How to optimize student officer progress

The habits instilled by field training officers will either help or hinder everything from routine duties to critical incident response

An effective field training program is the lifeblood of a healthy police organization. Whether it is the field training officer (FTO) or police training officer (PTO) approach, the first significant impression a new officer receives from an organization is during this experience. This is where they build either good or bad habits, bridge the gap between academy and application, and get started at an energized sprint or an indignant saunter.

The effects of the training program extend further than how the new officers perform – lessons learned follow officers well into their careers. The habits instilled by training officers will either help or hinder everything from routine duties to critical incident response.

Students’ perceptions of the training experience influence how likely they are to seek needed guidance from their former training officers and how much confidence they will have in the answers. Further, these impressions lead our best officers to either give back to the program or gravitate toward other specialties.

The effects of the training officer can even be significant on lateral officers. The training program either reinforces lateral officers’ excitement for the new department or causes them to consider returning to where the grass was a little greener than they previously thought.

So, how can we as trainers build and maintain the best training program possible and optimize student officer progress? How do we coach them to succeed and develop the tools to drive their own success? How do we keep expectations high without grinding them down in the process?

Low expectations equal low results

Sometimes students assigned to you need improvement in more areas than you would prefer. Your attention is split between coaching and gripping your belt to avoid pulling out your hair. When presented with these cases, author and motivational speaker Les Brown’s adage of “it is better to aim high and miss than to aim low and hit” holds true.

If during the training process, you set the bar higher than the minimum standard on which your students will be tested, expect them to reach for it. Given a little time and patience, these students will often surprise you. However, if you give up and expect nothing out of your student, the poor results should not be shocking.

Be interested in your student's success

If you are not personally interested in your student officers’ successes, it is likely to show. Maintain the mindset that their failure is your failure. By taking ownership of a student’s success, you improve the value of your coaching and remove the temptation to mentally wash your hands of a challenging student. This does not mean that you give them a stronger review than they earn or do the work for them. It means you keep working with students who are on the edge, with every intention of setting them up for a strong career.

Keep in mind that great trainers are defined by their ability to build great officers out of students with challenges, not by being idle and present when a high-performing student takes the profession by storm.

Listen and adapt

A common trap for trainers is to assume they have all the information necessary to effectively teach a student. A wise trainer realizes the value of what the student has to say – with their input you can better understand their thought process, get them engaged and build rapport. Failing to adjust for factors such as dominant learning style (visual, audio or kinesthetic), how sensitive they are to feedback and if they have any significant life stressors outside of work can render your coaching ineffective.

In the historical samurai novel “Musashi,” the titular character spends some time as a farmer. He takes up a plot of land considered unworkable by the locals. He clears land into an orderly square field, but a storm washes away all his hard work. He sets up a dam and has the same result. He finally realizes that instead of making the land conform to his plan, he should work around the existing shape of the terrain. When the next storm comes, the land not only remains but thrives. This is all to say: don’t make your student conform to your teaching methods – adapt your teaching methods to the needs of your student. You must listen to them to figure out how you can best accomplish this.

Process over results

Students who focus on the processes involved in achieving success will have a better map for repeated success than those who focus on whether or not they actually succeeded. Doing this better equips the student for future performances – a traffic stop that worked fine with a cooperative driver isn’t the same as a traffic stop that was performed optimally for an unexpected lethal threat. A results-driven focus might lead you to overlook the important differences.

Growth mindset

Coaching should be done with an emphasis on the importance of progress. By emphasizing growth instead of results, the student will be more comfortable with mistakes and more willing to get repetitions. Masters of every profession and art refined their abilities by putting in the work, not avoiding it to escape the penalty of a negative result.

To increase buy-in by the student, you have to believe this to your core as the trainer. If you snap at mistakes or dwell on them, you quickly lose credibility. Your reactions must reinforce that it is safe to fail forward toward success.

Give constructive feedback

“Do better next time” provides no direction for the student to avoid a mess later in the same situation. Feedback should be specific, qualitative and provide a conceptual context. If a student pulls up nearly in front of a disturbance call and walks straight up to the front door, the feedback should include the specific actions that were done poorly, what a much better performance would look like, and relate it to the concept of silent and invisible deployment.

If you are frustrated with being put unnecessarily into a dangerous position you can communicate this, but your focus should be on the improvements the student can make next time and not rubbing their nose in a mistake. If you have the student check with resources, such as criminal statutes, policies, other officers or any other sources, you should check for comprehension afterward to ensure that the student has the information needed to improve performance.

The primary reason for identifying a problem in performance is to improve future performance. The secondary reason is for documentation of passing or failing and only significantly comes into use when performance has not improved despite the best efforts of the trainers.

Praise is just as important

Capturing the behavior that you want to see with praise is at least as important as identifying what you do not want to see again. A simple “good job” comment provides no useful information; feedback should be specific. Highlighting the elements of the performance that led to success increases the chances of seeing it again later.

Field training is an exhausting process for new officers, and if they only hear about their shortcomings, their fatigue dramatically increases and their performance decreases. If they only hear about their errors, their perception might be that they are failing. This lowers motivation and can put their focus back on results and not the process.

A strong training program makes for a strong police department, and the strength of a training program is dependent on the people and their methods. No process or trainer is perfect; however, by employing the above methods and concepts, you can optimize the value of your role and the performance of your student officers. The methods you employ will also influence how your students approach self-improvement as they progress into their careers. With each student, you can positively shape the officers you work with and who will eventually replace you when you retire, satisfied that your jurisdiction will not fall apart when you finally lay down your shield.

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