Can You Teach?

When you were promoted to captain, lieutenant, administrator or chief, one of the first things you probably did was review your job description. Undoubtedly, it detailed your role in supervision, discipline and operations. But did it address one of your most important duties — that of educator? You may be nodding yes, but I suspect most will say they didn’t think of it as part of their job. Others may even say that’s definitely not part of their job. Whether you want it or not, your role as educator is key to your success as a supervisor.

If part of your role as manager involves improving or increasing skill, knowledge or attitude, then you’re an adult educator (whether or not your job description mentions it.) Educating adults is different than educating children. Cyril Houle, a scholar of adult and continuing education, defines adult education as, “The process by which men and women (alone, in groups, or in institutional settings) seek to improve themselves or their society by increasing their skill, knowledge, or sensitiveness.”

Like most of us, your early experience as a student probably didn’t prepare you to teach adult learners. Nor is it likely you’ve had much formal training in this area. Adult learners have very unique characteristics. Acknowledging those characteristics, and using your knowledge of them, will maximize your success and help your employees reach their full potential.

Good behavior
The first principle of teaching people involves modeling the behaviors we hope our students will display. The people who work for us won’t be motivated to high performance if their managers don’t display the same level of performance. Your role in your EMS organization and the size of your organization will influence the behaviors you must model. Some examples may include showing respect for citizens, bosses, the organization and other employees; being committed to safe operations; following policies and being honest. First and foremost, your employees will learn from how you treat others. If you model respect and fairness, as well as being a good leader and follower, you can ask the same of those you lead. Prepare for disappointment if you treat others poorly and then ask your employees to do otherwise.

Strengths and weaknesses
One of the best things about the adults we teach is their wealth of life experience. It’s critical to respect and acknowledge that experience. It’s a resource we need to use. Recognize people for their strengths and use those strengths to teach others. Doing so will lighten your load.

Adult learners often know their weaknesses. Be sure to ask your employees what their needs are before you plan training. This will help you target your efforts most effectively and avoid making your students disenfranchised and bored. You can do this informally, by listening to them express those needs after calls or at the base, or formally by using a survey. If you have a large EMS agency, consider forming a training committee that involves all levels of employees. This will ensure meaningful education can be provided.

No time like the present
If you can teach your employees when they’re ready to learn, you’ll be halfway there in terms of conveying your message. Introduce new equipment right before it’s placed in service. If you’re a first-line supervisor and observe incorrect performance on a call, take the opportunity to explore — with the employee — what went wrong. Also discuss how they can improve their performance. Do this as soon as possible to ensure the greatest effect. Spend a few minutes with the individual provider at the rear of the ambulance at the hospital or with the entire crew back at the base or the station after the action. This timely review will be more effective than if you wait until your next formal meeting or training session.

Carry a small stick
Avoid the “big stick” style of management. If an employee makes an error, carefully evaluate whether discipline is always the right approach to fix the problem. The Institute of Medicine’s 2006 report, “Preventing Medication Errors,” states our organizations are more likely to reduce our incidence of medication errors if we take a non-punitive approach to this problem. If we use the education approach instead of humiliation, errors will more likely be reported in a timely manner so proper follow-up action can be taken for the patient. We’re also more likely to discover all the factors that contributed to the error so we can fix them. In addition, we can educate the employee in a meaningful manner.

Change — in due time
New supervisors often face employees who are set in their ways. You’ll likely begin your new role armed with a list of ways in which you want to change and improve your crew. When a new manager tries to change old behaviors to be consistent with current, accepted practice, you’re going to first have to undo those old beliefs. It takes careful, planned education to avoid being stuck with the same old behaviors you’re determined to change.

As a manager, you’ll face the implementation of a complex new process or skill. It’s important to first analyze all tasks necessary to perform that new process. Be sure your crew has mastered the intermediate steps leading up to the new process or it will fail. And if it fails, you’ll have dissatisfied employees and wasted time. You will also have a crew that will not be able to perform the new task in a quick, safe and efficient manner. They’ll point the finger to you as the cause for failure because you’re now one ofthem. If you’re prepared to take the right educational steps to achieve your task, you and your crew will experience success — a much better option.

So, when you make the long list of professional development education you’ll need to be an effective manager, don’t forget to add “how to teach adults” to that list. If you’re prepared to lead your crew with the proper educational tools in your personal skills toolbox, you and those you supervise will benefit.

Do you need to improve your skills as an adult educator?Click here to take our quiz.

Institute of Medicine.Preventing Medication Errors: Quality Chasm Series.

Knowles M: “The manager as educator.”Journal of Continuing Education and Training.2(2):61-67, 1972.

Henschke J: “Modeling the preparation of adult educators.”Adult Learning.9(3):11-14, 1998.

Houle C:The Design of Education.(2nd Ed.) Jossey-Bass, Inc.: San Francisco, 41, 1996.

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