Effective driver-instructors are not born that way

Who is qualified to teach someone to drive a truck? Most companies or well meaning individuals assume that any good truck driver can easily teach a new driver. It is assumed that the better the driver; the better the instructor. Anyone who has been involved in trades training knows immediately that this is the biggest mistake made when planning training. Experience has taught us that you can’t expect a person to just intuitively know how to teach or to be born with the knowledge. It has to be learned.

Yet this is exactly what we do with our driver-instructors. We take drivers from the workplace that are not teachers, and ask them to teach others to drive. Would we ask a professionally trained teacher to drive a truck without lots of instruction? Of course not. Then why do we expect professional truck drivers to become teachers overnight? Teaching has as much learning and practice to it as any trade. In fact, it can easily be considered a trade in itself. It must be learned, practiced, supervised by mentors and continually improved.

As an Ontario Certified Teacher, I spent years learning my craft of which a whole year was devoted to teacher training. There I learned all the knowledge related to education and spent many months practice teaching. When I completed my education, I was qualified and competent to teach. As I became the co-founder of 5th Wheel Training Institute, I easily took on the challenge of developing curriculum, the learning and teaching materials and structuring the educational goals of the school. I understood that I couldn’t teach someone to drive a truck but I was confident that I could teach truck drivers how to teach. To help me better understand how to do so, I decided to learn how to drive a truck. I wanted to really understand what the learner experienced. I discovered more about learning than I did about driving a truck. I received quite an education.

I knew that I have always been a very quick learner but I was not what you would call a “hands-on” learner. I knew that driving a truck was going to be a very new skill for me. Because learning had always been so easy for me I was shocked at how difficult it was for me to learn how to drive a truck. The light bulb went on… I realized that I had forgotten how difficult it was to learn a skill for the very first time.

This training became my epiphany… I experienced how difficult it is to learn a new skill for the very first time. I also realized that like me, our instructors had also forgotten how difficult it was to learn to drive a truck. The best instructors, who were “natural” truck drivers, were even more at a disadvantage because everything came so easily for them. I now understood clearly the essential key to becoming an effective instructor; one had to somehow experience the challenges, the ups and downs, and the successes that come with learning a new skill. This lesson has never left me. It’s what inspires me in my work.

I decided to create a course where our instructors would also experience this awakening. It took me a while to figure out a plan. I had to teach them how to do something they didn’t know how to do. So, I decided to use knitting as a means to achieving my objectives. I know it seems a little odd but I also knew that very few of them would know how to knit. It was a perfect medium. I prepared my lessons and included a comparison chart where I would use teaching methods to learn knitting and then draw a parallel with the skills needed for truck driving.

The first thing I did was to simply start knitting. Now that I had demonstrated, I asked them to also knit. Obviously, no one could even start. Then I asked the question: “I showed you how to knit and yet you can’t do it… why?” How many times do they demonstrate a skill such as shifting or backing and then are surprised when a student can’t perform the skill? The comment I often hear from our instructors is “I don’t know what’s wrong… I showed him.” As the process continues, the instructor experiences the frustrations and the successes of learning to knit. Some get so frustrated that they throw away their knitting project. Some start to get it and they share their knowledge with their peers. But what they all experience is the realization that the best way to learn a new skill is to break it down into small simple steps.

As the instructor learns the importance of even the smallest of steps, he now knows that the technique of simply holding the knitting needles and the yarn correctly correlates to the first basic lesson in the truck… the importance of adjusting the seat. It has to be correctly positioned to ensure the feet can control the pedals, the mirrors are adjusted and the hands are in a comfortable position to work the gear shift. Only when this first step is mastered, can the student then go to the next step. They now completely get the fact that when you teach; you build on the previous step. If a student is not getting it, you have to go back to basics and identify where there is a gap in the learning and start teaching from there. In my experience, the instructors get their greatest “Ah ha!” moment when they really experience what a student is feeling.

To get started, any new driver-instructor needs some of the basics of teaching, classroom management, practice teaching and adult education principles before being asked to train another driver. Solid mentoring and frequent feedback will help them stay on the right track. Like a student-driver, the driver-instructor also wants to be successful and needs encouragement and training to achieve it. It’s up to us to make sure it happens.

Louise Philbin
Co-founder and Education Director
5th Wheel Training Institute
Haileybury, Ontario