Instructor recounts challenges, rewards of duty

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Kristopher Coats
  • 335th Training Squadron
A day in the life of an instructor is never the same. We instruct the same material class after class, block after block, but each class is unique in its personalities, work ethic, and motivations. We have similar motivations, challenges, headaches and job satisfactions, but they have same goal in mind, "Generate and sustain combat capability for the Air Force ... Airmen technically trained and operationally relevant!"

0400: I have an hour to get ready and prepare myself for a nine-hour training day, eight of which are spent standing in front of 10 to 12 sets of eyes waiting to soak up enough job and Air Force knowledge to be productive members of our team.

What mood will the class be in? What stories will I tell? What appointments and meetings do I have? What impact will I make on my students today? Where are my boots?

0500: I have to leave the house or I'm never going to have time to boot the computer, check email, review the material I will be teaching today or brew coffee; must have my coffee. One last trip to a mirror ensures my uniform exceeds all Air Force Instruction 36-2903 standards. I kiss the sleeping family, pat the dogs and I'm out.

I have 20 minutes to catch current events via talk radio. It's important to ensure our Airmen are informed and know what's happening in their world outside Keesler.

0520: Walking through the hallway, I pass by photos of enlisted heritage. The photos range from Cpl. Eugene Bullard to the enlisted Medal of Honor recipients. They remind me that much better Airmen than I wore this uniform and it motivates me to step up my game. I have 40 minutes to brew my coffee, weed through emails, review the day's material and perform one last uniform inspection before entering the classroom. I'm the example. There's no room for error or mediocrity.

0600: I check my personal emotions at the door. Regardless of what's going on in my life, it's never reflected on my face or in my actions as I step in the classroom. Professionalism doesn't take a day off. I greet my students with a smile and ask them how they're doing and how their evening went. The day officially begins with the Airman's Creed, "I am an American Airman ... and I will not fail!" For many, the creed may not be personally relevant, but these Airmen know it and they feel it. It means something to them, therefore it means something to me.

We also present "Project Warrior Ethos." Every morning, we show a "this day in history" slide reflecting an important Air Force milestone. It opens lines of communication with the students, relates the event to our career field and notes the impact on the Air Force of today. For the next nine hours, excluding an hour for lunch, I'll be on my feet doing the best I can to present the material in a way that makes the student want to learn. It's not an easy task.

Anyone can stand in front of a class and present a lecture. It's easy -- most of the required information is on a slide, and anyone can read a slide to a class. Outstanding instructors can read the slides without taking their eyes off the students and without saying, uh, ok, all right, and um." They provide relevant examples and real life experiences to reinforce the material without swaying back and forth or exhibiting gestures or movements that can distract the students and degrade the quality of instruction. The students deserve the best instruction. If our students are distracted by an unprepared instructor, we could be setting them up for failure and an organization could receive an Airman who is not fully "operationally relevant."

No matter how engaging you are, how interesting you make the lessons, or how well you present the material, inevitably a student will fail an end of block exam. Your emotions range from surprise to anger, feeling as if the failure is a reflection of your ability. After giving 100 percent of yourself every day, you realize your student gave you far less. Do you recommend the student be afforded special individualized assistance and allowed to retest or recommend they be washed back into the next available class to repeat the block? Was there something outside the classroom taking the students attention away from the task at hand? Were they playing video games instead of studying, or are they having marital problems? Is this an Airman you would want working for you? You ask these questions while you academically counsel the student for failing to maintain the minimum standard of 70 percent on a block exam. If this is a second failure, do you recommend this student be eliminated from the course and discharged or reclassified into another career field? Your recommendation can impact this Airman for the rest of his or her life.

1500: I can relax for a minute before catching up on my additional duties like building custodian, information assurance officer, telephone control officer or self-inspection monitor. Or there's a commander's call at 1515 and a 5/6 or Top 3 meeting to attend. Physical training is on the agenda as well. Is it too much to ask for a couple more hours in the day?

Being an instructor is one of the most challenging things I've ever done in my life and my career. I'm challenged daily by frustrating Airmen -- the type that have more potential in their little fingers than most have in their entire bodies, but they choose not to apply themselves and wind up as average students at best. I have to find a way to motivate these Airmen in the short time I have with them and reinforce enough discipline to ensure when they leave here, they continue the pursuit of excellence in all they do.

I'm challenged to be perfect - there's no room for error. You have to be on your game 100 percent of the time or you run the risk of setting the wrong example for the Airmen to follow. "Do as I say, not as I do" is not an option; failure is not an option. There's a tremendous amount of pressure to deal with when your failure doesn't just affect you -- it can affect your entire career field. Time management is a huge challenge. The official duty day is 0600-1600, with students being released back to the dormitory at 1500. If you're in class and had planned on leaving at the end of the duty day, you only have an hour to finish projects or complete tasks you've been assigned. It's critical to take full advantage of your down time and stay on top of things. Counting on days you're out of class to catch up isn't always the best plan. You may have to substitute for a teammate who is sick or has a sick child at home. A 1600 departure time may be wishful thinking.

After reading about what it takes to be an instructor, it may sound like this duty (not a job) isn't worth it; it's too difficult, or there are no rewards. I can assure you, all of the headaches mentioned before pale in comparison to the rewards I receive from this position.

One such reward is opportunity. I mentor our young Airmen and give them advice on everything from a difficult supervisor or relationship issues to not being happy with their first duty assignment. We're here to teach our students, but we're also charged with molding them. Soon they'll be replacing us.

I get the opportunity to hone my interpersonal skills by counseling Airmen when they're exhibiting substandard performance or unacceptable behavior. Conversely, I get to recognize the truly deserving Airmen by nominating them for student of the month.

Finally, I have the opportunity to meet the future of the Air Force on a daily basis. After just four years, I'm already witnessing the ways our Airmen are improving my Air Force.

We all have alternative methods of teaching, ways to discipline, approaches to leadership and expectations. Students are no different; they have distinct learning styles, motivations, and backgrounds. You can't apply a cookie cutter approach or you will fail some of them. I enjoy the challenge of piecing the puzzle together and finding just the right approach to reach them all. I love pushing them to work as a team, and enjoy watching those who understand help those who don't.

Finally, I'm fortunate to work with an awesome group of professionals. They have tremendous drive and pride in their work. You can't help but be motivated to push yourself beyond your limits.

My drive home is a relaxing one. I reflect over the day's interactions with staff and students and think about how I can make tomorrow's more effective. When my four years are up, I know I won't remember the name of every student I taught, but if I did things right, they'll remember mine. It's been 12 years and I can still name every one of my instructors. No matter how tired, frustrated or burned out I feel, I still look forward to getting up at 0400 to start again.

Tech. Sgts. Jennifer Miller and Lori Cibak and Staff Sgts. Brent Bell and Kimber Anson contributed to this report.