Imagine this: You’re sitting in a training room, waiting to begin a class on network management. In walks a 20-something-year-old. Even in his shirt and tie, he looks closer to 18. What’s your first thought? “Oh great—$1,200 and I get some wet-behind-the-ears kid who maybe knows how to turn the machine on.” Fair or not, that’s probably what’s going through the minds of many in the room.
Now imagine that the same 20-something instructor introduces himself by saying, “Hi, I’m Tom Smith and I’ll be teaching this class. Before we begin, I’d like for each of us to share a little about ourselves, and I’ll go first. I’ve got about eight years’ experience in network management, beginning with the assistant network manager’s job at Very Large U where I got my bachelor’s in computer science. We ran NT as well as UNIX, with about 3,000 nodes and 80 servers, so it was a good first job. I spent five years running the network for the law firm of People and Bucks, where I planned and executed its migration from Novell to NT across eight sites in five cities. I am presently the network manager for Consultants on Call, where I primarily manage our 30-city WAN but also teach this course on occasion.”
You’re entering the EA zone
Whoa—I bet your thought processes just took a 180-degree turn! You’ve just experienced the impact of the EA factor: experience times age. Note that experience comes first, which is a truism in technical training. “Been there, done that” carries a lot of weight. It’s usually not the first thing your students see, though—they normally notice your age and draw conclusions accordingly.
Note that the EA factor is based on experience in the particular subject you’re teaching. Ten years of experience doing Visual Basic may be great in a programming class, but it’s not worth a nickel in a networking course.
Your first issue to think through, then, is your own EA factor for the class at hand. Let’s say you’re the person above. Your age is low, but your experience is good, so you want to emphasize your experience in order to establish your authority to teach the class.
Now let’s think through another scenario. Suppose you are 40-something and pretty mature looking, but you’ve only got so-so experience. You would want to really prepare so you know the class material, then dress as powerfully as you can and hope your age, looks, and preparation carry the day.
You may be thinking how cheesy, poor, fake, (substitute your own adjective) the above scenario sounds. Sure, we all want to be both experts in the subject matter and Mr. Chips in the classroom, but the reality is that we often have less experience than an expert. If you can establish enough presence to control the class and can present the material in a way that students can learn it, then the experience factor will not come into play.
The other part of EA: The students
The real value of EA in classroom management comes in thinking through the relationship of your own EA as instructor to the EA of your students. The bottom line: What impact will your EA have on your ability to teach this class to these students, and what should you do about it? Let’s look at some examples.
Suppose you’re teaching a class where you are both older and have more experience than the majority of your students. All other things being equal, you should be able to establish presence by virtue of your age. An occasional anecdotal example from your background would be sufficient to show your experience, and your classroom management task should be fairly simple.
On the other hand, if you are both younger and less experienced than the majority of your students, you will have to work extra hard to establish presence, and you will also have to be very well prepared and engaging as an instructor. In addition, you should probably allow others in the room to share their own experience as you move through the material. Such questions as “Does anyone have an experience with this problem to share with the class?” will let the students know that you are not threatened by their higher level of experience, which will actually add to your stature in the classroom.
The bottom line
There are three components to this part of classroom management.
- Be aware of your own EA factor for the class at hand.
- Be aware of the EA of the students, either through pre-class investigation or introductions at the beginning of class.
- Be aware of the relationship of your EA to the EA of your students, and think through how you are going to either use that relationship to your advantage or how you are going to overcome it.
The EA factor is neither a class-maker nor a class-breaker, if managed properly. It is merely one part of the classroom management puzzle, and it’s your job as the trainer to put it in its place.
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Bruce Maples is a trainer, writer, and consultant living in Louisville, KY. His latest project is a virtual reality classroom filled with the stars from Dumb and Dumber.