My First Teach: A Trainer’s Life Behind the Scenes
As the students begin to enter the classroom, beads of sweat are about to converge on my forehead into a raging stream and flow down my face. I wonder if the students are aware of what’s happening as I frantically search for something to stop the flow.
It’s my first teach. I know there is a first time for everyone, but I still can’t help wondering if I am truly ready. Have I done everything possible to prepare myself for this moment to teach this important software course? My mind races through each question while I formulate my responses and think of all I have done to get to this point.
Preparing for a first teach of difficult technical software subjects can be a long, daunting and sometimes scary process. But if approached in a logical, informed and eager manner, it can be not only manageable but also enjoyable. When preparing to become a top-notch technical instructor, there are four pillars worth addressing: knowledge, experience, personal qualities or skills and class preparation. All of these are critical to lasting success as an instructor as well as the temporary reduction of “jitters” during a first teach.
First and foremost, an instructor needs to know the subject matter. It is imperative for all instructors to maintain their technical knowledge and skills related to the subject they’re teaching. By attending instructor-led or Web-based training classes and seminars, reading current books and articles on the technology and receiving certifications, instructors develop and hone their skills. Learning is available in many ways: education centers, colleges, public seminars, self-study books and online. Certainly, the instructor should have more knowledge than the students. Otherwise, why would they be here? When teaching technical subject matter, it becomes readily apparent to students if an instructor does not have the prerequisite knowledge to lead the class.
One way that instructors, employers and organizations attempt to ensure a necessary level of technical knowledge is through certification. Technical certification should ensure a higher level of understanding of the technology. Through rigorous course studies and completion of one or more exams, certified instructors are equipped with credentials that validate their completion of a prescribed learning process. With technical certification, not only is an instructor’s knowledge increased, but the value he or she brings to a successful classroom experience is elevated. Of course, taking the exams for certification can be a flashback to high school days for many people, especially for those who have been away from testing for a few years. Most certification exams are administered at test centers that are sensitive to the needs of older learners and provide comfortable and welcoming surroundings.
Some individuals refuse to recognize the importance of certifications and believe they are no longer barometers of differentiation between technologists. However, certifications are a baseline for employers to assess one job candidate against another or to factor into an employee’s performance development plan. Achieving one or more of the many technical certifications can be an expensive investment and requires commitment and hefty time allocation. Many employers understand the value of technical certifications and encourage their employees’ pursuit of them by providing time to study and take exams. Others expect their employees to complete these activities on their own time. Either way, future instructors need to assess and believe in the importance of certification in their career, and then find the time and muster the commitment to achieve the certification.
Deciding on the “right” technical path to follow is often another concern for future instructors. Initially, pursuing a general technical certification enables flexibility. Before pursuing a technical certification path, individuals should seek assistance. There is a growing number of technologies supported by a large number of vendors, so making a decision can be daunting. In addition to the technical path (developer, administrator, designer, etc.), there is the technology (SQL Server, WebSphere, Java, etc.) and then the vendor (Microsoft, Cisco, Oracle, Citrix, IBM, etc.).
Today, making these decisions is a little easier because technical certifications are relating more than ever to the function the technology serves and the work the technologist performs. The technology does not define the certification. Rather, the job role the technologist plays in the business while applying the technology is what defines the knowledge and skills required and therefore the certification.
The second pillar of quality instructor characteristics is experience. For a technical instructor, job-related experience and a strong knowledge of the technology are invaluable. An instructor’s ability to share experiences, good and bad, to retell stories with the students and provide some of the “tricks” to using, designing or implementing the technology will add to the instructor’s credibility and value to the students’ experience. Using experience to provide advice about some of the potential pitfalls of using the technology, instructors bring realism into the classroom and save students valuable time once they are back on the job. Often instructors can use past experiences as the basis for case studies and student workshops. An instructor’s ability to bring reality into the classroom is frequently the differentiator between a good instructor and a great instructor. Instructors can weave war stories into the lessons and solicit similar experiences from the students.
Personal Qualities and Skills
The third pillar an instructor should have is less tangible. It is the personal qualities, skills or characteristics that define the uniqueness of each instructor. There are specific personal qualities that contribute to the makeup of a good instructor. But let’s examine those that make a great instructor because these are a superset of the former. Although this list is not inclusive of all the qualities, it does represent some of the more critical elements:
- Passion: Instructors need to want to be in the classroom, sharing their knowledge and experience with others. This trait is a flame that burns deep and often cannot be described. But those who have it know they have it and are driven by it to teach.
- Care: Great instructors care about others and feel responsible for ensuring that students learn and meet their personal and professional needs. If this is not happening, a caring instructor finds out why and makes necessary adjustments. This quality of caring is communicated to students in many ways, including body language, effective eye contact, use of appropriate language, being available and patient, and seeking feedback and input from students.
- Constructive Criticism: An instructor must be able to take and give constructive criticism. There is always a better way, and there is always room to improve and grow. Great instructors realize this, and they are able to articulate it to students.
- Organization: Being organized in both one’s thinking as well as the more obvious behavioral aspects is a challenge for many people. But it is a true asset for an instructor. Communicating with students in an organized manner not only accelerates the learning experience but also enhances it.
- Preparation: A willingness to invest time in preparation is an essential quality. Every class requires preparation, whether it is the review of an instructor guide, producing student materials, positive imaging or getting familiar with the makeup of a future class. The ill-prepared instructor is doomed for failure.
- Flexibility: The ability to think on one’s feet is a handy trait for instructors to have. Not everything goes as planned, and an instruc