As instructors, we have a grave responsibility

I used to ride a motorcycle.

If I’m honest with myself – and I haven’t admitted this publicly until now – part of the reason I gave it up was I wasn’t a good enough rider. I wasn’t capable enough to handle the realities of riding a motorcycle, especially in town. While the fault is ultimately my own, speaking as a long-time teacher – and one that currently teaches people in dangerous activities – I can recognize and lay some fault at the hands of my riding instructors.

On the roads in Austin, there are just too many people engaging in distracted driving – like with their eyes on their mobile phone instead of the road. I had far too many close-calls with people simply not paying attention to their driving (almost rear-ended by a dump truck was particularly harrowing). That’s scary enough when you have a protective steel cage around you (like in a car), but it’s far worse when you’re naked and vulnerable on a bike. I just got tired of dealing with the constant fear and realities of too many close-calls.

Part of the fault was my own, because I didn’t have the skills and abilities I should have to successfully/defensively ride a motorcycle in town. I was too excited to get out on the open road on my awesome motorcycle, be a part of that lifestyle, and all the cool things that came with it. I was not prepared for the realities that came as well.

Let’s look back on my motorcycle rider safety course.

I did OK in the class. But the final test? I passed it on a technicality. The riding portion involved navigating a skills course. You lost points for mistakes, bigger mistakes losing more points. For example, if you laid the bike down – foot pegs touch pavement – you basically failed. I don’t recall the specifics of my run and points, but I was executing a tight S-turn, didn’t do it right, and started to go down. Since the bike was a Kawasaki Eliminator 125 (weighs 300 lb.) and I’m decently healthy and strong, I was able to easily save myself: I put my foot down and was able to keep the pegs from touching pavement.

I looked right at the instructor running the course. She said I was good and let me continue.

She shouldn’t have.

For all intents and purposes, I laid the bike down. I failed the skill. But because I’m strong and the bike weighs nothing, I was able to prevent the loss of points. Correct to the letter of the test, but NOT to the intent.

But I didn’t care. I passed! I could get my motorcycle license, get my motor runnin’, head out on the highway, lookin’ for adventure, and whatever comes my way!

The instructors said nothing to me. Beyond that look of “you’re fine, continue along”, then the handshake on the way out the door, nothing.

At the time, I didn’t know any better. I leaned on and expected if the instructors thought I was OK, then I was OK.

That was my naive mistake.

Because as I got out on the road, while I had no problem with most things, I just didn’t have the level of skill necessary for emergency action. I didn’t have the ability to do things like make tight turns, nor the confidence in knowing I could do such things if suddenly called upon. I look back and wish I had failed the test – or been failed – so I would have put more work into those skills, or at least not been let out on the road due to a technicality.

As I look back on my experience, I now think to myself that I don’t recall the instructors from the class actually caring whether we learned or not. Maybe they did, but I don’t recall any impression they truly cared. That they understood the gravity of what they were doing, and how what they were teaching may be that vital bit that could affect the rest of someone’s life. They seemed to just want to run the class, sign the certificates, and get paid.

Or maybe they did care, but after hundreds of classes they were jaded and/or complacent. Or maybe they thought failing people wasn’t good for business. I really don’t know why they did what they did. All I can do is learn from this and strive to do better in my own realm.

I know ultimately the responsiblity and fault is my own. But when you’re a n00b; when you don’t know what you don’t know; when you have to rely and trust the guidance of someone claiming to be your teacher – you hope they have your best interests at heart and will do right by you!

I’ve been a professional firearms instructor for 9 years. At KR Training we have classes that end in a test and require a passing grade in order to proceed to the next class. Sometimes the students squeak by, technically passing the test. But I and the entire KR Training cadre take the time to be straight with the student about their skills and abilities. We point out where they need work. We strive to put their skills and testing into perspective – even if it’s not fun to hear. Yes we want people to succeed, but helping a student feel good and get a gold star when their skills really aren’t where they need to be? That’s doing a grave disservice to the student. This is a time for honest assessment. We want true success, real success – even if today it means failure.

As instructors – especially instructors of skill that affect life and death – we all must remember the gravity of what we are teaching. Even if a student technically passes the test, we must speak with them honestly and work with them earnestly to help them have a true assessment of their skills, even if it injures the ego. Because if we do not give our students correct assessment of their skills and abilities, that could lead to them getting hurt or killed.

As instructors we have a deep responsibility, and we need to always remember that responsibility and live up to it.

4 thoughts on “As instructors, we have a grave responsibility

  1. Excellent post John. I’ve been a professional “teacher/instructor” for most of my adult life. I was a flight instructor before my job as an airline pilot, then I became a school teacher (20 years now) and over the past 5 years a part-time firearms instructor. I completely agree with your opinion regarding the responsibilities of instructing. I have witnessed far too many folks that are in to “the teaching gig” for the money or other selfish motivations, none of which include the true professional responsibility required of an instructor. In my opinion, the greatest joy I’ve had while teaching was seeing the moments when someone “gets it”….whether it’s been learning how to correctly work a chemistry problem, performing a successful instrument approach, or passing a firearms skill test after never having shot before.

    • Thank you, Brett.

      You’ve been a teacher for a LONG time, in various realms, and you “get it”. For sure, it’s great to watch those magical moments with students “get it”, the light bulb comes on, and suddenly they are hooked. I love those moments as well. But you also know, you want your students to have realistic assessment of their skills — even if it’s not a life-or-death thing. To KNOW what you know and to KNOW what you do NOT know — that’s important.

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