Breaking the Mould – How to Change, Develop and Improve Instruction
By Martyn Cook
Recently I witnessed, with a heavy heart, a group of trainees being disciplined by their Corporal instructor. Swearing, derogatory language and general de-motivation – it really was sad to listen to. And thankfully, it’s very rare to see these days. When I took the Platoon Commander, who was watching, aside and explained to him why it was unacceptable he was very receptive, embarrassed and immediately recognised it as poor instruction and poor leadership. The sad reality is that I suspect the Corporal delivering the debrief was simply emulating his own experiences from recruit training. He was simply copying his role models; if it was good enough for him in training, then why should he not treat his recruits in the same way now?
At the same time I was asked by my commander how we should train and develop our Platoon Commanders and Colour Sergeants to be better instructors.
My response was that, in my opinion, their education in being great instructors started on the day they joined the Army. The way in which they were trained, coached and mentored was their ‘lived experience’ that will live with them for the rest of their careers. If we got it wrong when we trained them as recruits the behaviours they saw will re-manifest themselves over the coming years. We will often be required to break bad habits and change attitudes rather than concentrating on improvement.
How do we solve the problem?
So how do we solve the problem and get it right from the start?
If we lead training teams, we need to help our instructors break the cycle of simply copying their instructors of a decade ago. If instructing, we must avoid thinking that we should treat people as we were treated. We must return to first principles.
Treat others how we would like to be treated, not how we were treated. Instructing in the military isn’t about creating a rite of passage. Believe me, the course will do that without your help.
Being responsible for the training and development of the next generation of officers or soldiers is, after command on operations, the greatest privilege. An instructor must reflect on their traits, mannerisms and attitude. Instructors are role models during our young men and women’s most formative period.
Changing the culture is always the hardest part of organisational change, but once it’s achieved the benefits are enduring.
Don’t start by looking back at your instructors
We all have instructors we remember from when we were under training. There were good ones, where we thought ‘When I’m an instructor I want to be just like her’. And there were poor ones. Or, perhaps like all humans, they made mistakes: ‘When I’m an instructor I won’t do that’. The problem is that, often, those who shouted the loudest are the ones we still see in our memory’s eye. And they were often the worst instructors.
Ask yourself four questions
So if you are about to be an instructor, don’t start by looking back. I was lucky. My instructors were outstanding. But If all you do is copy the best of your instructors, the most you can be is a slightly better version of them. You have plenty to offer and you can do better than that.
Before you become an instructor do what WO1 (RSM) Spud Armon did on his way up to Harrogate. Think about what kind of instructor you want to be. Start by asking yourself some questions: Break the mould and create your own.
- Ask yourself ‘When I’m back in my unit and the very best students come back from this course, how do I want them to think and act?’
- Then, ask yourself ‘What attitudes and behaviours do I need to role model every day of the course to make sure the students leave thinking and acting like that?’
- Next, ask ‘How did I need to be inspired when I was a student on the course, and what do I need to say and do to deliver that inspiration to my students?’
- Finally, ask ‘What top 5 specific pieces of experience and knowledge do I want to pass on to my students from my experience?’ List them to ensure you make them run as a theme throughout your time as an instructor.
Once you’ve asked these four things then, and only then, should you look back at your instructors. However, if you’ve asked those four questions its likely you’ll already be channelling the great instructors you had and avoiding the mistakes you saw.
Break the mould
I’m not sure I’ve always got this right myself. But if you start by asking those questions instead of looking back then you’ll have broken the mould. You won’t be a better version of your old instructor. You’ll be a better version of yourself. And you won’t be moulding a new generation in the shape of your old instructor. You’ll be moulding a new generation in the shape of you.
Or, if you’ve really got it right, you’ll be moulding them into the best version of themselves. And that is even more powerful and game-changing.