How reflection and self-development helps you become a great instructor

What makes a great instructor? Sarah Slade asks questions and builds her perfect instructor.

Having recently started a new career as a professional instructor I naturally I find myself searching for and questioning what it actually means to be an instructor and most importantly how to be good at it.

I am lucky to know some amazing instructors. The distinguishing factor between them all is that having a conversation with them is like talking to a four-year-old – no that is not as harsh as it sounds! They are like four-year-olds because they question everything! So let’s start asking some questions ourselves.

Firstly, what is an instructor? The Oxford English dictionary defines instructor as ‘a person who teaches something’. Wow, this is a very wide definition and means that we are all instructors in some form or another In our lives we have all taught somebody something, did you realise you have always been an instructor?

How do you feel about your own instructing abilities? Do you ever reflect on this? If you are an instructor who is very self-assured and feel like you are amazing, my question would be how do you asses and quantify that?

Here is my list of some of the ingredients I would use to build my perfect instructor:

  • Seek feedback from clients, colleagues and management
  • Keep your knowledge and skills current
  • Work on increasing your experience
  • Show mountains of enthusiasm
  • Be a fantastic listener
  • Exude confidence
  • Take responsibility
  • Juggle, no not like in the circus. I mean manage the different competence or abilities of individuals within the group
  • Make sure you are organised
  • Be reflective after sessions and make notes on improvements
  • Demonstrate dynamic skills by adapting to group needs and changing situations
  • Ensure that you are patient and understanding of your participants
  • Command the respect and trust of individuals
  • Be humble, you don’t know everything. If there is a better or different way of teaching, try it!
  • Be authentic; copying some others instructors’ style can be catastrophic. What works for one person is defiantly not a fit all
  • Above all experience genuine joy in encouraging others, aiding in their development and learning

I think it is well worth pointing out that all these skills and attributes need to be maintained and looked after just like a classic car; without the proper care and maintenance a beautiful machine will become rusty, neglected and ultimately stop working.

Why do we need instructors? When learning something new we are left quite vulnerable. Most people will put themselves at the mercy of instructors and trust that the information and experience they are delivering is correct. I think we do this because realistically what choice do we have? We could self-teach, but that is not always viable due to time, equipment or facilities. Also a great phrase comes to mind “a person who represents themselves in court has a fool for a lawyer.” We have to trust that so-called professionals are going to do a better job then we can achieve ourselves.

You have a responsibility as a participant to ensure that you have a great learning experience. As with any relationship, the give and take goes both ways. So what could you do to optimise you experience?

My ingredients to create the perfect participant:

  • Have an honest conversation with your instructor and communicate to them what you expect to achieve, your fears and limitations
  • Enthusiasm
  • Energy
  • Communication
  • Be open to the experience
  • Trust
  • Be respectful
  • Do some independent research  

A great instructor draw these qualities out of their participants and as an instructor you will come across a multitude of personalities and challenges. It’s your goal to bring out the best in the people you instruct. If you achieve this goal as an added bonus it will ultimately make your job easier.

It seems to me that to be a great instructor you have to master many disciplines such as psychology, counselling, teaching, social work, IT, acting and so on. Is it achievable to master all these subjects? I think for most the answer is no.

However if we are striving towards doing better through using the resources we have access to, then encouraging those around us to do better, I think that is not only achievable but what pushes us on to greatness.


About the author

Sarah Slade is a climbing instructor. You can find her on LinkedIn and on Twitter: @sladeblog


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