OJT ~ A New Instructor

The transformation was swift. From uncertain trainee, I evolved through the unsteady journeyman phase and on to become a most unlikely OJT instructor. It took far less time than I expected and a lot less time than I required. After all; gaining confidence isn't like gaining weight. It takes time. Its more like growing. I'm sure I could gain five pounds in five days but growing five inches taller could take several years.

My guileless post check-out expectations were that I would spend a few years honing my skills, methodically acquiring some certainty in my abilities and establishing that all important credibility among my peers. But there I was; less than a year out from my facility rating and already being asked to work with the developmentals on our team. It seems I failed to consider that my expectations might differ somewhat from those of Big Time's supervisors and management staff. But why? Why the difference between their expectations and mine? The answer was shrouded in my callow naiveté.

The things we don't know at a particular time in our life will eventually catch up with us. Unfortunately, by the time they do, it usually doesn't matter so much. What was going on today would later be firsthand knowledge to me. For now though, I couldn't fathom that my being prematurely pitched into in the deep end of Big Time's OJT instructor pool was due in part to a document known as the Tracking Report. To this very day; the specter of this document still sends me off sweating and screaming. A little background may be in order.

The scourge of every new kid to the Training Department, Tracking Reports took days to complete. No wonder. Combining the most boring aspects of a spreadsheet with the irritating qualities of a skin infection and the incriminating evidence of a signed confession required a lot of time. But what was it really?

A distillation of the entire month's worth of OJT reports (there were hundreds); your typical Tracking Report detailed the status of every developmental (there were dozens) in the facility. It revealed what position each developmental was currently training on, hours allocated and hours used ~ plus a projection as to when certification was anticipated. Once compiled, the fresh data was whisked off to the Regional Office where it was perused and compared with previous monthly reports. This made it fairly easy for them to identify the trainees who were receiving the most OJT hours and the least. Comparing the most recent report from Big Time with previous monthly editions allowed the Regional Office to detect apparent trends and build mountains of data from which they could jump to amazing conclusions. Those jumps usually landed them in the middle of some very rough terrain, armed only with a pointing finger. But once they pointed that thing at us; they were prepared to use it.

To the facility staff ~ a discernable dip in the aggregate OJT hours could easily be attributed to annual and/or sick leave used, inappropriate traffic conditions, equipment problems and other routine factors. There were also the less tangible reasons; not the least of which was fatigue. If one of the better OJT instructors had just taken a beating on one position, it was hard for an empathetic supervisor to send them into an OJT session. To the regional office however, it often meant we were just goofing off over there at Big Time. That's when a phone would ring in the front office.

The Air Traffic Manager and Training Officer would be grilled by The Region's Training Branch Manager and one or two of his sycophants over why our OJT hours had fallen off. Such discussions usually afforded The Region an opportunity to showcase their superior knowledge of the way things are supposed to work in a field facility. A long, forensic debate would ensue, during which both hair and rank would be pulled. As the Regional Office always outranks any of their air traffic facilities, the home team would make their best case in the strongest possible terms; inevitably capitulating and promising to do better next month. Next, a caustic, morale-eating memo would be fired off to the Area Managers and supervisors, with a requisite copy to the Region's Training Branch. (Hey, they needed proof we were actually doing something besides working a hell of a lot of airplanes!) The memo was crafted to inspire everyone to get more OJT done.

One way to accomplish that was to ordain more instructors. This is where I stumbled into the picture.

Damn! I was still having to make excuses to the wife about why I got home so late from my checkout party, still trying to separate the good from the garbage I learned while training, still striving for consistently adequate personal performance, still masking my fear of floundering with a little flourish. Arguing with my Supervisor, who insisted I'd be a great OJTI, was not where I expected to be at this point. I countered his rationale with every reason I could think of why this wasn't a good idea. The discussion ended shortly after I said I wasn't ready and couldn't do it.

Later that day, as my new radar developmental and I shuffled off toward the TRACON, I wondered how my logic had failed, whether I could actually do this and why my mouth was so dry. Surprisingly, that day was the beginning of what would develop into a career-long interest in training. But there were obstacles.

At first; I felt like a paint-by-numbers artist trying to teach that "deaf-dumb-blind kid" how to draw like Leonardo da Vinci. I had my own lessons to learn ~ largely at the expense of those I was assigned to train. One of the most important lessons and probably the most difficult for me to master was to never preempt a good learning experience. Trainees needed to be given enough latitude to get themselves into a degree of difficulty that was commensurate with their time on the position. Low time trainees could become overwhelmed much sooner than ones who had several hours on the position but, regardless of where they were in their allotted hours, I had to let them make mistakes. As long as I could still see a way out ~ there was a chance they'd find it too. This required a lot of poise, patience and self confidence but I was short on all three. If I stepped in too soon (highly likely at my stage of development) I'd preclude an important learning experience. Step in too late and I'd end up listening to tapes and filling out paperwork.

I learned that making this work meant having to advise trainees ahead of time whenever I was going to let them dig holes for themselves. If I didn't at least do that, they'd usually assume, based on experience with a few other instructors, that I would likely step in and straighten things out for them.

There were also a few developmentals who liked to debate with me during the training session. While a civil debate could be useful during the debrief, it only got in the way during OJT, while the airplanes were flying thick and fast.

I also learned that my technique in a particular situation might not have been the best. A few trainees had some damned good ideas that I'd have never learned if I'd made them do it my way. "Out of the mouths of babes" as they say. I'd show them my techniques but never insisted they do it my way. Creativity is an amazing thing to witness and learn from. I believe I learned as much or more in the process of providing OJT than I did when I was receiving it.

So The Seventies rolled on. Planes flew in and out of Big Time's airspace as I joined with various trainees in their struggle to succeed. Most made it while others faded off into failure. Of those who failed ~ some were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time but went on to become impressive controllers elsewhere. Others departed in anger and bitterness. Blaming their shortcomings on everyone and everything that moved; they left ~ victims of an overweening ego and self-deception.

The ones who concerned me the most were those who couldn't make it as controllers at Big Time, yet eventually ended up working in the Regional Office ~ judging our monthly Tracking Reports.

© NLA Factor, 2010


Kevin said...

As the saying goes; the more things change the more they stay the same. We've got several newly checked out controllers in my area serving as trainers. Granted, they're all fine controllers but they simply lack experience; it's not their fault. Not only does having them serve as trainers do a disservice to the trainee but it also does a disservice the trainer. This is a time in their careers where they should be working on their skills and gaining experience, nothing more.

I've only ever been a worker-bee in my 28+ years with the agency but I can't imagine a more stressful position in a facility than that of an instructor providing radar training. As you said, you have to allow the trainee to make mistakes because that's where the real learning happens. It takes a special person to allow a trainee to paint themselves into a corner so they can better see the folly of their ways and learn from it. I'm not sure those in management appreciate that to the degree they should.

No Longer a Factor said...

Worker-bees, as you say, are at the top of the pecking order in my book. Okay, so its a comic book but nonetheless ~ those who plug in their headsets each day are right there where the rubber meets the runway. Congratulations on your 28+ years. Lots to be proud of there.

As we move away (not necessarily up) from the boards, one of the most difficult challenges is to remember where we started...in a headset.

As for allowing trainees to make mistakes ~ there's nothing more difficult or important. As a trainee; my best learning experiences came when I retreated to the de-brief, both pie-eyed and shell shocked. My instructor hardly had to say a word. He knew that I knew what went wrong and why. I could have written the training report myself.

As always, thanks for writing and have a great 4th (if you're not stuck at work)! Cheers ~ NLAF

Anonymous said...

Since I worked through the 1981 unpleasantness (one of the few surviving developmentals at my center...) I ended up rocketing through the rest of the training program: GS-11 to 14 in 9 months, and OJTI rapidly thereafter. My particular soft spot wasn't so much training new controllers (I was fairly sure that I knew more than they did, although not enough...) as much as training the older guys who started transferring out of the woodwork, either from staff positions or other facilities. It was hard to convince myself that it was OK (in fact, mandatory!) for me to jump in and shut down some 20-year-plus guy who was in the middle of screwing up. After a couple of such encounters, I got over that. :-)

No Longer a Factor said...

Wow! Working through "the 1981 unpleasantness" was tough enough on the FPLs but far more difficult for the developmentals. I know that, prior to the strike, the developmentals were the ones receiving the most threats and intimidation. My hat is off to you for what must have been a great amount of courage.

I remeber those "older guys" who eventually came in from other, mostly smaller facilities. They were the Cavalry coming to our rescue. But after the years spent in lower density facilities, most had already developed low density work habits. The challenge was in getting them to pick up the pace and to understand how much faster things could turn ugly here.

OJT with these folks was tricky. They weren't exactly wet behind the ears ~ more like way behind the picture. Several had more FAA time than me but if you trained them you had to be careful. Although they had a lot of experience; it was a different kind of experience. They knew what to do but needed help knowing when it had to be done here.

Thanks for sharing your experiences! ~Cheers, NLAF