OK, so you're ready to go out and teach something to a bunch of officers. You're wearing your best dress shirt and tie, or perhaps the latest tactical shirt and trousers. Although some may call the latter "shoot me first pants," you know you look amazingly professional.
You think you're ready, but are you really prepared for the variety of characters you may encounter in class? If you've been engaged in law enforcement training for a while, you're probably aware of the fact that we don't always get a room full of ideal students (i.e., someone who wants to be there and learn). Regardless of the students' personality types (which we will talk about in a sec) the department is paying good money for them to be there, and you're expected to make learning worth their while.
In my experience, there are a number of student personality types you may encounter. I'll briefly talk about them so you're better prepared to deal with the instructional challenges they may cause. If you don't take proactive steps, some personalities can negatively affect the class and your ability to effectively get the message across to the other students.
The Veteran Student
The first personality we will talk about is the veteran. Perhaps you've dealt with a student who fits this description. I know I have. As a matter of fact, one of my first teaching assignments had a bunch of them. I was working street gangs at the time and was asked to conduct Advanced Officer Training on the topic. I walked into my first session to find most of the officers seated in the back row, and those who weren't had taken chairs from the tables closer to the podium and moved them behind the back row. I was facing what could be accurately characterized as the dinosaur squad. They sat there with an attitude of "OK, show us what you got, and you better make it worth our time."
I can honestly tell you that having to face this intimidating presence across a chasm of six empty rows caused me to perform at a less-than-stellar level. But from that day on, I slowly began learning some methods to help deal with situations like this.
One method was to try to find out who my students were going to be and to anticipate their behavior. Getting to the classroom before the students and setting up the location so the tables and chairs were arranged to get the students closer to the front of the class helped build my poise.
Another method was to develop more confidence in my ability to communicate. I also maintained eye contact with students. As experienced cops know, someone who avoids eye contact on the streets is up to something. In the classroom, this may indicate lack of confidence or even deception. Keeping eye contact with a student can be a very effective tool to get and keep your students' attention, even if you're dealing with the veterans. Combined with good command of the subject matter, I found these methods worked for me in subsequent classes.
The next type of student you may encounter is the prisoner. This is the student who doesn't want to be at the training. They were probably ordered to attend. You may not know in advance these people will attend your classes, but chances are you'll soon find out after the class starts.
Among these types of students, you may find detectives who have tons of paperwork and reports on their desks. They don't want to be there because they want to be working on their caseload. You many also find students who show up for firearms training but lack the awareness to safely handle the weapon with confidence and accuracy. They may fear being embarrassed in front of their peers and therefore feel trapped.
You can probably identify some other behaviors associated with this type, but the bottom line is that you should address the behavior. One way of doing this is to explain the relevance of the "WIIFM" factor. If you are not familiar with this phrase, it stands for "What's in it for me?" This is a common question when dealing with cops, and it does have relevance. I suggest you address this proactively at the beginning of class so it's in the students' minds from the get go. However, if the "prisoners" don't get with the program, you may need to talk to them individually.
Next we have the saboteur. Perhaps you've seen that old Rodney Dangerfield movie, "Back to School." In it, Dangerfield attends college classes to be with his son. During a business class, Dangerfield repeatedly interrupts the professor trying to teach the class. Dangerfield becomes so disruptive that he actually manages to take the students' attention away from the instructor.
This is a classic saboteur in action; the saboteur thinks they know more than you do. At minimum, they try to show off or disrupt the class. A saboteur can also be a student who behaves with good but misguided intentions. This person wants to share all the information bouncing around inside their brain. They may do so without fully realizing the impact this has on your efforts to teach the class.
Another type I've met is the saboteur student who sits down and is already armed with a negative "I'll show you" attitude. They also may try to take the class away from you. Don't let this happen. Obviously, you have to remain professional at all times, but as this behavior becomes evident, you should focus on the problem. As an instructor, you must take steps to mitigate this overall problem before it gets even worse for the entire class.
The Connected Student
A new type of student I've found sitting in front of me is what cultural anthropologists may soon call the phonus cellus americanus the American cell phone addict. In extreme cases, you can easily identify this type by how their body jerks and how they spasmodically clutch at their cell phone hand when another person's phone rings or buzzes in close proximity.
If it's their own phone that activates, it's not uncommon to see students get up during the training and walk out of the area, cell phone to ear. Even worse, however, is the student who answers their phone at their desk and engages in a conversation while you're teaching. Other variations are compulsive text-messengers and Internet e-mail junkies who spend more time looking at their screens than at the big one at the front of the class. For these students, the world clearly revolves around their overwhelming need to stay connected regardless of what's going on with the rest of the class. This is clearly inappropriate in a training environment and can distract the other students and you.
My suggestion: Be proactive. At the start of class, ask students to turn off their cell phones or at least put them on silent mode. From there, point out the importance of a positive learning environment and request that they don't disrupt it.
You should also turn your own phone off or at least on vibrate and control the urge to answer it. I've worked with instructors who whipped out the phone every time it went off ,even though we were in the middle of a lecture. In one case, it became such a joke that a group of students who decided to make fun of the situation were suddenly interrupted by simultaneous activations of their cell phones. In a well-planned choreography, the five students answered their phones in drill-team unison.
My point is cell phone use should be controlled in the classroom. From there, explain that we all need a positive learning environment and request that they not disrupt it in such a manner. The bottom line: Cell phone use should not take place in the classroom.
The Challenged Student
The final student type we'll talk about is the officer who is clearly challenged perhaps even overwhelmed by the subject at hand. For whatever reason, they can't grasp the material or tactics we're trying to teach.
Personal confession: People like Rick Nathan my first and only FTO for all of two weeks and my friend Phil Singleton (formerly British 22nd SAS and now president of Singleton International) are out there somewhere. I'm convinced there were times as they looked at my performance as a street cop or a SWAT operator that they were firmly convinced I was a challenged learner due to my limited learning capacities. I mention them to acknowledge their positive efforts on my behalf. Instead of belittling or giving up on me, they were tremendously patient and creative in helping me develop, and it worked.
I also know that if I didn't improve, they would've taken appropriate steps. For example, if I didn't progress beyond my admittedly slow, but acceptable manner as a new street cop, Nathan would have given me the "This line of work is not for you" talk.
The point: It's important to recognize that the challenged student deserves our best efforts and patience to help them develop and grow. If at all possible, law enforcement trainers must personalize and/or take extra time with these types of students. Demeaning a student and embarrassing them in front of their peers not only damages the individual's learning, but also your credibility as an instructor. I've seen it happen, and you might have too. It's not the right thing for an instructor to do or allow from others in the class. Don't let it happen on your watch.
Dealing with Problem Students
As the instructor, you're basically acting in a supervisory role. If a student is disruptive or unsafe and won't behave appropriately, it's up to you to do something about it.
How do you deal with a problem student? As mentioned above, one of the basic rules is to keep your behavior professional. Don't allow yourself to react negatively, especially in front of the class. Instead, identify the problem, and take steps to correct it. In the case of cell-phone use or a firearms safety during the class, setting the standards at the very beginning of the class will help, and no one can claim they weren't aware of expectations if they were clearly communicated.
If this approach doesn't help, it's time for a one on one. Example: I was teaching a class during the holidays. As I lectured, I noticed one of the students was focusing on something other than the learning process. Despite his attempts at desktop camouflage (he had his manual sitting vertically on the table in front of him), I could see he was working non-stop during the lecture on filling out and addressing his Christmas cards!
After realizing this, I wasn't in a jolly mood. At the next break, I sat down next to him before he could hide his joyful holiday greetings. He was given a choice of either paying attention or leaving so he could continue his efforts to spread good cheer somewhere else. Although he copped a little bit of an attitude, he chose to stay.
During a firearms class, I had a more serious problem with a student in one of the worst scenarios I've had to deal with. A couple of students told me in confidence that they smelled alcohol on one of their classmates. This was just before the lunch break. Before the class was dismissed for lunch, we reminded them about the safety rules, including the no alcohol rule, which would be strictly enforced. I had managed to briefly talk to the student as he left, and I was sure I also smelled alcohol on him.
I discussed this with the two other instructors, and we agreed the student would be removed from the training before we started the afternoon session. We anticipated some resistance, but when the class returned, the student in question was MIA. Another officer from the same agency told us his partner had experienced "physical problems" and would not finish the class. I think he knew he was in trouble and manufactured a sudden illness to sneak away from the impending confrontation.
Inform & Document
Both of these situations ended better than they could have. But what do you do if you have to tell a student to leave a class due to their behavior? My suggestion: Inform the student's supervisor or department about the negative behavior and then document the incident as well. Don't just let the issue drop.
I believe it's smart for instructors in this position to justify their actions. You should notify the student's supervisor or department about their behavior in your class. During a patrol rifle instructor course, I called a student's supervisor to explain my growing concerns about the student. When it finally became necessary to remove him from the class due to his unsafe weapons handling, I walked him away from the others and informed him of the decision. He was a civilian police department range master, and he pleaded that such action might cost him his job. I contacted his supervisor again, who subsequently came out to the range. I told him why the student was removed and let the supervisor talk to him. I even had another student who I'd asked to help the problem officer improve discuss the matter with the supervisor. After the class was done,
I also sent the supervisor a detailed letter documenting the reasons for the dismissal.
The inform-and-document process proves beneficial when you do have negative student conduct or remove someone from a class. It's a good bet some students will go back to their unit or agency with a slightly different explanation for their removal. If this is a good person who just had a bad day, they'll admit what they did wrong. Maybe you'll even get an apology. But it's also possible they'll try to shift the blame to you with little or no confession of their own culpability. This then becomes an attack on your credibility and professionalism as an instructor. If you take the right steps through informing and documenting, it's blunted at its source.
In the case cited above, the student did lose his job. I was sorry to hear that happened, but I wasn't prepared to compromise my standards, let alone the safety of the entire class. He did try to challenge my decision and even sued the department when they fired him. In my mind, when he chose these actions, he made my decision to inform and document even more solid. And, in truth, this whole scenario was a supervisory issue at an instructional level.
You As the Student
Before we wrap up, there's one final suggestion I want to offer. I've talked about the different types of students an instructor encounters. We've discussed how important it is for the instructor to have the ability to supervise a class as well as to teach it. My final suggestion? When you find yourself sitting in a seat as a student, give the instructor the same courtesy and attention you'd expect from your students.
I once went through a less-lethal instructor course. As the trainer covered the material, it soon became evident that he didn't have all the answers and at times tried to BS his way through the class. Rather than sabotage or turn my attention away from his efforts, I made notes during the class, and at lunch, I asked if I could talk to him. I gave him my input, one professional to another. I may not know a lot of things, but I do know less-lethal, and he later thanked me for how I handled this.
Bottom line: As instructors, we're all in this together. When we're in a class, we should be the ideal student. When we see an instructor struggling with material, we should offer help in an appropriate and subtle manner.
Finally, when people discuss your abilities as an instructor, I presume you want to be regarded as a "class act." If you agree with these suggestions, chances are you're well on your way.