As I reflect back on my Fire Service career I have often thought and wondered who molded me into the firefighter that I am today, and even further, the person that I am. I was pretty taken back by what I found. I have to say, without a doubt, the credit belongs to my parents, family, and friends that have brought me to where I am. Without the love and support of them it would be impossible to be where I am today.
Looking back to when I began my career in Emergency Services, I had to use what I had previously learned and apply that towards a career I felt passionate about and had very limited experience with. To be honest I was “scared to death”, but I was equally very eager to learn from those willing to teach me and guide me along the way, something that was vital in my career. Who knew that the basic ‘steps’ or riding along and observing would have such a profound affect on my career, but I truly found it amazing how fast those basics sunk in.
When your passion truly oozes through, you began to realize truths that may not have been expressed previously. It often crossed my mind as to why all the skills and knowledge I had gained from the short time in my new career field had come to me so easily when in the past it had been a struggle. Having the desire to learn something, or to become good at something is not merely enough, you must also have a dedicated Instructor to foster that desire and become the best at what you do. Everything I learned when I first stepped on that “buggy” was a direct result of the person that helped me begin that journey, the “Instructor”.
An instructor can be many things: a teacher, parent, mentor, or even a friend, but whatever you want to call it, you have to give credit to the “Instructors” in your life who have helped shaped where you are today, both in your career and life.
Reflecting back, many instructors have crossed my path throughout my career that have had a very positive impact on not only my career, but the decisions I make to perform my job to the best of my ability. Instructors all have one “simple” trait in common: they must be an effective “salesperson” to get buy-in from his audience, the student. Although they are selling a product, it is not for monetary gain compared to your typical “salesperson”. The product instructors are selling has a much greater value; creating a safer and more effective fire ground for both the fire service as well as the public we have sworn to protect. That product is a “thinking firefighter” that can make his decisions from a toolbox, full of different strategy and tactics, that were taught to them by the successful Instructors.
After observing and learning from many great instructors, I have found that these strategies are vital to be an effective salesperson as an instructor.
Know your subject.
Take the time to research everything you possibly can about your subject. You can’t just take one class on the subject and say this is the answer to everything. Reach out to other instructors that teach the same subject for feedback. You need to be able to provide your students with all the answers they may throw at you and prove what you are teaching works, not just on paper, but on the fire ground.
There are several classes that I have taken multiple times to ensure I completely understood everything about the subject matter that I could. I have even taken classes that contradict the subject matter I teach to ensure I am looking at my subject matter from every angle. This shows that you are open to other ideas and just want to get you the best possible product based on your needs. This gives you buy-in, which can make or break any given class. What you don’t want is a student attending a class on subject matter they have a strong desire to learn, then walk away with a negative opinion based not on the content, but the instructor delivering the content.
Know your audience and how they learn.
This can be the most difficult part of the whole process but most likely the most important. Juggling various opinions, personalities, and cultures, it can be very difficult to connect with everybody in any given class. Some learn by seeing, some by doing. Practice how to accommodate all learning styles. It may be one that we may not be able to overcome but you have to give an all-out effort to do so. Losing a “sale” due to the lack of preparation is something we can avoid. Getting to know you audience ahead of time is part of that preparation.
Know how the brain processes the words you speak.
Your ears work a little faster than your mouth. The average number of words you're able to listen to per minute is around 450. Even though your ears are capable of picking up on so many words, your brain doesn't necessarily process all of them. Most people usually only remember about 17 to 25% of the things they listen to. You might be surprised to learn that your words only convey about 7% of what you're trying to say. The other 93% is communicated through facial expressions, tone of your voice, and audio-visual demonstration. Simply talking, with no other audio or visual aids, can lose some of your audience no matter how good the subject matter.
Know how to listen (to everybody).
Even if you disagree with something a student or participant may be saying, it is vital to demonstrate you are making an honest effort to listen and value what they have to say. If you are able to take even a minuet part of something they said, and give value to it, it can be invaluable in gaining respect as an instructor. If you are unable to agree at any level with the student’s feedback just the simple fact that you were willing to listen is most often enough.
Know how to give feedback.
Feedback is invaluable to any student. If the student is struggling to comprehend the material being presented, you must provide as much feedback as possible to help them comprehend what you are trying to teach. Simply dismissing any questions that may arise can be critical in maintaining a learning environment. Simply stated, help them understand by all means possible.
Know how to receive feedback.
I honestly believe this is one of the most difficult teaching traits an instructor can carry out effectively. We have to take all feedback and do something positive with it. Listening to feedback is one thing but doing something positive with it is another. Feedback is the backbone for improvement at all levels. You must listen to your students and help them understand. Feedback is the tool that helps us as instructors understand why a student disagrees with, or does not understand something we are presenting, or on the opposite end, understands and relays that your teaching methods were effective. Feedback works both ways and must be treated equally.
Know how to network.
I leave this one for last, but I believe it is by far the absolute most important action we can do as an instructor. Networking with others in the fire service is honestly the simplest way to make our job as an instructor easier and the most effective. By reaching out to fellow instructors, picking their brains, and just brainstorming best practices, helps provide the skills necessary to become an effective “salesperson” as an instructor. Everything aside, I can honestly say this is the number one thing that has helped me become a better Instructor or “salesperson”. Be active and be part of anything that allows you to network with others that are stepping up and helping “sell” safer and better ways to operate on the fire ground.
Not that I am partial to any one organization or anything, but I can say with 100% confidence that becoming an active member of The International Society of Fire Instructors has been the best decision I have made since becoming an active and engaged Instructor. The organization and the members have provided me with support and advice than I could have never imagined was available, to help make me the best instructor I can possibly be. The resources and tools this organization provides to succeed are priceless.
I hope you will consider attending this year’s Fall Instructor Development Conference in Tinley Park, Illinois. Trust me when I say that you will not regret the experience. This conference is for anybody that would like access to network with some the best and be part of something that will change your future as a fire service instructor in more ways I can put into words!