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Keeping Cool; Minimizing Instructor Frustrations

The Aviation Instructors Handbook provides us with several tips to ensure that our student's frustrations are kept to a minimum during training. However, where is our guide to keep us cool as flight instructors? At my present job, I am tasked with checking in with the instructors I manage to ensure that their students are progressing, that they are enjoying their time at our establishment, and that any gripes they have will be heard by management. After a while, I realized that most instructor’s frustrations are usually geared towards student progress (or lack thereof,) or how instructors handle themselves inside and outside of the cockpit. Here are my 10 tips on how to minimize YOUR frustrations as a flight instructor.

1) Take a day to focus on anything but Aviation. I know, as an instructor you may be relying on a 7-day work week to make ends meet. However, when time and finances permit to take a day to rest, exercise, eat well and avoid anything aviation related.

Think to yourself, if I struck up a conversation with someone today could I talk to them about anything other than aviation? If you answered “no” to this question, it is probably time to take a break!

2) Don’t rely on alcohol or cigarettes to minimize frustrations, it doesn't work. Numerous studies (such as this one; prove that relying on alcohol and cigarettes (or other substances) actually makes you more irritable and gives you less control you're your own relaxation. Not to mention, there is a regulation about substance useage and flying somewhere…

3) Pick up a low-effort after work hobby. In my life prior to aviation, I was an avid musician. When my student and work load increased exponentially, my wife realized that I needed an outlet for my frustration. A quick trip to our local guitar shop found me leaving with a cheap acoustic guitar, and it has been the best investment ever! Right after work, I take about 30 minutes to learn a new song or just play my guitar to relax. Using that creative part of my brain is as easily stimulating as it is relaxing. Just remember, find a hobby that is LOW effort. Trying to do something as difficult as teaching in a moving aircraft will not help you relax, at all.

4) Make the environment you teach in more bearable. Sometimes the environmental factors we operate in push us to the brink. Couple this with a troublesome student and you have a recipe for disaster. In Massachusetts, we face subzero temperatures while we teach in the winter but we also deal with 100+ degree cockpits in the summertime. These changes in environmental conditions can make us miss the climate-controlled comfort of a classroom and make us less eager to work with our students in the actual aircraft.

Additionally, heat makes people more irritable! Who would’ve thought? Rather than go through 4 exhausting flights in a sauna every day, why not take control of the climate you teach in? I sure did. After doing a quick Amazon search two years ago, I found myself with a simple solution, an electric fan that can plug into my iPad! For a mere $4.99 I kept cool in the brutal summers, and my instructor friends picked up on this trick as well. To use this trick in a general aviation aircraft, either tuck your iPad or iPhone into a pocket in the aircraft, strategically mount it inside the aircraft (no need for an STC!), or obtain a cigarette lighter version to keep yourself cool and be able to teach your student better.

Having to brave the cold? I dislike it too, but simple and cheap foot warmers and gloves can make all the difference while doing your job.

5) How’s your overall work environment? Some schools typically lose instructors faster than others due to poor management, an inadequate or mismanaged fleet, or through other organizational issues. I am no stranger to this, I left one instructing gig due to some of the aforementioned issues and never thought twice about it. Remember, you have special skills as a flight instructor, you passed all the tests, you put in the work, and there are not many CFIs out there (check out my “Flight Instructors and Unicorns?” article on more about this.) So if management is giving you a hard time about non-existent issues, or if you feel uncomfortable flying the equipment you use for work, remember; there are plenty of other flight schools that would welcome you into their establishment with open arms.

6) If your student is not progressing the way you would like, have them take a flight with someone else. I’m surprised how often this trick is mentioned but how few people actually use it. Newer instructors, normally, are either timid or overly cooperative with doing this. Hopefully, most will fall into the latter category. Normally, a newly minted flight instructor has proven that he/she is able to meet the requirements of the CFI practical test. However, I’d say about 80% of the new CFIs that I have met have little to no experience teaching a student anything, which is why the first 100 hours of dual-given are usually the most difficult in an instructors career.

But imagine this, if your student is struggling to grasp a concept, chances are a more senior or experienced instructor has had a student struggle with the same concept. The solution? Have them fly with the more senior or experienced instructor! I have seen this trick work time and time again, and I have helped my fare share of colleagues students pass their stage checks, check rides, etc. Even better, if the weight and balance limitations and/or aircraft equipment allows, tag along and learn some new tricks of the trade with that more experienced instructor!

Sometimes all it takes is seeking advice from a more experienced instructor, otherwise, this trick works wonders.

7) Talk to your students like human beings. Whenever I do freelance work or talk to people at other airports, I find newer instructors or people of a timid mindset not being forthcoming or honest with their students. By talking to these instructors, there seems to be some hesitation with being honest with their students or there may be fear that the bad news that may come with a post-flight debrief may make some students consider never flying with their instructor again.

Not being straightforward with your student gives them a false sense of security, hinders their growth as a pilot, and if they are called out for something they are doing wrong by someone else, you the instructor may be totally discredited. Not only does this add stress, but the knowledge of knowing you are not being honest with your student will certainly not help you rest easy at night.

The solution to this problem? A simple trick I picked up from another instructor entitled the “3x3 rule.” In addition to following the critique guideline given in the Aviation Instructors Handbook, the 3x3 rule is a debriefing method which has the instructor brief the student on three things that went really well during their flight lesson and three things that could use improvement. By starting with three positives, the student becomes relaxed and is more receptive to items of improvement.

8) Put your students in THEIR dream environment. This point can break off into many tangents, but what I am getting at is fuel your student’s influences. Working out of KBED, I work with many students who are interested in corporate, military or airline flying. One thing I picked up on over the past three years is that all of these organizations are more approachable than we realize (not so much the military at times.) One phone call is all it takes to get a tour of that neat aircraft on the field or starting a conversation between your student and a recruiter for their dream job.

One of my most memorable examples of this was when NASA flew their WB-57 weather reconnaissance aircraft into Hanscom Field. What did I do? I called the airport administrative offices and not only got my student a tour of the aircraft, but he also got to meet the pilot. Working for NASA was a dream of his, and I noticed a huge spike in motivation during his next flight lesson after he toured the aircraft and met that NASA pilot.

9) If instructing isn’t your career goal, place yourself and your student in an environment to remind you of the goal, and do it in a motivational way. Want to fly corporate jets for a living? Chances are your student may want to as well, or at least they think that corporate jets are really neat. I encourage every instructor in this situation to do this trick, and every time I do it I get a kick out of it.

The key here is to apply your knowledge as a flight instructor to the situation. Have a CFI student on an aerodynamics lesson? Go to the hangar, get permission to walk up to that neat corporate aircraft and talk about why the aircraft's wings are swept, what the wing sweep does to your critical Mach number and why some aircraft have ventral fins! Not only will it make the lesson more enjoyable for you, and the student, but I have a friend or to that have been offered their dream job just by being around that corporate jet at the right time.

10) My last tip is to remind yourself to have fun and remember why you became an aviation instructor in the first place. For me, I always loved teaching, and I couldn’t think of anything more incredible than teaching people how to fly airplanes. Every once in awhile, just like everyone else, I have a dull day. When this happens, I look outside my window at 4,000 feet and remember how lucky I am. This office beats any other.

Have fun out there and happy instructing!

(From the now replaced AC-006A. Although it appears that the student is frustrated, I'm sure the same goes for the instructor.)

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