What Makes a "Good Instructor"

Whenever a prospective student starts looking for schools, one thing that consistently comes up is that they want “good instructors.” But what actually makes a good instructor? Can there really be good instructors in an industry where most CFIs view their jobs as transient? Where schools show instructors the door when they hit 1000 hrs, if they haven’t already gotten a “real job” lined up? Are there only better and worse instructors? Could you spot a good instructor if you met one?

I was reading about Teach for America this week–this is a non-profit agency that recruits college grads to volunteer to teach elementary or high school students for 2 years. They’ve taken to studying their recruits, assessing their performance, and then trying to figure out what traits can be used to predict an effective teacher. Some of what Teach for America has figured out might help you when you’re looking at schools, and overall, there are some lessons that apply to your career. First and foremost, TFA has found that, while the school is important, it’s really the instructor that makes the difference in the student’s experience. The quality of instructors in a single school varies dramatically though. If you click with an instructor on a demo flight, make sure they’re going to be there for the duration of your training, and that they actually have room available in their schedule. High-time instructors are often getting ready to leave, especially if the spring hiring season is coming and they already have the hours they need for a turbine job. There are also a few schools that lay-off their high-time instructors to make room for low-time pilots so they can build time.

But TFA also found that knowledge is not everything! Simply having more hours doesn’t necessarily mean that an instructor will be successful. When TFA looked at what qualities their most successful instructors had, they found that they:

  • Set big goals for their students;
  • Acted purposefully so that every one of their actions related back to their overall goal;
  • Were always reevaluating their performance and improving their methods;
  • Planned and prepared, and changed those plans based on the results they were getting.

For flight instructors, how might these apply? Well, the first is pretty easily measured: instead of aiming for the 80% passing rate they need to renew their certificate, maybe >95% on the written exams and 100% pass rate on check rides would be a better threshold. Of course, simply setting that goal isn’t sufficient…they have to follow through with that second element. This one’s tough for the flight maneuvers since an instructor can’t just follow a lesson plan; some students will progress slower or faster than others. In addition, repeatedly hammering the same maneuver over and over again isn’t necessarily the best method for perfecting it. For both ground and practical maneuvers, there should be a logical progression built into the lesson plans. For example, instead of:

Lesson 4: Regulations (60 minutes)

  1. Part 41
  2. Part 61
  3. Part 91
  4. NTSB 830

A syllabus that builds knowledge would integrate each of the regulations into other lessons, so students could correlate the regulation with the actual procedures that they execute during their flights. So maybe Part 41 would be taught in this lesson:

Lesson X: Pre-flight Airworthiness and Maintenance Checks (60 minutes)

  1. Maintenance and engine logs
  2. Squawk sheets
  3. Pre-flight inspection
  4. etc…

I’m just throwing this out there. To really cover the regs, there wouldn’t be a Part 91 lesson, but instead one where instructors, say, discuss the airspace requirements for the airport they’re about to fly into (rather than drawing the diagram that lumps them all together and reciting the 3-5-1-2 mantra–even though I have that very diagram in my lesson plans).

Reevaluating and improving only makes sense–as pilots, we’re already doing this constantly in the cockpit. But it’s a hard one to judge when you’re testing out flight instructors. And if your flight instructor only has 5 or 6 students during his 1000-hr tenure, he doesn’t have much of a chance to make improvements. That makes the planning and preparation phase more important. During your CFI training, you should develop lesson plans and practice presenting them. This is good. As a student, you should be able to tell that your instructor has practiced teaching each lesson recently. It’s not so good if your instructor sits down in front of you, then lays out the syllabus and the Rotorcraft Flying Manual and starts asking questions.

With that, I’m officially making this a 2-part entry. Since I’m at HAI for the Flight Instructor Refresher Clinic, it might be a week or 2.

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