Becoming a better police trainer

If you want to improve as a police trainer, sometimes you have to start from scratch

Thanks to fellow trainer Val Van Brocklin, I recently had the opportunity to do some police training in the United Arab Emirates. Although I travel extensively throughout the United States, my foreign travel has been limited to a few law enforcement events in Canada, bi-annual family vacations to Mexico, and teaching at a couple of police training conferences aboard Norwegian-flagged cruise ships (you read that correctly, police training on a cruise ship, thanks to the genius of RRB Systems International). Although I was presenting a topic that I’ve been teaching for nearly 20 years, I was feeling a little like a beginner — this was way outside of my usual element as a trainer.

After my initial state of mild panic (“What was I thinking?!”) I decided to use this experience to shake myself up a bit, and here’s a little of what I learned, and was reminded of, to make myself a better trainer.

Research Your Audience
Wherever I teach, I try to find out a little about the area I’m teaching in before I go. If I’m being brought in by an individual organization, conference, or agency or I’m being hired to address a specific issue (such as workplace communication or off duty survival) then my research is more thorough. I always make sure I look into the officers killed and injured in that area, but I also like to read up on the region’s typical crime trends, departmental and government politics, even the local economy.

PoliceOne Columnist Betsy Brantner Smith is seated with her students from Abu Dhabi Police Department during a January 2010 training session in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
PoliceOne Columnist Betsy Brantner Smith is seated with her students from Abu Dhabi Police Department during a January 2010 training session in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

As a student, I always appreciated an “outside” trainer who would come to my department and commiserate with us about our contract negotiations, share an inside joke about an errant councilman, or congratulate us on a recent big arrest. Even if you’re conducting in-service training within your own organization, take the time to find out what’s happening outside of your shift or your division. Although I was teaching in Dubai, I knew that my students were going to be from the Abu Dhabi police department, but that’s all the information I was given up front, so I got on the Internet and started learning about a part of the world that I never imagined I would visit, much less travel there to train their cops. I felt a little like I was heading out to teach my very first in-service.

Computer Dependency and Subject Knowledge
Like most classroom trainers, I’m pretty dependent on a computer-based presentation program. I use Microsoft PowerPoint in virtually every class I teach. I would not find out the level of the English language skills of my students and whether or not I would be using a translator until I arrived, so I opened up my copy of Garr Reynolds’ “Presentation Zen” and got to work, making my PowerPoint much more “Zen.”

We’ve all been to classes where the instructor’s PowerPoint slides were more like Word documents than training aids — some of those classes are downright painful. Reynolds recommends using more photos and images and fewer words on your slides, and frankly, it’s a great concept. It forces you to rely more on your brain and your classroom skills and it makes the whole experience much more enjoyable for the students. I also wanted to be able to ad lib in case there were language or translation issues.

This forced me to take a hard look at my own classroom style, my teaching methods, and my knowledge of the subject. I started at the beginning and relearned my topic — “Community Policing and its Impact on Crime Prevention” — because I wanted to make sure I was current as well as competent.

I also took to heart something Dave Smith taught me a long time ago: “As a trainer, you’d better be able to present your material, and do it well, without anything more than a dry-erase board or a flip chart.” I once watched him teach the final half-hour of a Street Survival Seminar after the electricity went out in a hotel ballroom. No computer, no projector, no videos, not even a microphone; and Dave just kept on talking, kept teaching, kept training and he brought the audience right along with him, making them forget about the lack of lighting and technology and keeping them focused on the topic at hand, their survival. Dave received a standing ovation and I learned something extremely valuable: every trainer should be able to that.

I decided that I was going to be one of those trainers by the time I went to Dubai.

Put Your Ego Aside and Get Some Help
I like to think I know my way around a police training classroom, but nonetheless, I started soliciting advice, both before and during my trip. Before I left, I talked to a number of friends who had trained abroad, and I listened to and absorbed everything they had to say.

I quickly realized that this was a time to listen and learn; in other words, the teacher needed to be the student. I made many changes to my program based on the advice I was given, and I’m so glad that I did. I’m grateful for the generous assistance I was given by so many of my fellow police trainers. I don’t care who you are or how good you are, you can always get better — always — and we need to continue to train, encourage and mentor each other.

Flexibility is Essential
When I arrived in Dubai and got settled, I was pleased to discover that the facilities were excellent, the people were friendly, and the company that hired me was organized and efficient. However, I learned that my students had varying degrees of English proficiency so I knew that my planned curriculum would have to be modified.

I could feel my blood pressure rising; two of my five days of instruction weren’t going to work for these guys! Again, I turned to some experts — my students. After getting to know them a bit on the first day, I sat with them and asked, “What do you want to learn from me?”

Wow! Why hadn’t I thought of this before? As young officers assigned to a new community policing unit, they were full of suggestions, concerns, frustrations, and successes, and I let them guide the instruction in the direction that was best for them. This turned out to be my most valuable lesson of all:

It’s less about what you have to teach and more about what your students want (or need) to learn.

Learn as You Teach
I returned from my week in Dubai a much better trainer, anxious to share what I’d learned with all of you. Whether you’re an FTO, an in-service instructor, a rangemaster, training commander, or an independent contractor, next time you have the opportunity to try something new that will challenge you, stress you, and maybe even scare you a little bit, do it!

You’ll be glad you did — I sure am.

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