CFI to CFI
Ways to tell if you're doing a good job
As instructors, we're constantly holding up yardsticks to our students hoping they'll realize that they have to develop certain skills and meet certain quality criteria to be safe pilots. What we don't often think about, however, is that our students are measuring our instructing performance as well. Other than the pass/fail ratio at checkride time, students are our sole method of judging our effectiveness.
Education can be a nebulous concept, and tests don't tell the entire story. So, how do we know we're going a good job? Here are some signs.
They do it without being told. Maybe it's starting the flare in the right place, or a particularly playful wind is pushing them out of position and just as you're about to say something, they make the right move at exactly the right time. They are putting what you've been teaching into practice.
The late-night phone call. Often it's a voice you barely recognize, but they'll usually start by saying, "You taught me to fly back in...." Their next sentence brings it into focus. "I just had to call and tell you that what you taught me saved my life today. I heard you talking to me all the way down. I just had to say thanks." Just one phone call like that makes up for all the small paychecks and the long hours.
Referrals. Students--especially those who have moved to aviation careers--know who is and who isn't doing a good job of instructing and they won't refer a friend to you unless they think you're doing a great job. So, if someone calls and says, "One of your former students suggested I look you up. Can you fit me into your schedule?" you know you've made the grade. Out of earshot, students really tell it as they see it.
Students keep in touch. Students remember instructors whom they rate above average and, because of the one-on-one interaction that characterizes flight instruction, they also are heavily affected by our personal approach. Most often, if they look you up or drop you e-mails from time to time, it's because you went past the teacher/student relationship with them and tiptoed into the area that borders friendship--and that doesn't happen unless they sense you cared about them and what you were teaching.
Checkride success isn't a guarantee of quality. But if you have a 100-percent checkride success rate, it definitely is not because you have mastered teaching to the minimums, as represented by the Practical Test Standards. If you taught to the minimums, you'd have one bust it from time to time. The only way to have 100-percent pass rates is to be instructing so far above the minimums that even when checkride-itis grabs a student, they are still able to perform well enough satisfy a critical examiner. That also means they'll do well under pressure out in the real world.
They are meeting your personal quality standards. You know things are starting to soak in when you realize that the quality standards you've been preaching are being met. Your students are putting the airplane down in the first 500 to 700 feet and trying hard to land it on the mains and keep the nose up during part of the rollout. You never catch the altimeter more than 25 feet off the assigned altitude, and the compass looks as if it is frozen in place. That's when you know you're transferring information in an effective manner.
Coffee-shop conversation is accurate. You see a group of students arguing some point of aerodynamics. Yours effectively dominates the conversation because he or she truly understands the concept and is able to explain it. They didn't learn that by themselves.
The lights come on. Most students have at least one or two concepts that seem to elude them. Maybe it is seeing the crosswind drift soon enough to correct for it. Then, one day they erupt, "I see it! I see it!" and you've just witnessed an epiphany where one of the concepts you've been trying to explain every way you know how finally hits home. And that's real progress.
You turn them loose and don't worry about them. More than anyone else, you know when you've been doing a good job instructing by the way you feel about your students' abilities. There will always be those whom you know are weaker than others, so you work a little harder making certain you miss no opportunities to strengthen a skill that is lacking. When you turn one of your weaker students loose for solo or put him up for a checkride and don't worry about him, you show confidence in your own work. You know they can do it because you've worked with them until they've done it time after time.
All the time we're in the cockpit or standing at the chalkboard, there should be a flashing "How am I doing?" sign illuminating our thinking. We have to constantly step back and view ourselves from the outside because it's only through critical self-analysis that we progress as instructors.
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