This article was a submission to the 2022 Cove Competition.
I recently had the opportunity to teach and mentor future junior army officers as an instructor at the Royal Military College – Duntroon (RMC-D). On reflection, this posting was the most rewarding of my career to date and I believe I gained a number of insights that may be of use or interest to the wider military community. In 2020, I was employed as a Lead Small Group Instructor (SGI) and was fortunate to follow a single cohort through II and I Class to graduation. In 2021, I changed roles and commanded the training team responsible for the Specialist Service Officer (SSO) First Appointment Course, and the final training block and commissioning of the Part Time Officer Commissioning Course. Through these experiences, and my exposure to highly diverse training audiences, I recognised that there are a few simple factors that can influence the success of any instructor. I found that the mindset and attitude taken in approaching instruction and interaction with trainees, the investment in good and timely feedback, and the importance of investing in instructional staff all influenced whether training was effective or not.
When first selected to instruct at RMC-D I found myself initially questioning ‘do I know enough?’ or ‘do I have enough experience?’ I’d suggest these thoughts are common to many postings but when it is associated with the culture and reputation of RMC-D and the instructional audience it is a daunting prospect. To be found suitable to instruct at RMC-D is a recognition of potential from which I took confidence in my ability to communicate and transfer knowledge and experience. It did not mean I was an expert in all components of the Learning Management Package (LMP) or mean that there was no longer room for development over my time at RMC-D. I actively leveraged the knowledge and experience of my instructional peers around me to ensure I was prepared.
A common pitfall of instructors is to have a retrospective mindset to training, comparing and measuring against the teaching we received when we were the trainees. I found that, early in my time as an SGI, I was guilty of trying to teach the way I had been taught and expecting the trainees to learn the way I chose to instruct. I quickly learned that having the mental agility to adapt my approach to the audience and the topic made me more effective at teaching different content to diverse groups. The metric of your success as an instructor is the quality of your trainees, not whether you emulated the top instructors you had as a trainee.
Training transformation develops a trainee-led learning culture where the onus is on the instructor to develop and deliver content in ways that it is accessible to and understood by all trainees. This is no small undertaking when your training audience can vary from a class of 200 to a group of four to six, or when your time to make an impact is limited to 40 minutes. Delivering instruction to groups where the pace and methods of learning vary greatly between individuals can be complex; however, by taking the time to tailor instructional approaches and ensuring each individual understands the content is a rewarding and worthwhile endeavour.
From my observations, the ability to deliver timely and quality feedback is one of the more important measures of a good instructor. I found that simply taking the time to develop and deliver feedback allowed me to realise the points most valuable to the individual trainee but also allowed me to identify trends across the group. At times I observed instances of instructors providing feedback of limited value which, more often than not, led to that trainee making the same or similar mistakes in their next iteration of the assessment which sometimes had a compounding and detrimental impact to their confidence and performance. In a short and demanding course like those delivered by RMC-D, these instances represent enormously missed opportunities to develop future full-time, part-time, and specialist officers.
Understand that to trainees with limited knowledge and experience, feedback can be overwhelming. I found that a deliberate and collaborative review of the performance deescalated the stress of receiving feedback and I made sure to identify and emphasise two to four clear, specific, and tangible points that trainees could take away and reflect on. My intent was always to holistically progress their effectiveness in areas identified in the general review but specifically target the two to four areas for development. The trainee deserves feedback that is considered and tailored to them; however, programmed time to deliver feedback is often short so I found there was a consistent need to supplement this through written collective feedback or use of my own time. It is important to recognise that the trainee may have just spent the last 24-72 hours in a TEWT or field assessment cycle and therefore deserves more than the bare minimum in feedback and guidance.
Army instructors have always been experts in identifying shortcomings and faults in the form of ‘fixes’ and ‘improves’, but an effective instructor should understand the value of positive feedback. A trainee who capitulated in a tactical field assessment due to navigational error may have effective communication styles or a strong ability to influence and motivate their peers in training. A ‘keep’ or ‘sustain’ statement can help the trainee limit the scope of their focus to improving the things that they actually did poorly, rather than seeking to fix things that aren’t broken. Such feedback builds trust and rapport between the learner and instructor while demonstrating the value and necessity of feedback that they themselves will be expected to provide as PL COMD’s in the future.
Investing in instructional teams
One of the most rewarding experiences I had during my tenure was as the Course Manager for the Part Time Officer Commissioning Program, Training Block 5. The Package Master and I invested significant time and effort into redesigning the instructional, TEWT, and field phases of the course; however, the training support request (or external to RMC-D) instructors would be the ones to deliver the majority of the content. These instructors comprised a mix of full-time and part-time officers and SNCOs arriving from around the country to support the course. Some had come from training establishments, while others had no contemporary instructional experience and were notified of their support to us 24 hours prior to arriving. When we began the three-day Instructor and Assessor Development Program prior to the course we realised quickly that the motivation and investment across the instructor group varied significantly.
Our development program focused heavily on instilling a mindset that the trainee was our main effort and that all efforts and actions should be directed as such. We invested heavily in supporting the instructor’s preparation and sought to provide them feedback that would enhance their work and instil confidence in those new to teaching. We sought to empower them to mentor their trainees in a style and manner that suited them while allowing them to have ownership and investment in the training. We also listened to their feedback and observations and integrated them into the decision-making process for assessments and moderation, reinforcing the importance we placed on their input. By emphasising the approach rather than the content, and through the hard work of those involved, we quickly pulled together a diverse group of instructors and created one of the highest quality training events that I have ever been a part of. The credit lies with those individual instructors who – despite varying levels of experience, motivation, and preparation – took on the mindset we asked for.
The responsibilities and drive of an instructor at RMC-D, and in training establishments more broadly, can often be tested by the ever-present cycle of change, but it is important that we find our own personal motivations and lean on them when we start to fatigue. While I always respected the overarching principles and objective of the LMP I routinely challenged myself to develop and deliver content in both a creative and effective way. I realised that I had flexibility as an instructor to shape the delivery of content which allowed me to continually reinvest and motivate myself.
The common statement that we are “training the next generation of Army’s leadership” never quite resonated with me, so I thought more about the fact that each trainee was potentially one of my future platoon commanders, or maybe my 2IC, and that this was a chance to shape some of the individuals that I will serve with through the rest of my time in Army. Overall, I found that time as an instructor at RMC-D was a great opportunity for me to have a positive influence on a large group of people who I will no doubt cross paths with again in the future, and who will have an impact across the organisation.