Safety Publications/Articles

Instructor Tips


It was a beautiful day for flying that early morning in April 1967 at the Quantico, Virginia, Aero Club. I met my flight instructor on the flight line for a preflight before my first lesson. "Let's get this over with," he barked.

Already it was painfully obvious he didn't believe that the best learning conditions depend on a favorable instructor-student relationship. Throughout the flight lesson his motto seemed to be "I talk; you listen." Why did he need to worry about creating a good relationship? After all, he was the instructor and I was merely a student.

As we took off, I didn't have a clue as to what this flight instructor expected of me, or what I would have to learn or do to become a pilot. Apparently, this was a closely guarded secret.

After we had been flying for about 15 minutes, a demon seemed to possess the flight instructor. His eyes bulged and his face turned extremely red as he shouted, "That's not the altitude I told you to hold. Are you stupid or just plain dangerous?"

My instructor was clearly suffering from some sort of disease. I think the medical term is Big-O-Ego. His symptoms included:

  • Authoritarian training techniques. If I asked why a particular task was important or needed to be performed, he answered, "Because I said so."
  • Emphasis on relative status. The flight instructor is the most important person in the training relationship and shouldn't be bothered with the petty problems of the student who, by definition, occupies a lower place on the food chain.
  • Peculiar methods of instruction and correction. Ridicule, sarcasm, personal insults, and threats were used liberally to train me and correct my mistakes.

The underlying philosophies of "Break them down before you can build them up" and "Remove their will so that they will respond to orders without question" may be applicable in some situations, but not in the cockpit. Shouldn't a flight instructor try to foster confident and competent decision making and independent problem solving in his students?

Some instructors who are unsure of themselves use authoritarian training techniques because they lack sound judgment, knowledge of the topic, and the ability to build good relationships with other people. Authoritarian trainers may not know how, or if, they can maintain control over their students if they release any decision-making authority to the students. But the key to successful training is to make it student-centered-not instructor-centered. Professional trainers in all fields involve their students in the learning process, asking their advice, and coaching them to success. Ideally, the process of positive training gains the willing cooperation of students. Because of the instructor's evident knowledge, sound judgment, and good personal relationship with the student, the instructor can guide positive attitudes and effectively correct technical behaviors during the learning process.

A point to remember is that the best training techniques to use are the ones that get the best results while maintaining mutual respect. As teachers, we are not restricted to one stereotyped method of training. But, if we go around all day with scowls on our faces, ranting and raving, and making every student in the vicinity wish that we would disappear, we, too, are suffering from Big-O-Ego disease.

For an effective instructor-student relationship to exist, three key factors are required: rapport, empathy, and a positive relationship. Rapport includes a close or at least harmonious relationship and general agreement on objectives and methods. Empathy requires the instructor to identify with his or her student. The instructor must place himself in the other person's shoes, and look at things through the eyes of the student. A positive relationship requires that the student identify with the instructor in a good way, viewing the instructor as a teacher and leader, not as a disciplinarian or guardian.

Even when all three of these factors are part of the instructor-student relationship, certain circumstances can add to the difficulty involved in teaching. Subjects that are boring or repetitious, as some inevitably are, are likely to have an adverse effect on a student's interest level and success at mastering the material. As an instructor, it is your job to anticipate these negative effects and plan accordingly. Try taking a new approach to the subject, provide novel or entertaining examples, and use other interactive teaching strategies to rejuvenate the material and make it more palatable. Don't allow your teaching style to become lax or stale. Be as dynamic, enthusiastic, and sincere as possible.

Exceptionally difficult material can pose problems as well. Carefully plan your strategies for teaching such material. Break it down as much as is practical and be certain that the student fully understands each point before you go to the next. When you're dealing with difficult material, it's especially important to allow the student ample time to ask questions.

Personality traits can also affect the learning environment. No two people are alike, and you must take this into account. The general level of education, age, experience, and many other factors influence each student's attitude, motivation, acceptance of instruction, and willingness to learn. As an instructor, you should be alert to the individual characteristics of each of your students and be ready to adjust your material and methods accordingly. By doing so, you can avoid antagonizing your students while creating an effective learning situation. Failure to take personality traits into account will almost certainly impair student learning.

The instructor has other responsibilities as well. At a minimum, you must set the example for your students by maintaining a high standard of integrity, managing the training activities efficiently, continually evaluating the learning conditions, and checking teaching materials for accuracy and effectiveness. Keep your eyes open for student progress. Don't be afraid to offer praise and recognition for a lesson learned or a job well done.

You also must model the behaviors you want your students to emulate. Don't fall into the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do trap. And it's important that you pursue professional growth by seeking out and participating in training opportunities of your own.

Of course, as the instructor you are not the only one with responsibilities, and you may need to tell your students what you expect of them. In general, students should be expected to conform to standards and regulations; show respect for the instructor by taking an active part in learning activities and completing assignments, such as ground school homework; and accept that flight training is an adult learning situation, which means that the student must be prepared to put some effort into the learning process.

Every instructor must sometimes deal with difficult conditions in teaching people to fly. The ability to handle individual and group situations comes with experience, but there are a few definite rules that you should follow as you experiment with designing your own techniques:

  • Never bluff. If you don't know the answer to a question, admit it. Tell your student you will find the answer, and then follow up.
  • Be sensitive. Don't use sarcasm or ridicule in your teaching. It alienates and belittles the student, and is a patent misuse of your authority.
  • Treat every student with respect. Never talk down to a student. The fact that you know more about flying than your student doesn't make you superior to him. To suggest in any way, however small, that you are better than your student will create resentment and seriously affect your ability to teach and the student's ability to learn.
  • Don't lose your patience. There is an adage to the effect that when a student has failed to learn, the instructor has failed to teach. This may not always be true, but it is an idea worth considering. If a student seems to be progressing slowly, remember that you were once a beginner, too. Keep your temper, and use your creativity to invent different ways of explaining the material.

And never forget that being an instructor is not about what you know but rather what you can teach others about what you know.

By Mike Hakim

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