Confessions of a rookie instructor



Commentary by Maj. Brian A. Dodson
32nd Student Squadron, Air Force Squadron Officer School


4/22/2013 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala.-- -- Chances are had you told me a year ago that I would be an instructor at Squadron Officer School I would have called you certifiably crazy. I was so focused on being a C-17 Globemaster III pilot and presumed my career would lead to a staff tour at U.S. Transportation Command or Air Mobility Command where I could use my expertise to excel. The last place I thought I should be was teaching company grade officers at SOS.

In my final year at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, I had the privilege of being the 62nd Airlift Wing's exercise and evaluations team chief. I prepared us for an operational readiness inspection and had the opportunity to see what all the other Airmen were doing on a day-to-day basis. For a pilot singularly focused on operations, it was an amazing experience. My eyes were open to all the wonderful people and the incredible job they were doing every day. Being Exercise Evaluation Team chief helped me realize that I needed to challenge myself further by doing something out of my comfort zone. When the decision came to choose between working at USTRANSCOM or SOS, I chose the latter. Recently having completed my rookie class, I can honestly say it was extremely challenging.

As such, I would like to share with you some of my takeaways:

Teaching is hard. I have infinitely greater respect for all teachers. I must have spent two to three hours per night preparing for the next day. It was not enough to know the material, but I had to instruct in a way that the students could comprehend. When I found a good way of teaching, the students would get bored with the same method for each lesson, so I had to shake it up. I had to bring my "A game" every day. If I did not, the students sensed it and tuned me out. I am an extremely critical student, so I always tried to keep that perspective in mind as I taught.

What would I say about myself? I am not ashamed to admit that, in my eyes, I failed miserably more than a few times. My most important learning point was the weaker I felt about a topic, the more enthusiasm and conviction I had to bring to the lesson.

The possibility of humiliation and the fear of failure are outstanding motivators. I prepared like crazy so I could avoid a humiliating moment. Fear of failure drove me to keep working hard even when I did not want to prepare. Now, it was not as though I went around in fear of humiliating myself, but that voice in the back of my mind constantly urged me not to let my guard down.

The times where I felt comfortable doing something was when the fear subsided, and the greatest chance for humiliation arose. Fortunately, I avoided a colossal bone-headed moment, but I attribute that to the constant motivation of fear of failure and potential humiliation. I did have a few hiccups, but I realized the best way to get through those was to embrace them, laugh at myself and learn from the mistake.

Mentorship is critical, exceptional mentorship is invaluable. I was extremely lucky to have an exceptional mentor. From day one, she made sure I knew the ins and outs of the school. I was never afraid to ask a dumb question, and we spent time after class going over the events of the day and what was to come tomorrow.

The genuine concern from her was crucial to my success. She motivated me to do my very best. I do believe the greatest challenge in the relationship was finding the correct time for the mentor to let go and allow me to sink or swim. Once I displayed continuous competence, I felt it was time for the mentor to step aside and allow me to spread my wings. I hesitate to think how I would have done if my mentor did not care and, therefore, provided little involvement.

My students taught me more than I taught them. I am not sure what that says about my instruction, but I believe I learned more from the 14 students in my class than any lesson, discussion or wisdom I could impart.

I learned it is extremely critical to ensure you add value to a discussion before speaking. I learned a continuous positive attitude is contagious and will carry a group through almost any obstacle. Likewise, one rotten apple can truly spoil the bunch. I learned how to keep my emotions in check and one of the best ways to instruct is simply to listen. Most importantly, I learned that leadership can be improved through education. I witnessed that firsthand on multiple occasions.

Caring about my students and wanting them to achieve their goals is why I instruct. If I did not care about my students' education, it would be difficult to maintain motivation and believe in what I was teaching. The single piece of feedback that every student told me at the end of the course was, "It was evident you cared about your job and about us." One student went so far as to say it motivated the class to want to learn and achieve.

I was a bit surprised by that comment because I was pretty demanding. I was not going to be the reason they succeeded, but I wanted to push them to their limits. I shared in the flight's joys of success and pains of defeat. I relished their failures more than their successes. We learn more through failure and realize that no matter where we are in life, there is always one more step to go.

I will never have another rookie SOS class. For that reason, I will always remember the 14 students who spent eight weeks with me, and I will never forget my mentor.

One of my C-17 buddies called me up and asked how the teaching was going. He intimated that deciding to be an SOS instructor probably was not the best for me. There was a time I thought the same thing. Having one class under my belt, I can honestly say he and I were wrong. I love being an instructor. We get so caught up in wanting to make the right choices in our lives that sometimes we miss the most beneficial ones.

Being an SOS instructor allows me an opportunity to serve something greater than myself. And who knows, maybe along the way I might just inspire someone to become the next Air Force chief of staff. Is that not what service before self is all about?