While at training, have you ever asked yourself, “What am I doing here?” or thought, “This is going to be a long day,” and then texted your buddies in the room about lunch plans? Or—my favorite—within the first 10 minutes of class, have you ever decided to get caught up on your email on your Smartphone? Why does this happen sometimes at courses with an interesting topic, yet other classes with seemingly boring topics turn out to be great? The answer, in a word, is the instructor. A great instructor makes the difference, regardless of the topic of the class.
With shrinking training budgets, agencies have to ensure the most skilled candidates are chosen to train their personnel. The most often scrutinized element is the subject matter of the proposed training. However, even the most essential subject matter can have little or no value to officers if not delivered by an instructor that, plainly put, knows what he or she is talking about and is able to deliver it effectively.
During my career, I've seen many officers become, or try to become, instructors for many reasons. Some are self serving, such as padding the resume or feeding the ego, maybe even for extra pay. But the most effective are often the ones who become instructors because they pick up an area of expertise and want to give back to law enforcement. These are the instructors we are looking for.
When evaluating an officer as a candidate for an instruction position, police leaders should consider the candidate’s experience and interest in the topic and—this is very important—their motive for wanting to teach. The candidate should not only have extensive training on the issue, but also years of practical experience. Remember: Cops tend to be cynical students and an instructor without experience is going to be quickly tuned out.
One of the overlooked aspects of choosing instructors is their ability to actually teach. Do they have public speaking ability? How credible do they come across to an audience? One way to evaluate this is to give the candidate opportunities to demonstrate their teaching skills. Having them make a community presentation or conduct some type of training in briefings are excellent possibilities for not only evaluation purposes, but also allow a candidate to develop the skills they will need to succeed.
Some other underutilized opportunities to observe, evaluate and develop instructors are having them teach at your department’s citizen academy, explorer post, new employee orientations and citizen police volunteer units. It's important to give honest feedback on your observations of the candidates’ abilities during these training sessions. Also solicit input from those who receive the training, and share this with the presenter. This feedback allows the candidate to work on any areas of concern and to hone skills needed to become a successful instructor.
Once the candidate is chosen, they should be sent to train-the-trainer courses if they haven't already completed them. Having the correct certification should be mandatory and specific in every field taught. In addition, the instructor’s training should be ongoing and up-to-date. Again, relevancy and credibility are keys to success.
Don’t think that your responsibility ends when a candidate has been selected to become an instructor. Police leaders should periodically evaluate all instructors and provide them with updates as needed. An instructors current practical experience needs to be re-examined when an officer has been teaching a subject matter for some time. We've all been to training where the instructor used to work some type of specialty and continued to teach without being current on the matter from a functional standpoint.
An extreme example: Fraud investigation has changed dramatically over the last decade. There was a time when detectives actually worked bad check cases. Today, the focus is on cyber fraud. The last thing you want is someone who is presenting material that is stale and irrelevant to those in the class. This is also true when the subject matter is still of great interest but the instructor hasn’t kept up with the latest information. Consider the area of search and seizure case law. When an officer asks a difficult question, a dated instructor will often provide misinformation or attempt to answer by talking in circles.
Course critiques can be a great aid in assessing instructor qualifications. Although they are commonly used in courses that have state certification or oversight, they should also be considered for agencies’ in-house training. These course evaluations should always solicit feedback on the instructor’s teaching abilities and should not require the disclosure of the evaluator’s identity. Use a format developed by your state oversight agency, and modify it to work for your specific needs.
Failure to select the right instructor will result in poor training for staff, it reflects negatively on the department image, and it can lead to liability, poor officer safety tactics, and the waste of valuable workforce time. Such failure also suggests poor decision making by supervisors and managers in the selection process. Don’t let this last point be lost on you—your leadership ability will be reflected in those you select to present training for your agency.
Agency leaders have an obligation to ensure the most qualified and experienced officers are selected to present training. Choose them carefully, mentor them effectively and provide them with constructive feedback and opportunities to grow. Doing so will greatly enhance the training experience for all those involved and will increase your department’s image and effectiveness.