Great Cop, Lousy Trainer?

Most police trainers are subject matter experts. That's a good thing when you're handling firearms, but it takes much more to be an effective trainer. Val Van Brocklin looks at what it takes and how to get it.


Those who can't do, teach. (Web link below.)

I hear this phrase sometimes in the back rows of law enforcement training. To those who have muttered or silently subscribe to it, I have three reactions.

My first reaction

Tell it to:

  • John Wooden
  • Joe Torre
  • Don Shula

They were all excellent professional athletes who became canonized coaches or managers of professional teams. Great coaches and managers train players how to be the best at the game.

My second reaction

There are lousy teachers. And there are lousy do-ers. And there are great do-ers, whom I will refer to in this article as Subject Matter Experts (SME), who are lousy teachers or coaches. (Wayne Gretsky and Lenny Wilkens come to mind. See web links below.) There are great and inspiring teachers, who weren't stand outs doing what they train but have a gift of communicating and inspiring others to be better than they were.

My third reaction

The opposite side of the "those who can, do; those who can't, teach" coin is the notion that just because you're an SME, you can teach.

Kathy Sierra, co-creator of the bestselling Head First series (named to the Amazon Top Ten Editors Choice Computer Books for 2003 and 2004), points outs the inanity of this,

Just because you've used lots of software doesn't mean you can write code. Just because you've been in lots of buildings doesn't mean you can be an architect. And just because you've logged a million frequent flyer miles doesn't mean you can fly a plane.

Just because an SME has learned something, doesn't mean she can craft a learning experience for others. This latter is a completely different skill set and takes its own study, learning and practice. That's why we've all experienced SMEs who have bored us until we wanted to scream into a pillow.

Getting started

Many law enforcement trainers find themselves in that position based on their subject matter expertise. I'm not against that. I want firearm instructors to know how to handle firearms proficiently and safely. Law enforcement SMEs who become trainers also need to study, learn and practice the art and science of training.

There is a plethora of research, case studies, and "how to" information on the internet and in printed publications on "adult learning theory" and how to be an effective teacher/trainer - almost too much when you're getting started. As with great leadership, I think great training starts with asking the right questions - not of your learners but of yourself.

The right questions

A lot of SMEs who become trainers are more into their subject than their learners. Their focus is on their topic and themselves. So their questions center on things like:

  • What am I going to say?
  • Where am I going to say it? ?
  • What handout materials or PowerPoint am I going to use? ?
  • How many tests will I give and what will be on the tests? ?

What's the focus of these questions? The trainer.

I've previously written about learner-centered training (web link below). Since then I've learned from What the Best College Teachers Do (web link below) that learner-centered trainers start with a different set of questions:

  1. What should my learners be able to do intellectually, physically or emotionally as a result of their learning?
  2. How can I best help and encourage them to develop these abilities and the habits of the heart and mind to use them?
  3. How can my learners and I best understand the nature, quality, and progress of their learning?
  4. How can I evaluate my efforts to foster that learning?

Simply put - you start with the learners rather than your subject.

They don't care how much you know until...

A recruit at the DPS Academy where I train each class of recruits taught me one of the most valuable lessons I've learned about how to be an effective trainer. He said,

They don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care.
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