An Examiner’s Smile

Published in July/ August 2018 MENTOR magazine by the National Association of Flight Instructors. 

Recently I sent my final student to his private pilot checkride with a local examiner. Like all students approaching their checkrides, he was nervous about the oral examination. While he had little to worry about, the first checkride is a daunting task in aviation. It is arguably just as much of a “rite of passage” as the first solo. This time, he wasn’t trying to prove himself to me, his instructor, but to a stranger whom he had only seen in passing.

The day arrived and he was overly prepared for that white and black temporary certificate to be handed to him, but he didn’t feel that way. I tried the normal techniques of relieving nervousness by asking some easy and common oral questions and by cracking a few jokes, but nothing worked. A happy, go-lucky guy normally, he was all but petrified of this checkride. Nothing could crack it, even though he was attempting not to show his dread.

However, the mood changed immediately when the examiner entered the room. Instead of the scary, strict examiner that the student had imagined, the examiner who entered the room smiled, shook his hand, and took a seat across the table. Immediately, she asked him about his day, how he was, and if he had any concerns. They shared breakfast together while paperwork was being processed. Before I left the room to allow the test to begin, my student and the examiner were shooting their breakfast waste into the trash bin like basketballs.

Instantly, I could tell his nervousness was no longer prevalent. By no doubt, he was still concerned, but not to the extent he was before. The simple smile and attitude of our examiner relaxed the student into functionality. Much more than we can see from the surface occurred in those five minutes to change my student’s disposition. As I predicted, he left the airport that day with a Private Pilot License in hand and a smile on his face; I left the airport that day with a lesson learned.

The attitude that we exhibit while working with students speaks volumes more than the words that come out of our mouths. The FAA lists four “essential teaching skills” for an effective instructor; People Skills is the first on the list, followed by Subject Matter Expertise, Management Skills, and Assessment Skills. People Skills is right to be listed first, it is the most important of the four.The other three skills are ineffective if an instructor does not possess people skills. For instance, an instructor who is knowledgeable about aircraft systems but lacks in communication skills will be ineffective at conveying his knowledge to his student. In the same notion, a good manager of time and resources who prepares a meticulous lecture will be an ineffective teacher if he fails to listen to the feedback of his students or actively evaluate what they have learned.

So what does this mean for us as always-improving instructors? While it’s good to study and continue to learn more about aviation, perhaps it is time to study our students. First, learn what your students enjoy and dislike. Then, follow up with your students’ lives regularly by asking personal questions such as, “Your son graduated college on Monday, right? Congratulations! How did that go?” A great time to do this is before a lesson when your student may be tense with nervousness. Immediately, your student’s mind is relaxed from the lesson they have been studying and the friendly, but professional mood is set.

Finally, learn to recognize when your students are having a difficult time enjoying a lesson. It is extremely easy to become frustrated after twenty departure stalls and the student just can’t seem to get it. Don’t forget that they are more than likely frustrated as well, and as the instructor, you have to take the responsibility to keep both of your heads on straight. Set a positive attitude by providing a compliment and find something else to do.

It’s no surprise that when you enjoy a task, you are likely to perform better at it. In fact, I believe that’s the only way to master a skill in its entirety: to enjoy it. The same goes for our students. We can’t make them love flying with our superhuman instructor powers, but we sure can remove negative attitude barriers and encourage them. An instructor with a positive attitude will go a long way.

I’m not sure how my student’s checkride would have gone differently if we weren’t presented with such an energetic and upbeat attitude from our examiner. All I know is that if I teach with her attitude, my students will perform better and enjoy flying much more – isn’t that what flying is all about?


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