One of my heroes and certainly the best trainer I've ever had was my dad, Harley Miller. Throughout the years, he shared his knowledge about many subjects with me, like using power tools and playing baseball, to name just a few. Most importantly, his attention and instruction developed my ethical baseline and the concepts of trust and respect. I confess that as a teenager I put his instructional abilities through some pretty demanding challenges. This includes the daunting task of teaching me to drive. That particular family crisis took place back in the days when manual transmissions were the norm. In my humble opinion, you're not a real road warrior unless you've mastered the brain/foot/hand choreography of deftly shifting gears. Bonus points are in order if you were at an expert level capable of demonstrating the fine art of selectively "burning rubber". Making this task even more challenging was the fact that my 1950 flathead-six Plymouth two-door coupe had the handling characteristics and probably some of the surplus parts of a World War II Sherman tank.
Prior to finally receiving his blessings to go into the night and cruise solo, one of Dad's greatest tests as my primary instructor came one evening during a church social function. Armed with my self-appointed power and driver's permit, I positioned myself at the church's parking lot entrance. Greeting the drivers of selected vehicles as they pulled in, especially if they were at the controls of something in the muscle car category, I informed them that I would be handling the night's valet duties. I can only blame the emerging influence of raging testosterone and an insane desire to savor the feel of as many different cars as I possibly could. My service to the congregation was cut short, however, when I slightly miscalculated the angles when parking one car, severely damaging both that vehicle and the one in the adjacent parking spot.
Did I mention that Dad's training philosophy included him being a strong disciplinarian? I will leave to your imagination what happened from there, but phrases such as "his terrible swift sword" and "near-death experience" are quite applicable. If someone had walked up to me at that moment and said, "Come with me if you want to live," I would have been gone!
Where I'm headed with this is that between what I learned from Dad and some truly great mentors from my time in police work, I've developed my own checklist of positive instructor characteristics. Whether you are just starting out as a law enforcement trainer or have been at it for some time, these are offered as humble suggestions for you to consider as you hold up your own instructor mirror to see how you measure up. Here they are:
Be Well-Versed in the Topic
It goes without saying that if you are going to train, if you are going to instruct, you should have knowledge of the topic beyond that of the average student. My dad was damn good at fixing things, as well as a gifted mechanic and carpenter. He learned these skills because others took the time to instruct him and he made his own efforts to learn, and he then successfully passed many of them on to me. On the opposite side of the spectrum are the self-appointed instructors who may have some level of know-how but try to BS students into thinking they know more. This won't fly with other cops for very long. I'll just leave you with the advice that you should know your stuff.
It took me a long time to realize my father's high level of dedication to setting me on the path of manhood, but looking back on it now, I realize that his focus as my parental trainer was on educating and raising me right and not being just a friend or buddy like some fathers these days. Similarly, a law enforcement instructor should be committed to their craft. As I've said before in this column, I believe that training is a calling in our profession. You will influence people through both your instruction and your actions as you teach. To put it another way, if your son or daughter was in the next training session you conducted, how dedicated would you be to teaching the topic properly? Why not provide the same level of effort to each of your students?
Communicate Effectively & Know the Learning Process
This one is a given. Although it's a good idea for instructors to have some formal training or at least a good grasp of adult learning theory, I suspect that my father operated on a more intuitive and basic level. Nevertheless, he could explain in detail how to use a drill press and other tools in such a manner that I learned to use them fairly quickly for my age. Had he not done so, I might have ended up like one of my friends, a power tool virgin who followed his father's brief instructions to "cut that board with the skill saw." The poor kid promptly did so by placing the board flat across his legs as he sat on a stool. He sliced the wood, alright, and his thigh as well. Thirty-one stitches later, he could say he clearly followed instructions, but who's really to blame for the injury? We all know the answer to that one, as well as the fact that as trainers, we could make similar mistakes if we aren't careful. The key is effective and explicit communication.
Be Perceptive & Supportive
I know I'm a lucky man, because both my dad and many of my law enforcement instructors have been great role models, especially when it came to demonstrating the above aspects of being perceptive and supportive. One wanted to see me succeed in life and the others wanted me to develop into a good police officer. To this day, I value the support they gave me. They were also perceptive as far as what was going on with the training, including ensuring that students had appropriate breaks and keeping the material interesting and relevant.
One example for you to consider: Several years ago, I attended an NRA Select Fire (full auto) Instructor course in the blazing 100-plus degree Fahrenheit heat of Tucson, Ariz. All of us on the firing line were working hard, but the temperatures were grinding us down. At one point, as I readied my MP-5 for the next drill, I put my finger on the trigger when I shouldn't have and discharged a burst into the ground in front of me. This firing faux pas was witnessed by the entire class and the instructional staff. While the rounds impacted safely between me and the target with no damage or injuries, I was humiliated and fully prepared to be justly kicked out of the class for such a sin. One of the instructors came over to me, and as I cringed, expecting the worst, he draped his arm around my shoulder. Calmly and softly he uttered the words, "Do it right from now on." Perceptive? Supportive? You bet. His positive handling of my range mistake made such an impression on me that, to this day, I use the same approach when similar circumstances occur on my firing line. And, as I have just done with you, I often share the story with fellow instructors.
Use Appropriate Humor
Cops usually respond in a positive manner if you can throw some appropriate humor into the instructional mix. My friends and well-known instructors Phil Singleton and Gordon Graham are masters at this. The trick for each of us is to find the right balance between our individual instructional personalities and our student audience. For example, I used to play the Chris Rock "How not to get your ass kicked by the police" clip as a humorous beginning to my classes. I stopped using it when I realized it was just not appropriate in a law enforcement training environment. I know there are cops who enjoy Chris Rock and his loud and occasionally raunchy type of humor. The reality is however, that other students in your class may be uncomfortable with it or even offended.
I haven't used that video in a course since then. I would suggest that you evaluate your use of classroom humor in a similar context as far as what is appropriate to share with your students. Make it fun for them, but remember that there are plenty of ways to do so without cheapening or damaging the learning process.
Deliver the Message
My father invested heavily in me, and I hope yours did the same. As instructors, the level of our efforts isn't expected to be commensurate with such examples, but getting the message across to our officers and other personnel is just as important. That information may not always be what they want to hear, but it should always be what they need to hear. A classic example is when a department policy impacts your instructional material. You disagree with the policy but it is set in stone. Period. If you're a professional, you'll carry out the training in compliance with the new directive because that's what an instructor does. If you disagree strongly, take it up the chain, but don't dump your opinion on the students in the process.
For you, your students and your department, nothing good will come from that approach. Similarly, walk the walk. I'm sure you know what I mean, but just in case: If you deliver the message, make sure that you live by it just as you would expect your students to do.
Recognize that Educating the Student Is Paramount
It's a question of priorities. When instructing, what's at the top of your list? Getting the class done so you can get out of there? Adding another class to your instructor r sum ? Or do you focus on doing the right thing for your students? At the risk of being redundant, I'll say again that the most important person in the classroom is not the instructor. Instead, that "person" collectively represents each and every man and woman sitting there expecting to be taught. Dad wasn't 100% consistent in this category, but he was pretty darn close in my book. He worked full-time during the week and took on odd jobs on the weekends to make ends meet during some pretty tough times. Through it all, he found the time to coach many of my baseball teams. He helped develop both me and my teammates' baseball skills and other teenage sports pursuits while I, the self-absorbed high school jock, remained oblivious to my family's financial condition and the sacrifices he and mom were making on my behalf. His intent was to make a good person out of me. Following this example and perhaps your own experiences focus your best efforts on giving your students the quality training that they need to be successful and safe in our profession.
Make Sure that Training Is Goal-oriented & Safe
We've talked about the importance of properly educating students, but let's not forget about their safety as well. In my book, good instructors don't get complacent or overlook the importance of running safe training sessions, but I've seen instructors do exactly that. In one case that I know of, the trainers decided to cut corners rather than observe safety protocols. This translated into having students and role players (including teenage police cadets and explorers) wear only wraparound safety glasses instead of full face mask protection during scenarios in which Simunitions were being used.
Predictably, one of the role players got shot in the face, narrowly missing his eye. The lead instructor responsible for this was fired from the program and other instructors were placed on notice that in the future, any such disregard for the safety of scenario participants would result in their being dismissed as well. While the recent (and admirable) trend is to make law enforcement training as realistic as possible, unnecessary risks are not part of the equation. Within reason, I suggest that you guard your students' safety as you would that of your own sons and daughters if they were participating in the program.
Although the jury is still out, I think that my dad did a fairly good job with me. As a trainer of cops, I try to keep the lessons he taught me and the above characteristics in mind. This is partly out of respect and also because I, too, hope to be remembered as a good instructor, just as I regard Harley Miller as the best trainer I ever had. I hope that you, my fellow instructors, will find some relevant value in these characteristics as well.