10 insider tips to bring your instructional A-game
This list is a challenge for you to experiment, fine-tune your craft and make your presentation impactful to the most important person in the room – your student
As law enforcement trainers, instructors, FTOs, supervisors, coaches, or mentors, our teaching skills are developed and strengthened over time (hopefully). There are no broad strokes or a single grandiose event that changes everything. Rather, it’s the small things, added up over time that collectively delivers us from good to great.
A fighter does not get cauliflower ears in a few weeks; it takes years (10,000 hours) of putting in an hour at a time (bleeding, sweating, healing, practicing and experimenting) to reach authentic mastery. There is nothing special about water that is 211 degrees; it’s just hot water. However, if that hot water goes up just a single degree to 212, dynamic things happen. At 212 degrees, the water starts to boil and boiling water releases energy in the form of steam. Compressed steam has the power to drive a locomotive across the country. Consider developing your skills one degree at a time.
After teaching for over 30 years, I find myself in blissful retirement, but working more than I ever have before. Part of my endeavors allows me to sit in on a broad assortment of professional law enforcement training. In the past three years, I have seen countless diverse instructors, at every rank, teaching in supervisory, management and executive level courses, SWAT school, homicide, narcotics, leadership, webinars, academies, train-the-trainer, weapons, field training, and the list goes on. I have seen instructors whose presentations were life-changing and others who were a work-in-progress. A valuable byproduct of these collective observations has been the ever-developing macro-view of training that led me to construct this list of instructional talents, skills and techniques that make good training better.
This article is not about adult learning, Bloom’s Taxonomy, or how to write lesson plans. This list is a call to action and a challenge for you to experiment, fine-tune your craft and make your presentation impactful to the most important person in the room – your student.
1. Demonstrative teaching
Moving slightly beyond the ol’ PowerPoint – Lecture – War Story – Video – Repeat pattern of teaching, don’t we all like show and tell?
In a law enforcement response to terrorism course, I discussed pipe bombs located in a wide variety of criminal investigations. I could feature such bombs on slides, print out their construction in handouts and show some good videos. This is good training, but something is missing. There needs to be a “next level.”
I had the students sit and stand around a table with a large tablecloth over it. As they settled in, I pulled the cloth back and on the table were all the components to build a simulated pipe bomb from scratch. I said two words, “Build it” and walked away.
My students collaboratively built a pipe bomb (simulated powder and fuse) and even figured out how to make the pipe fragment with the metal wire and magnets I provided them. I did not teach them, but rather they discovered, collaborated and worked as a team. They usually hear it, read it, or see it. This time they did it, touched it and built it with their hands and this impactful lesson only took about 10 minutes.
This is called “stick-to-your-ribs” learning. Even a decade later, I ran into students who stopped me and said, “Hey, aren’t you the pipe-bomb guy?”
Certainly, tell them (lecture), show them (PowerPoint and videos) and share your expertise (story-telling), but when you are able, let your students touch the lesson, hold it, smell it and use it. With a little imagination, you’d be surprised at your abilities to show and tell instead of just tell.
2. Proximity, movement and Q&A
It’s not uncommon for instructors to be tethered to or feel a sense of security hovering in close proximity to the lectern (aka podium). This area serves as a home base of sorts. Other comfort zones are to the left or right of the projection screen, often so as not to block the PowerPoint slide show.
Standing and teaching in one place or a small well-defined area for hours may become tedious, lacking change or instructional variance.
Classrooms should be strategically/tactically designed for the instructor to traverse the entire room. Round tables are ideal for this or a seat configuration that differs from the vertical classroom rows we sat in as kids and the standard horizontal rows we sit in today, both of which limit the instructor’s travel. Consider being creative with seating to allow for openness and movement.
Once the seating is optimal, while teaching move around. It is perfectly fine to stand and teach, but mix it up and blend the presentation with talking (teaching) to the students at an arm’s reach instead of at the students from afar. Proximity to students increases their attention, allows for better Q&A, and increases the appearance of personal attention (direct eye contact).
If you like to be close to the screen so you can physically point to and often touch the on-screen content, know that doing so often bathes you in bright light, partially projects some of the slide content onto your body and is unnecessary. The little black slide-advance remote we carry has a laser in it, but it is often so weak that, depending on the slide color and content, the little red dot can barely be seen. Buy a handheld green laser on Amazon for $15, which is about the size of a large Sharpie pen. This laser dot can point out any letter or bullet on any slide in rooms of any size and the green dot is powerfully bright and distinct. This will free you up from needing to stand "in the light” and touch the screen to highlight information.
With regard to instructional Q&A, this form of teaching is an art and in some cases, a lost art. Those who understand how to do it well have a powerful facilitative tool in their instructional toolbox. Here is a simple tip that will offer some help.
Instructors commonly ask questions; however, they are mostly open-ended questions and they discover that often in classes, getting answers is not easy. An open-ended question is asked and nobody replies. Instructors will then answer their own questions. If they are patient and wait, an answer will come. The students are thinking and they are looking around to see if anyone else will go first. Wait for them. If no answer comes forth, rephrase the question, ask it again and wait (patience).
The problem with instructors continually answering their own questions (asked and answered) because they cannot take the temporary silence, is that if they do this enough, they are conditioning the student not to answer. The students know that if they are silent long enough, the instructor, like clockwork, will provide the answer. Under these circumstances, the students view the instructor’s questions as rhetorical with no genuine expectation of getting any feedback from the students. This turns instructors into talking heads and limits class engagement and participation.
Now, if instructors want direct answers, simply ask direct questions, preferably using the student’s name (use name tent cards). Asking a direct question will result in an answer every time. For example:
Open-ended question: “Who can list the steps for safely approaching a suspect?”
Direct question: “Aaron, share with us the steps for safely approaching a suspect.”
Consider designing Q&A as a way to teach the students by drawing the answer out of them and adding to it rather than just giving it to them. Questions should engage and challenge and lead to discussion and discovery. In every class, there is always a small core of students who raise their hands and answer everything opposite the quiet students whose preference is passive listening and hiding among the crowd. Direct questions add balance to the classroom, allowing instructors to seek out the more quiet students and get them involved.
Pro-tip: Combine proximity, movement and skilled Q&A and watch your classroom come alive.
3. Blended & diverse delivery
Great training, in part, consists of blended and diverse presentation. It is a varied and multi-prong approach to delivering curriculum that does not cater to a single learning style, but rather, covers all learning styles. Eating the same food every time you eat is boring. Seeing the same limited presentation techniques every time you train might be viewed as average, uninteresting, and thus, less effective or impactful.
Limited: PowerPoint – Lecture – Video – War Story
Blended: PowerPoint – Lecture – Video – Story-telling – Handout – Breakout Group – Q & A
Unlimited Diversity: PowerPoint – Lecture – Video – Story-telling – Interactive Handouts – Breakout Group – Q & A – Case Study – Competition – Use of Smart Phones – Role Play – Games/Gaming – Guest/Keynote Speaker – Student as Teacher (Teach-back) – Real-time use of Internet – Flip-chart Techniques/Scribing – Demonstrative Instruction – Facilitation – Self-Directed Learning
The best learning occurs when an instructor connects/links new information or new experiences to a student’s pre-existing information or past experiences. This connection is powerful and can be carried out more skillfully when the training allows students to experience it in multiple ways and certainly including cognitively, affectively, and if applicable, through psychomotor applications.
4. The art of story-telling
The best way to teach others the value of storytelling is to let them experience the impact of a story. When teaching, I ask the class, how many of them have ever been to a house party in high school. I know that my response will be nearly 100% and so the story begins…
I went to a huge high school Christmas party with my friends. As we entered the house, the music was pounding and I could smell the keg beer. Across the room, I noticed Haley sitting on the couch with her friends. Haley was the most beautiful girl in school, but much more; she was smart, funny and had friends in all the cliques, and she had a sweet heart. All the guys had a crush on Haley at one point as we all grew up together. I saw there was mistletoe hanging over the hallway arch and couples were kissing under it and I formed my plan. I was going to ask Haley to go under the mistletoe. I told my friends and they aggressively warned me I would end up rejected and humiliated, and not to do it. Despite my fear and self-doubt, I hesitantly walked across the room and got more nervous and unsure with each step. I walked up to Haley and asked if she would go with me to the mistletoe. Her friends were noticeably shocked and time seemed to freeze. Haley stood up with a big smile, took my hand, and said the five coolest words I had ever heard in my entire young life…
I then tell the class, “Anyway…good times. Let’s move on.” Many of the students start to laugh as they feel like they have been unfairly cheated. Some are noticeably and unpleasantly dissatisfied as if I owed them more and I left them hanging. A few will actually and forcefully say, “No no no, you have to finish the story!” or “Hold on, tell us what Haley said!”
Now, this is where the power of the story exists. You see, the students don’t really care much about my story, me, or even what Haley said. They care about how it connected to a parallel or similar experience they had with their version of their Haley in their story. My shared memory tapped into their past memory (experience) and the result is a feeling or an emotion, good or bad, but certainly powerful.
We remember our first real kiss, the first time someone told us they were in love with us, that first home run, the terror you felt when you could not find your child for 20 minutes, or the first time we held our baby in our arms. For police, remember when you first drove solo without your FTO? These mini and major milestones in our lives make us who we are and such memories or experiences are moving. So, while the students are dying to know what Haley said, they are actually reliving their own experiences and connecting their own stories to mine. This commonality and mutuality establishes a valuable connection, often called rapport.
The lesson here is to deliver your curriculum, in part, through stories, but design the story to connect to mutual experiences. Let your stories exemplify, illustrate, reinforce and bring your curriculum to life. Remember, storytelling can be an art and certainly strategic when presented with purpose and intent. Dr. Stephen Covey might recommend when planning your story, begin with the end in mind.
By the way, Haley stood up, took my hand and said, “Andy, we don’t need mistletoe.”
5. Owning the room
When I walk into a training room to teach, I pause and quickly assess exactly how I want the room to work. I set up props and arrange everything to best accommodate what we will be doing for the next eight hours. Some refer to this process as staging. While staging isn’t rocket science, here are some examples of how to take it to the next level.
While teaching with several partners, the students broke for lunch. Upon their return, the doors to the training room were locked and there was “Do not cross” yellow tape blocking the outside of the hotel room doors. At exactly 1 p.m., the doors opened and as the students entered and walked to their tables, one student tripped a latent filament wire tied from the leg of a chair to a loud personal safety alarm. The siren was blaring and the instructor said you just got your leg blown off. As the instructor turned the alarm off, all the students were frozen where they stood. You could cut the anticipation with a knife. The students then moved very slowly and cautiously and their situational awareness was 10 out of 10 as they visually searched for more simulated explosives. Suddenly, another alarm (IED) went off. This was a great way to transition into the following curriculum. This demonstrative instruction was done on day two of a four-day course. On days three and four, every student was hyper-cautious as they entered and exited the room and they were fully engaged.
When prepping the room for the day, move the lectern where you want it. Bring a table up to the front of the room to put your instructional stuff on it. Move the chairs/tables how you want them to give yourself the room you need or the freedom to move through and among the students. Play some good music on the breaks. Dim the lights if needed; open or close window shades, adjust the A/C, and have an ice chest with your favorite cold drinks to stay hydrated. So many instructors walk into a room they have never been in and use it as is. It is your room; own it.
6. The lost art of writing real learning objectives
The learning objective illustrates how the desired growth/learning will be measured or determined; what is the student expected to learn/understand. This is often referred to as a student’s walk-away skills. A learning objective identifies specific course content and assessment tools (described below) define how that learning is measured.
Generally, a learning objective should include:
- Audience (the student),
- Behavior (what is the student doing to demonstrate knowledge, skills, and abilities),
- Conditions (what are the circumstances, exercise, or activity the student is performing such behavior),
- Degree (described level of competency).
Learning objectives should be used as a guide for learners as they work through their training and to measure if their learning progress is on track. Effective learning objectives are most powerful when they result in action and can tangibly be measured (validation).
Example: While participating in the learning activity “Sick Leave Abuse” the student will develop a proposal in memo form to the administration and identify three suggestions (methods) to mitigate the organizational abuse of sick leave.
Learning Objective: A…B…C…D
Audience: Who is involved/Who is the audience? (The student.)
Behavior: What are they doing/behavior? (Develop a proposal in memo form.)
Condition: What are the conditions? (While participating in the learning activity “Sick Leave Abuse.”)
Degree: How well must they perform/to what degree? (Identify three suggestions - methods.)
Each learning objective uses simple, actionable verbs directly related to the learning outcome and course purpose. Concrete verbs such as “define,” “apply,” or “analyze” are more effective for assessment than verbs such as “be exposed to,” “understand,” “know,” or “be familiar with.” When quality learning objectives are used, they help illustrate instructor and student expectations, guide the learning processes, and to help focus and ready students for their examinations and validation of their learning.
7. Great instructors are lifelong learners
A student’s expectation of their teachers, trainers, coaches, or mentors is to be at an advanced level of what they are teaching; ideally, the more advanced (expertise/mastery) the better potential for more effective learning. As instructors, I would urge you, even at the top of your game, to always keep practicing, fine-tuning, tweaking, improving and growing.
Read books on teaching and seek out any and all content on your subject matter. Seek out the little diamonds among the rocks and adopt such instructional gems as your own. Watch (analyze) videos of talented trainers and great speeches and study them. Then, instead of knowing the resources, become the resource; write and publish your own articles for magazines, websites and social media.
Be a speaker or guest on podcasts. Be a trainer who teaches other trainers. Don’t just join professional associations; serve on their committees and teach in their annual conferences and then become a member of their boards. You have some 30 years to accomplish this. Carefully design your growth to be strategic, methodical, balanced and enduring. Think where you could be in 10, 20 or 30 years. Never stop learning.
8. Relevance/real-world application
One of the most effective things an instructor can do to make the training content and presentation of it powerful is to ensure that it is wholly relevant and has real-world application to the students. In many training scenarios, the relevance is built-in or self-evident, but to really drive the importance of the curriculum, show them how it will solve a problem, increase their safety, tactics, or performance, or make their personal or professional life easier. Relevant training fills the gaps that need to be filled and provides remedies to areas in need of improvement. Don’t just teach the lessons and hope for the best; make your message blatantly clear and give them proof. The value of knowing your audience is so you can better cater to their needs.
While teaching a group of young officers and presenting some information on doing things right, operating professionally, liability, and risk management, I held up a lawsuit that was filed against me and my partner. This litigation alleged that my partner and I broke the arm of a 76-year-old man violating his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and listed a Monell Claim for monetary recovery from our agency. These were two of about six charges and we were listed as defendants. I read portions of the boilerplate nonsense in the many pages that detailed our horrific unlawful acts and the plaintiff’s incredible suffering and need for; well, they asked for everything.
After my brief presentation, I reminded the students that everything my partner and I did they will do hundreds of times throughout their careers. They will draw complaints, they will be investigated and they might be sued. While our frivolous and absurd lawsuit was thrown out, some are not and the successful litigation could result in the end of a career or the loss of assets and reputation.
After a dramatic pause, I asked the students to raise their hands if they would like me to show them exactly how to avoid being the defendant. All the hands went up. At this point, the relevance of my curriculum could not be stronger or better connected to the group. As we moved forward into the curriculum, the level of attention, engagement and question asked could not be higher. This, in part, is affective teaching/learning. Affective taps the student’s emotions, fears, values, attitude and their characterization of something, often important or meaningful to them. Skillfully used, affective teaching can result in powerful connective learning and few things could be more relevant.
9. The art of handout materials and resources
Handouts are very common, even expected, in law enforcement training. Handouts are often low-order (simple); they illustrate paragraphs of content that represent the training course subject matter, and are used to read and review outside the classroom. They serve as a reference to refresh the student’s learning. Other simple and common handouts are copies of the PowerPoint slides often with note-taking sections. More complex handouts may provide a case study or exercise to work on or directions for student groups to participate in a learning activity. While these descriptions account for the vast majority of handouts in contemporary law enforcement training, they serve a purpose and have value, but they can be much better and more effective.
Consider making your student handouts interactive. As you deliver key points of the subject matter, have those key points be blank lines on the handout that students must fill in. This calls for increased student attention and creates overt engagement. Try adding small pictures, diagrams, or illustrations that exemplify and complement the content. Add mini-summaries or bold and bulleted key points to identify the most important points or test information. Wherever there is an open space on your handouts, add links to valuable websites, reading (book/article recommendations), other experts and similar training available. Use QR codes and great curriculum-related quotes, and make good use of bullets, font size, bold, color and other variances to make the handout professionally aesthetic, even commercial looking. You can do incredible handouts that have a wow factor and will likely be kept and used for future reference or you can make the same average handouts that will be thrown in the trash outside the classroom.
10. Instructional quick tips
- Instructors should consider dressing one level above the students. If students wear t-shirts and jeans, the instructor might consider a collared polo shirt and dress slacks. This varies with the type of course, but there is never a downside to looking professional.
- Any training that employs physical activities, weapons, or out-of-classroom tactics should be accompanied by a safety plan and covered carefully with the students. If you feel like the uncool Mom or Dad when controlling your class, you are probably on the right track.
- If your PowerPoint makes noises (swoosh) when transitioning content onto the slide or your slides are adorned with clip art from the nineties, give your presentation an overhaul. Your PowerPoint presentation represents you and the material you are presenting; keep it updated, visual, well-designed and logically sequenced.
- It’s okay to show an appropriate short video, often humorous, which has nothing to do with the curriculum to perk the class up or as an ice-breaker after lunch, but all other videos must be concise, be wholly connected to the subject matter (relevant), and as close to realism as possible. Watching a full movie, broken into parts, in a week-long course is fine, but showing a 2-hour movie in a 4-hour presentation should be avoided.
- Consider the acronym R-I-D-E-M as an instructional guide of sorts when developing quality student-centered training. Training should have R-elevance for the students. The training must incorporate student I-nvolvement. When possible and usually through skilled facilitation, allow the students to D-iscover the content to be understood and practiced. Adults learn best, in part, when new information is connected to the students' past E-xperience. There are instructional benefits when instructors M-odel what they present while they are presenting it or have the students model (demonstrate) what they have learned. (RIDEM was created by James Fraser.)
- These words are usually used to describe the most talented and dedicated trainers: High-energy, approachable and personable, great communicator, humorous and fun, competent and subject matter expert, or different or creative.
- Successful instructors understand time management. Teaching four hours of curriculum when allotted two hours, does not work. When there are notable time constraints, taking a 90-minute lunch, 20-minute breaks, or ending the class at 3:30 p.m. when it was scheduled to 5 p.m. does not make sense. If you find yourself skipping over slides, rushing through explanations, eliminating time for Q&A, or eliminating portions of the instruction because you ran out of time, it’s time to readjust the content, time allotted, or how it is presented. When teaching the same materials over long periods of time, we tend to add to the curriculum but seldom take away from it.
Teaching law enforcement professionals can be an honor, so be good at it. The better you deliver it, the more they benefit from it. Best of luck!