An effective trainer.
Mingle with your students. You must know your stuff, but show them you're human and you'll be a more effective trainer.
FEATURED IN TRAINING
Years ago when preparing for the sergeant’s promotional process, I was told that it would help to have a grasp of certain concepts. Among these were understanding human nature and motivation through Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” theory and other similar ideas about how folks behave, especially within an organization. Looking back on these now with some years of experience in teaching cops, I don’t think they were especially relevant or worthwhile. If I talked to street cops about how they’re motivated at different levels of behavior based on Maslow’s writings, I’d have received a well-worn response: “Sarge, you gotta be kidding!”
It seems to me now far more realistic for a new supervisor or instructor to focus on understanding and employing the tenets of adult learning theory (ALT). I know ALT is a significant topic because I used my superior knowledge of technology to google the phrase and it came up with close to 26 million results. (That’s probably 25,899,999 more results than you’d get if you googled my name.) This is clearly an important and relevant topic.
One of the first things that comes into play with ALT and cops is the “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM) factor. Sometimes this question is asked with a lack of forethought. An example: My wife asks me to do something that’s important to her as we get the house and food ready for dinner with friends. I’m sure the veteran husbands will agree it would probably not be the smartest move to ask her, “What’s in it for me?”
But when we’re trying to get a message across to our fellow officers, the instructor must anticipate each student asking WIIFM. Basically, adults must have a reason to learn. Typically this works best if the motivation comes from within each student. I know what you’re thinking: Did he fire six shots or only five? (Darn, I’m sorry. I sometimes lapse into “Dirty Harry” mode from having that scene burned into my memory markers. Let’s try that again.) I know what you’re thinking: This won’t always be easy because there is a variety of topics on which we must train our officers. You’re absolutely right, but I truly believe that in each lesson plan there are probably one or two motivational gems that can be harvested to amp up the WIIFM factor, thus gaining the cops’ interest. A good instructor searches for these, then uses them at the beginning of class. This points to the fact that cops will typically absorb and learn information they recognize as necessary for their duties.
I don’t discount the existence of topics that lack learning sex appeal. Cultural diversity is one that immediately comes to mind. Along similar lines, I’m privileged to help teach at a SWAT academy in which one of the mandatory topics is legal issues. Almost universally, the young, testosterone-pumped SWAT cops’ reaction when told that this will be one of the blocks of instruction is less than enthusiastic, to say the least. But we’ve got a good instructor who knows that WIIFM is sitting in the classroom along with the new SWAT dogs. He goes beyond the norm to get their attention and hold it because this topic is very important. When we read the evaluations after the SWAT academy, we usually find comments about the legal block, such as “instructor did a good job with a dry subject” and “difficult to teach, but it’s an important topic.”
An analogy: We all deal with waiters and waitresses. Occasionally, the dining experience includes a veteran server who provides us with a description of the day’s specials with a positive delivery, some style, a flair for the spoken word and a solid knowledge of what’s available. Compare this to going someplace else and getting a monotone “Do you want fries with that?” Which makes a better impression?
While we’re talking about adult learning theory and instructors, let’s turn the focus to connecting with the class. Typically, we talk about objectives at the start. This is when we give an instructional road map of where the class is going. One of the most important objectives, however, is rarely mentioned but equally significant: The instructor’s objective to ensure the class learns. Establishing a relationship with the students and demonstrating that we genuinely want to help them learn is quite important. However, an instructor who comes to the classroom with a self image that’s overinflated by knowledge, rank or other factors isn’t going to do well with our cops. In fact, this type of instructor is probably going to be evaluated by the audience as severely in need of an ego enema. Police officers will tolerate such behavior for only so long, then the students will at least mentally—if not physically—move on to other things.
In this context it is, I believe, important for an instructor to power down to his or her student’s level. I’m not ignoring the fact that the trainer will probably be the most knowledgeable person in the room. But what I’m trying to get across is that a trainer with a know-it-all, superior attitude, for example, probably won’t be as successful. Instead, show that you’re human, with experiences and feelings similar to theirs. Remember: As you share knowledge, you’re being judged. You want this jury on your side, finding you guilty of being a good instructor. Following are some ways to power down:
- Tell a story : If you have humorous experiences that are relevant and appropriate for the topic, share them. One of the stories I share touches on communications, problem solving and dealing with other cultures. It begins with me relating how I broke my leg while conducting training in a third-world country. (Yes, I agree, that’s not a good thing to do.) Once my contract was done, I left—quickly. While that big, old jet airliner was flying me home—and may I say right here, God bless the USA—I received an internal alert that I had to go—No. 2! Taking my seat in the vast expanse of the plane’s restroom, I immediately discovered that due to the full-length cast on my leg, I couldn’t close the door. An angel of a flight attendant took pity on me and stood guard at the open door while I carried out my mission. I sing her praises every chance I get. She, however, probably puts a different spin on the trauma she suffered while going beyond the call of duty. I’ll spare you further details, but this story usually “connects” with the class.
- Get out in front: Instead of staying behind a lectern throughout the class, walk beyond it into the students’ area. This removes the artificial barrier the lectern represents. Better yet, don’t even use the lectern. Mingle.
- Reward those who get involved: I regularly bring a bag of chocolates with me when I teach. When students ask good questions or make relevant points, I’ll bestow a chocolate upon them. If they do something especially noteworthy, I may “shotgun” them with a handful of chocolates. Depending on the interplay between me and the student, I may use a “slow pitch” delivery or a fast ball approach. Typically, the cops like it. I wish I could claim this as my own idea, but the truth is I learned if from Charles “Sid” Heal. If you haven’t met Sid, he’s a well-known, effective instructor who recently retired from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department as a commander.
- Use the same equipment as your students: I know many firearms instructors who have invested some serious money in good, even superior, equipment and accessories. But when they teach cops—let’s say, a patrol rifle operator class—they remove the whiz-bang stuff from their rifles and use magazine pouches comparable to what their students have. That sends an important message (i.e., “You can achieve success and stay alive with standard issue equipment.”).
- Mingle and talk with your students on breaks: What a concept! It doesn’t have to be just about the subject matter, but it should communicate that you’re one of them rather than someone unapproachable. Just make sure you’re doing it out of a genuine desire to help your students learn.
- Treat them like adults: This is such a basic rule, but I still hear about violations. One of the worst examples I’ve seen involved a firearms instructor working with academy recruits. This “professional” would loudly yell at students when they did something wrong, demeaning them in front of their peers. Such a bombastic approach is not an effective learning model nor is it proper to treat cops in such a fashion. For a number of obvious reasons, this technique is even worse when the student is on the firing line holding a loaded weapon. As a counterpoint, when I went through rifle training during Marine Corps boot camp, we were actually treated like human beings, which was something of a departure from our beloved drill sergeant. Our firearms instructors recognized how important it was to successfully impart the proper use of the rifle to young Marines.
Another aspect of ALT is that there are all kinds of students. But in law enforcement you can expect a majority of them to be Type-A personalities. To varying degrees, this type of individual has a mind that’s occupied by a number of time-competitive issues and priorities. They want to learn in a rational environment, where free discussion should be allowed. Sure, there are absolutes in police work, but the gray areas are more prevalent. This means students are going to want to be able to apply what they’re taught to a cop’s reality. Practical application—learning by doing—is key to getting the message across. You and I both know we can’t always factor in practical application, but there are ways if you’re an inventive trainer.
For example, in the past I did some training for California POST Institute for Criminal Investigation. My specialty was street gangs. One of the practical application approaches we developed was to recreate a bloody felonious assault location, complete with evidence planted around the crime scene. If properly analyzed, these clues would lead the student investigators and CSI officers to other locations and the suspects. We even had role players available or on video to act as witnesses, which added additional realism. In keeping with applying adult learning, this took an educational process from the theoretical setting of a classroom lecture to a practical training experience.
Put It In Context
Still another step to engage your students is to develop the topic within the context of problem solving in the real world. This approach often appeals to cops so long as the problems presented are true to life rather than artificial and contrived. Remember: “The world is a circus, and the cops get in for free.” An example would be a class focusing on racism or cultural diversity. If not taught properly, this has the potential to turn off police officers. But when you put it into a cop-world context, success is more likely.
One technique I used in teaching a white supremacist skinhead course was to discuss a murder investigation I was involved in. The motive for this crime stemmed solely from the fact that the victim was black and the suspects were racist skinheads. Most cops operate with a strong sense of right and wrong, and this case definitely pulled the students in. This was especially true when the lecture was accompanied with photos showing the victim, the suspects, the latter’s weapons and the bloody crime scene.
Plugging these into the adult learning process helped the officers—whether as street cops or gang detectives—understand the impact they can have on the end product when working gang enforcement. What street cop worth their salt doesn’t want to attend training that teaches them how to prevent a murder? Or, better yet, how do they effectively investigate such crimes and hunt down the criminals responsible so they get the judgment day they deserve?
When we talk about adult learning and cops, I know that based on your past experiences you may be thinking, “Cops? Acting like adults? Nah.” There’s some definite truth to this. Playing off of this, my suggestion is to do your best to let the class have some fun. If you don’t facilitate this, the cops may start it rolling on their own. Just keep it balanced so it doesn’t become something inappropriate that could cause you grief later.
There’s plenty more to talk about regarding this topic. Swap stories with fellow instructors and supervisors. Search the Web. Almost 26 million results are waiting for you.
The bottom line:
If you train and work with your students using ALT, you’ll be a more effective instructor, have some fun and probably come away with more rewarding teaching experiences.