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Great Cop, Lousy Trainer?

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.

Just this month I was privileged to address an audience of cadets, faculty and staff at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Before I got into my requested topic - how to make their Professional Military Ethics Education Program more engaging and inspiring - I thought about how to accomplish what the DPS recruit had so eloquently stated.

I chose a personal story - which can be a powerful training instrument. (See web link to That's My Story and I'm Sticking to It - Storytelling as a Leadership and Training Tool.)

I stood before them without a podium or PowerPoint slide and told them,

I grew up a military brat. My Dad retired as a Chief Warrant Officer from the Marine Corps. Oo-rah! My childhood memories include the whole family in the living room the evening before Dad had a big inspection. Mom would be sewing down some loose edges of Dad's chevrons. My brother would be spit shining Dad's shoes - this was before corfam - while I was polishing brass. Dad would show us the Manual of Arms with his unloaded M1.

My memories also include reading the newspaper every morning before school and feeling sick when the headlines said that Da Nang, where Dad was stationed in 'Nam, had been bombed by VC. At home we'd wait with hearts clenched tight as a fist for the next letter or phone-patched radio call. There was no internet.

Dad is 82 now. I call him every Memorial and Veterans Day to thank him for coming back to us safe and whole, to thank him for his service, and to thank him for serving with friends who didn't come home.

Not too long ago, Dad said, "Hell, I was in Nam for one 13-month tour. I don't know where they get these young people today. They volunteer and they go for 12 to15 months - again and again and again."

That's YOU. And I want you to know that my leatherneck Dad, my family and I revere YOU. This nation reveres you.

At the end of my presentation, audience members lined up to share with me their initial skepticism and how it had been dispelled.

It is not about YOU

Outside the police academy environment, I'm stunned by how many trainers don't get to know anything about their learners but take great effort to ensure the learners know about them, their qualifications, expertise and accomplishments.

I'm an outside trainer so I need to take some special effort to learn about my audience ahead of time. I ask my contact person to give me some representative names and contact information from those who will be attending the training so that I can ask them what their top 3 challenges or concerns are regarding my topic or their work. By representative I mean I look for folks that span ranks, genders, age and ethnicities.

Using the internet, I inform myself about officers who've been killed in the line of duty from the agency or geographic area of my learners so that I can pay homage to them.

Early on in my instruction I ask the learners what they want from the training. I follow this up with asking them what they see as my responsibility in ensuring they get those things AND what they see as their responsibility. I let them know I can't create anything of value without their participation and assistance - we're a team and I expect to learn as much from they as they do from me.

Grab them at the start and finish with a call to action

I've previously written about how to grab learners' attention at the beginning of training. (web link below to Hook, Catch and Don't Release - Tips for Training Openers). It's equally important to captivate and engage learners at the end of your training.

Studies show that audiences retain the majority of information from the first and last 15 minutes of a presentation. Psychologists have proven that the first and last 30 seconds have the most impact. (Web link below to Open and Close Your Presentations with Power.)

One of the greatest presenters of the modern age was short, balding, pudgy, and worked hard to overcome a stutter - Winston Churchill. He knew how to move people to action - and that is what training is really about. In his essay The Scaffolding of Rhetoric, Churchill said that if you want people to change or act as a result of what you've told them, you should close with an appeal to their emotions.

Churchill named 4 powerful emotions a speaker might close with a call to action to:

  • Pride - in country, in community, in one's profession and self
  • Hope - a vision for the future, hope for tomorrow, new opportunities, expanded horizons
  • Love - of family, country, and God
  • Fear - what might happen if we don't act immediately.

Think of how you might end your training with such a reveille.


I guess I'm less aggravated by the implications of the phrase "those who can, do; those who can't, teach” than I am by any suggestion that all it takes to teach others is subject matter expertise. It takes so much more.

  • A passion for learners
  • A deep respect for the role of learners in creating anything of value in the teaching-learning process
  • Study and mastery of adult learning theory, different learning styles and how to teach to them, and strategies for inspiring learners to do something new or different based on the information you've offered them
  • Practice, practice, practice.

To the many trainers I've met and learned from that bring all this to the work, thank you.