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The Best & Bravest Police Trainers

What do we mean by best?

Reasonable minds may disagree on what makes a great police trainer. For purposes of this article, I agree with Ken Bain, Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at New York University and author of the book What the Best College Teachers Do.

Whether in policing, grade school, or universities, the best teachers,

Help their students learn in ways that make a sustained, substantial, and positive influence on how those students think, act, and feel.

If your training doesn't impact how recruits and officers think, act or feel, you may be contributing to global warming by simply adding hot air to the ozone layer.

What do we mean by bravest?

I was a certified teacher for five years before I went to law school and served as a state and then federal prosecutor for over ten years. I trained law enforcement officers during the years I was a prosecutor and made it my third career over a decade ago. I've also been writing a monthly article for Officer.com on training for several years for which I've done a lot of research.

I relate these nearly 35 years of experience training, public speaking (that’s what a lot of trial practice is), and researching and writing about training to place my next statement in context.

I still get nervous and sometimes scared every time I face a group of adult learners.

Most people are surprised when I confide such anxiety. But I have learned poise as Earl Wilson, an American journalist, defined it.

The ability to be ill at ease inconspicuously.

I have to work at being poised every time I'm about to face a group of learners. The hard-wired biology of this fear was revealed to me in Scott Berkun's book Confessions of a Public Speaker. Berkun explained that human history has identified the following four things as a threat to our survival:

  1. Standing alone
  2. In open territory with no place to hide
  3. Without a weapon
  4. In front of a large crowd of creatures staring at you

Historically, these things raised the odds you'd be attacked and eaten. I choose not to join a chorus of back up singers or hide behind a lectern, and I'm not a firearms instructor. I've had to learn other mechanisms to cope.

For one thing, I've come to recognize that fear or nervousness is about me and my training should be about my learners. Just before I face any group, I stand with my feet shoulder width apart and my hands at my side. I close my eyes, take a few deep breaths, try to stretch at least three inches taller and say to myself,

Let me be worthy.

That helps me channel my nervousness into a commitment to my topic and audience.

To me, the bravest trainers are those who harbor fears and anxieties and choose to train anyway. They are also some of the best trainers.

As Edward R. Murrow, the prominent radio and television news broadcaster, said,

The best speakers know enough to be scared... the only difference between the pros and the novice is that the pros have trained the butterflies to fly in formation.

I also think the bravest trainers are those who share control of the training / learning process. If you're scared when you're totally in control, it is a lot scarier to give up some of that control. If you don't, you may end up with just the training half of this process - which only results in your mastery of a subject area and a bunch of hot air.

Tips for Liberating Yourself and Your Learners

Share responsibility.
"With great power comes great responsibility." So said Ben Parker, uncle to Peter Parker aka Spider-Man. If you share the power of the training experience with recruits and officers, you can also share the responsibility.

It took me a while to work up the courage for this next tip in my own training. I'm sure I got it from something I read but I can't remember the source. If you know, please email me so I can give proper credit.

I ask my adult learners what they hope to get from my training. This can be scary because what if you're not prepared to deliver what they want. Better the devil you know than the devil you don't. This lets you clarify whether their expectations are beyond the scope of your training. I've always had my learners come up with plenty of objectives for the training we could agree on.

Then I ask my learners what they see as MY responsibility to ensure we achieve these objectives. This was even scarier because I worried about whether I could meet these responsibilities. But I've never had one thing mentioned that I didn't agree with. The lists have included things like:

  • Have necessary and meaningful content.
  • Be prepared and organized in my delivery.
  • Listen and respond to questions.
  • Don't bore them.
  • Don't be condescending or patronizing.

Then comes the clincher. I ask them what they see as THEIR responsibility. You'll see the light bulbs turning on in their faces as they list things like:

  • Listen.
  • Keep an open mind.
  • Ask questions.
  • Participate.

From wedding vows to Weight Watchers, public promises carry weight with most of us. Publicly taking on your responsibilities to ensure your training creates something of value means you can ask your recruits and officers to commit to their responsibilities as learners.

Put yourself on the line in evaluations.
Subject yourself to evaluations. I have a knot in my stomach every time I am about to read through a stack of evaluations. I'm still working on balancing my excessive need for approval with an understanding that there are people who belong to The Society of the Perpetually Offended.

If you're going to gird your loins and face evaluations, make sure they're useful. Frankly, any numerical or quantitative ratings - such as whether the learner was:

  • Very satisfied
  • Somewhat satisfied
  • Neutral
  • Somewhat dissatisfied
  • Very dissatisfied

Here are some much more beneficial questions:

  • What one change would have most improved my training?
  • What questions did you expect me to answer that went unanswered?
  • Was this a good use of your time?
  • Would you recommend this training to other officers/recruits?
  • Are you considering doing anything different as a result of this training?
  • Do you know what to do next to continue learning?
  • Were you inspired or motivated?
  • How likeable did you find the speaker?
  • How substantive did you find the speaker's material?

THE WGAD principle.
One of the bravest things I've ever heard of a teacher doing is in What the Best College Teachers Do. Author Bain notes that Donald Saari, a mathematician from the University of California, invokes a principle he calls "WGAD" - "Who Gives a Damn?" Saari tells his students at the beginning of his courses that they're free to ask him this question any time and he will stop and answer it.

I'm working up the courage to give every learner in my trainings an index card with WGAD on it that they can flash at me at any time.

Letting go of some of the control and empowering your recruits and officers to help chart the course of your training takes courage. But in the words of Anais Nin, French-born American author,

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage.

The same might be said of training.



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