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CFI Tips

Taking the long view

Be an active instructor, not a babysitter

When you instruct, are you earning your money by actively instructing? Or are you just "babysitting"? Not all instructors know the difference.

Babysitters generally don't participate in the child's long-term development. Their usual tasks are watching the children play, discouraging mischievous activities, and preventing sibling rivalry from becoming felonious assault. If all you do is watch your student and point out mistakes, demonstrate procedures, and occasionally grab the flight controls to prevent a disaster, you're doing little more than a babysitter. At least you're being paid more--hopefully.

Ideally, an instructor participates in a student's long-term development, actively helping, because the student will continue to use what he or she has learned long after earning a certificate or rating.

A "sitter-type" instructor allows a student to learn by trial and error. For example, a sitter-instructor might point out an altitude- or heading-control error without trying to determine the cause, or even without offering an explanation. The student has to guess what is causing the problem and then guess which correction to make. If the student is lucky and guesses correctly, the sitter-instructor moves on to the next exercise, and the student assumes it was the right action for the right reason. The student's reasoning behind the action will transfer to similar situations, which could lead to disaster if the logic was faulty.

Once learned, the trial-and-error method becomes an established procedure for problem solving, meaning your student will improve only if he or she survives the errors made before stumbling onto the correct method. Once the student's pilot certificate is in hand, there's no babysitter in the right seat for protection.

Blind trial-and-error learning can also cause frustration for students. It slows progress and can be discouraging, a key factor in the high GA student dropout rate.

Being an active instructor is not automatic. It's a learned skill requiring practice. Since every instructor and student has a unique personality, there's no exact formula--but there are guidelines.

Concentrate on what you're doing and saying. It's very easy to accidentally convey incorrect or partial information, or demonstrate a shortcut that you can get away with because of your experience, but your student can't. Your student may learn something incorrectly, and then apply it at the wrong time or in the wrong way. For this reason, explain not only concepts, procedures, and flight maneuvers, but also the reasons behind them so your student can appropriately use his or her new knowledge and skills.

If you teach a rote procedure with no explanation, a student will not know when or how to use it other than in the demonstrated situation. In other words, rote procedures do not transfer well. If you explain the logic behind the procedure, your student will have a much better chance of correctly transferring the knowledge. As an example, I trained a foreign glider student who was adding an SEL rating. Among other things, I taught him how to lean the engine, and he mastered the procedure well. But on his first solo cross-country, he reported that the engine was running extremely rough, then quit in the pattern at one of his destination airports. We flew a mechanic to the airport and discovered excessively fouled plugs. Upon questioning, we discovered that the student had been flying at 8,500 feet without leaning the mixture.

It wasn't that he had forgotten how to lean the mixture. It was because I never completely explained when to lean. Although his not-so-perfect English contributed to the problem, it still was my responsibility to make sure he knew not only the how, but also the when and why of leaning.

Babysitters don't necessarily encourage their charges; good instructors do, constantly. Encouragement comes in many forms, one of which is self-image. If the student has a positive self-image (which most do), whenever you say or do something that reinforces that image the student will respond positively and continue to do whatever you have complimented. Poor self-images are more difficult, because they emphasize the negative aspects of training and ignore the positive. Without going to extremes, you must point out progress and downplay the negative image.

Enthusiasm is another form of encouragement, and much of a student's enthusiasm to learn is a reflection of your enthusiasm to teach. If you are excited about their learning, your student will learn more, learn faster, and learn more thoroughly. Your demonstrated enthusiasm for a job well done is extremely effective when a student finally overcomes an obstacle after many attempts. Without going overboard (especially in a small aircraft without parachutes) demonstrate your excitement enthusiastically, as if your team has just scored the winning point at the last second. Your student has worked hard and has succeeded. You need to let this student know how proud you are. It's a feather in your cap as well, since you have helped your student overcome adversity.

Whether you are an active instructor or just a babysitter is up to you. Your students, however, appreciate instructors who are actively involved in their progress.

Jeff Falkner is an aviation training consultant and instructional media developer who teaches aeronautics at Sacramento City College. He has more than 9,000 hours of Air Force, air carrier, and general aviation flying time.

By Jeff Falkner

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