From Student to Trainer: Evolution of Police Learning
Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith
Start with some one-on-one time
One of the best training sessions I ever attended was one-on-one with a fellow officer who taught me (yes, this will totally show my age) how to “word process” on something called a “personal computer.” I was a new sergeant who had been told I’d better learn how to how to use a PC; he was a young officer with a knack for technology. I was a pretty good typist, but I was absolutely confounded when it came to word processing. I’m also not a particularly patient person, and I could see no reason why I couldn’t keep hand writing or typing my reports like I’d been doing for the last ten years. This brave officer sat next to me at the keyboard and after about two hours, he had me clicking away, typing up a storm on that computer. How did he do it? He was patient, he was funny, and he instinctively realized that I was a kinesthetic learner; someone who needed to “do” and “touch” before I could learn it. Sometimes one-on-one is the best way to move from being a student to being a trainer.
Stay informed and up to date
Some skills that you learn in the academy you’ll use until your last day on the job; “slicing the pie” in a building search will remain largely unchanged, and so will the way you teach it to someone else. However, there are other skills that will change as technology, society, and our profession evolve. I never dreamed that some day I’d be using “Thomas A. Swift’s Electronic Rifle,” otherwise known as a TASER, to subdue suspects without ever having to go “hands on” with them, and yet the widespread use of TASER has lead to a whole new type of training and certification. Most recruits today will never learn how to use a “speed loader” because they will never carry a revolver, but most will need to now how to use a collapsible baton. And the more we learn about human performance, psychology, and other issues that affect our profession and our survival, the better informed we have to be as supervisors, managers, and as trainers. Make sure you stay current.
Be willing to help others
Think about those teachers and trainers who have had a positive influence on you. One of the traits you most remember is probably their willingness to share their knowledge and skills with you: the student, the trainee, the “rookie.” As you learn and master a new skill or technique, share it with others. It can be something as simple as a little trick you learned to make the booking system’s computer easier to access, but learning how and when to share information that will make someone else’s job better, easier, or more enjoyable can go a long way to helping you move from being a good student to becoming valuable as a trainer.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions
No one knows it all. In fact, the best law enforcement trainers in the business are constantly seeking to learn more; and one of the best ways to learn is to ask questions. The problem with asking questions is that it tends to leave you feeling a bit vulnerable and exposed, so much so that we tend to avoid doing it and miss out on learning. Get over your fear, jot down a few questions, and then fire away. Be curious, be willing to appear vulnerable, and respectfully engage your instructor. You’ll be surprised and probably thrilled at what you’ll learn. Then go out and share it with others.
Be willing to learn on your own time
I’ve talked with so many cops who have told me “I’d love to become a firearms instructor” or “I’d sure like to improve my computer skills” but “the department just won’t send me to training.” If you wait for your department to take care of all of your training and education needs, you’ll find yourself at your own retirement party, still wondering why you’re not a trainer. A good teacher is always a student, and a good student is willing to do whatever it takes to learn. Assess what you’re interested in and then take an exercise physiology class at your local community college, or sign up for an online course on adult learning. Take a week of vacation time and go to armorer’s school; ask the department to give you a couple of training days if you’ll pay your own way into a “Street Survival” seminar or into an interview and interrogation class. Be willing to sacrifice your own time, and money, to further your personal and professional goals.
Constantly improve your ability to communicate
Talking to people is not as easy as it looks, but it’s also not as difficult as you might expect. If you’re like most people and would rather die by fire than give a public talk, take the time to work through this very common fear. Enroll in a speech class at the local university, ask your sergeant if you can give a couple of five minute roll call presentations, make your kids pretend to be your students and teach them how to clean their duty gun. One of the keys to public speaking is the same as it is in many law enforcement skills: repetition, repetition, repetition. In addition to practicing your speaking skills, learn how to listen. Listening to someone you are training is often the most important thing you can do as a trainer.
Make sure your focus is on the student
New trainers often get so focused on their own performance and their own technique that they forget the most important person in the learning environment, the student. Never forget that at every presentation you give, during every class you teach, and with every recruit you train, your focus should be on the learner. When your student is successful, so are you.
That officer who taught me how to word process? He was an excellent trainer, and still is, but probably doesn’t consider himself anything other than a good cop. However, if it wasn’t for him, you wouldn’t be reading this article, and I’d be the only sergeant on my agency that still had a typewriter on her desk.