The Police Trainer: An Instructor Can Make or Break an Officer’s Performance on the Street

Training—it’s the vehicle that helped us become police officers, and in the most extreme cases, how we survived critical incidents. Much of what we learn is predicated upon two things: a willingness to learn the topic, and, the instructor’s ability to deliver the information. Both are important components to becoming a successful law enforcement officer. The first component, willingness to learn, is critically important. Having been a police trainer for more than twenty years, I’ve had the experience of observing students whose attitudes were an impediment to learning. Some guys thought they already knew the topic inside and out, while others were perhaps attending training for the wrong reason. Maybe the training venue was ideal, or they just wanted time away from the job. Still others were only at training simply because they were ordered to be there. And in some cases, a student simply did not like the instructor or his technique and thus said the heck with it all.

Many of you have heard it explained that training is like a buffet—you pick and choose what you like about the training and add it to your repertoire of skills. Whether it’s building entries, room clearing, firearms … you’ll find techniques that are helpful and some others that aren’t. All training is valuable, and the goal of both the instructor and attendees should be the same, learn at least one thing you can take with you to use on the job.

 As an instructor it’s important to be able to connect with your students. And one thing I’ve learned is that you can’t be a good instructor if you’re not also a good student. That means continually learning about the craft or topic you’re teaching. Researching it, talking about it with subject matter experts, and staying abreast of the latest educational tools utilized to impart knowledge to your attendees.

An effective police trainer must have “walked the walk” before he can “talk the talk.” In the first minute or two, cops will read the instructor as far as whether he/she knows what they’re talking about. Have they been there, or are they just teaching from slides someone else prepared? It’s called credibility. That initial assessment dictates whether or not they respect the instructor. Respect is the number one factor students look for in a teacher. According to a study at Austin Peay State University, respect is even more important than knowledge and the ability to communicate and engage. Respect dominates all other characteristics in effective teaching.

One of the least effective methods of teaching is the PowerPoint presentation. If you deliver this type of instruction, be prepared to hear sighs and negative comments throughout. Most often the PP results in boring unproductive classes. A much better alternative is videos that reinforce teaching points, or even inviting students to share their experiences with the class. Getting students engaged generates enthusiasm in both the instructor and attendees. In fact, when both are engaged the allotted time seems to fly by and class ends before most want it to.

Using humor during training is a good technique but remember it can also be a double-edged sword. It can be used as a segue to a lighter topic, or it can backfire and alienate some who were formerly on board with your delivery. Remember that humor is an important tool for coping with stress and anxiety. It can help you do your job better and have fun doing it.

Along with using humor in your instruction, being passionate about your topic can be a priceless attribute. Knowing your topic inside and out as a result of having practiced the technique or method, particularly, if it resulted in a life-changing experience, adds value. Students easily pick up on an instructor’s passion for teaching and feed off his energy.

In many cases, learning doesn’t happen until behavior changes. It doesn’t matter what you know if you can’t properly employ it. An opportunity to practice a newly learned skill will reinforce the likelihood of retention and on-the-job application.

Being an effective instructor also involves learning from feedback. If you don’t allow for either verbal or written feedback, you are at a real disadvantage. How can you possibly improve yourself if you don’t allow for feedback?

Think about the times you may have given a shooter on the range some feedback on their skill. Giving simple, concise feedback to a technique is the most effective way to help the shooter learn. Demeaning comments about the student, rather than corrective comments about technique, will always cause doubt and loss of confidence. The desire to make that shooter into the best he can be will be easily picked up on. Even if the instructor may have a personal bias toward the student, that should never be addressed during training. If need be, wait until training has ended to address personal issues.

Positive feedback is the key. Negative comments only tend to reinforce a student’s perception that he can’t do something. You must instill in your students your belief that they can master whatever technique you’re teaching, and that their success is your success. Your enthusiasm will translate to their enthusiasm and eventual mastery of the topic. Having faith in them will generate respect for you and make your job enjoyable and rewarding.

Stay Safe, Brothers and Sisters!

By John Wills |

Photo by Frank Borelli

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