practice teaching by the students--over 30 days. "We're not training them to fly--they know how to do that. We're training them to teach."
Teamwork is another facilitator. "The team concept works well," Simmons said. "The stronger students help pull the weaker ones through, and they all learn more. And it makes them better instructors because they hear everything a lot of different ways--they can use these techniques later." Practice teaching sessions are videotaped for students to review, and students are encouraged to practice teaching to each other in the "Academy Clubhouse," a comfortably furnished work and study room with computers, white boards, and resource materials that is dedicated to CFI Academy participants.
CFI Academy sessions start the second Thursday of each month at American Flyers locations in Addison; Santa Monica, California; Pompano Beach, Florida; Dupage, Illinois, near Chicago; and Morristown, New Jersey. Classes are typically about 10 students. Student rosters show a wide range of ages and backgrounds, from a 72-year-old Iowa farmer to retired airline captains to young people, Simmons said. Career changers are common.
Academy students actually begin working on the CFII; as a Part 141 school, American Flyers can certify the instrument instructor rating in-house. The last half of the academy is dedicated to the certificated flight instructor-airplane, and the FAA normally administers that checkride.
Most of American Flyers' CFIs come through the academy, Simmons noted. "There's nothing like a 30-day interview" to observe a prospective instructor's traits.
Students typically fall into one of three groups, Szczesniak said. Ten to 20 percent are pretty far along with what they've learned and experienced; "They don't need as much, but they're a tremendous help to the rest of the class." The middle 50 to 60 percent know quite a bit of the material but may not be able to apply it effectively; some of this is rote learning that they've never had to apply. Many of the rest have not received flight training for five, six, or seven years.
"The key is to help them recognize when somebody's not ready and needs a little bit more training," he continued. "They'll need to do that with their students--but they learn it by doing it on themselves first."
Szczesniak has been instructing at the CFI Academy since September 2001. "I think it's more rewarding than anything else. You get people with more different backgrounds than anything else."
He said he can open students' eyes a lot, especially about IFR flying, from his Part 135 cargo background as well as his instructional experience. "It's all those little things that I feel I can help make people aware of, and then they can share it with their students." He finds that there are a lot of misconceptions about IFR approaches, rudder usage, and other subjects.
Szczesniak is pleased with the progress of his current class. "Everybody's come along very well. A few of them have found some weaknesses during the training, and they've smoothed that out. We present the information in the class; they practice teaching, and they're out practicing the maneuvers in the airplane."
Some weaknesses are common, he explained, and usually are caused by a lack of real IFR experience. "Sometimes they don't really know the maneuvers--they know the description and how to do it to PTS standards," but don't have the knowledge to analyze mistakes. "To me, Lazy 8s is one of the easiest [maneuvers] to do--but one of the hardest to figure out what somebody's doing wrong."
Back in the classroom, Maria D'Amato presented a lesson on VOR navigation. "It's more nerve-wracking because you're being filmed," she joked. Her fellow students jumped in with questions, as did Szczesniak.
"You need to be flexible," Szczesniak said. "The way you learned it may not be best for your students."
"You know what the hardest part of this lesson is?" D'Amato asked. "You know how to do this in the airplane--but you have to slow it down to present it to the students."
"The hardest thing for me when I learned how to teach was leaving out things I take for granted," Szczesniak agreed.
D'Amato said that she specifically chose the CFI Academy for its interaction. "I knew I needed that."
Classmate Victor Zadeh appreciated the emphasis on learning. "When I walked in the door, I wasn't expecting this lounge, or ground school from 8 a.m. to noon every day. I was expecting, 'Let's get in the airplane and fly.' It's much better to learn in ground school first." At 4:15 on a Thursday afternoon, Zadeh is taking a practice knowledge test in the clubhouse. "I really enjoy teaching," he said. "My ultimate goal is to become a designated examiner."
The next morning they're all back in ground school, absorbing tips and information that will make them better instructors.
"I wouldn't show them a note that says, 'Avoid the death spiral,'" Szczesniak commented. "Watch your choice of words. I never use the term 'break' when discussing a stall with a student.
"It's easy to get into an unusual attitude if the vacuum system fails. One of the biggest values of using the simulators is that you can fail that stuff.
"There are a lot of things you already know that the student's not going to know," Szczesniak said. "Leaving things out is a common mistake of new instructors."
Mike Collins is editor of AOPA Flight Training magazine.
By Mike Collins