Recently, I was looking over the student evaluation forms I use and was struck by one of the evaluation criteria: “Level of professionalism.” It got me thinking—in the technical training world, just what is a professional?
Professionalism is often in the eye of the beholder, but what traits scream “unprofessional” to you when they occur in a training setting? Send us an e-mail or click the Post a Comment link at the end of this column and share your opinion with your peers.
What is a professional, anyway?
There are three common definitions for the word professional. The first is simple: someone who gets paid for what he or she does, in contrast to an amateur, who does it for the love of the activity.

The second is a little tougher: someone who practices a profession. This is tricky because we have broadened what we call a profession. Traditionally, you had to have something to profess to have a profession—preaching, teaching, and the law were considered professions. Nowadays, you could say you’re a professional sanitation engineer and very few listeners would bat an eye.

The third meaning is circular: someone who acts like a professional. This definition is the meaning on the evaluation form. Does the person in the front of the room appear to be practicing a profession? Is he or she meeting the quality standards associated with such professionals? And, since this person is getting paid, am I getting my money’s worth?

Such an evaluation is often a matter of both form and substance. Form because poor impressions of a teacher can often block initial learning. (If you don’t believe me, just think back to high school.) Substance because once you get past first impressions, your grasp of the subject matter and your ability to teach it will be what counts.

With that in mind, I’d like to suggest some points of both form and substance to think about. In this column, I’ll focus on form. My next column will tackle substance.

I might as well get everybody mad up front. Here are the basics: Do you look like a professional when you teach? (I can hear the howling, but read on.) As much as we might wish otherwise, the way you look when your students enter the room will affect at least the beginning of the class, if not the entire morning. If you look like a slob but know your stuff, you may be saved. If you dress to the nines and are clueless, it won’t save you in the end. But why put a hurdle in your way by looking bad?

As a child of the ’60s, I rebelled against this concept for, oh, about 20 years. I finally realized that I was unnecessarily hindering my effectiveness, so I started trying to look like someone who knew a dress tie from a twist tie.

What this means in your environment is up to you. As a contract trainer, I almost always wear a suit. If it’s a one-day class, I absolutely wear one. For a weeklong class, I’ll dress down some on the last day. It doesn’t matter what your students are wearing. I’ve overheard factory workers covered in grease make comments about the instructor wearing only a T-shirt. Be it for good or for ill, we still expect our teachers (“professionals”) to look the part.

For years, I was chronically late. I made excuses about it, joked about it, accepted it about myself. Then one day I read a statement in a book that completely changed my attitude about punctuality. Basically, it said this:

“By being late, you say to me that your time is more important than mine and thus that you are more important to me. You tell me how little you think of me, and how much you think of yourself. By keeping everyone waiting, you are proving to us and to yourself just how powerful you are. I sense this, and it makes me angry.”

If I am not in the classroom 30 minutes before class begins, I get agitated. I want to be there to greet the students, make sure things are ready to go, and start the class in a relaxed manner. I absolutely do not want to run in five minutes late, gasping out excuses about traffic or alarm clocks or overcrowded restaurants.

Tardiness happens sometimes. Sometimes the car does break down. Those situations are forgivable. But if you are chronically late, something inside you is causing it. Take a good look and try to find out what it is. In any event, start being punctual.

Don’t have bad breath, period. If you drink coffee, smoke, chew, or run with people who do, brush your teeth more often and use a breath lozenge. And if you’re not sure, ask someone you trust. Don’t wait until people start backing up.

Speaking voice
Is your voice mellifluous? Do you have pear-shaped tones? Or do you sound like a buzz saw going through wet oak? If the last example sounds like you, know that it can hinder your teaching, because people may pay more attention to your voice than to what you say. The same goes for voices that are too nasal, too chesty, too soft, too whiny, too loud, and too tiny (sounds like a Berenstain Bears book).

Get a tape recorder; tape yourself teaching, and listen to it. If you’re really serious, get a vocal coach to help you change what you don’t like.

As much as some would wish to deny it, bad grammar can impede your message just as surely as any other point we’ve discussed. It’s like a loud thud during a play; it jars the listener and distracts them from what you are saying. I’m not talking about the fine points of “who” and “whom” (although knowing proper usage for “whom” would put you ahead of 95 percent of the population); I’m talking about sixth-grade stuff like subject-verb agreement and using helping verbs correctly.

I’m not sure how to fix this, frankly. If you have a friend who understands grammar and speaking, the tape recorder may again be the tool to use. Also, running your written work through the grammar checker in your word processor may reveal problems you weren’t aware of. And of course, reading well-written material always helps tune the ear.

Bruce’s final word
That’s enough for this week. I’m sure many readers have concluded by now that I am an uptight prude. Perhaps, but I do know that each of the above issues has come up in conversation with training supervisors, students, and business owners. Fair or not, these are part of what goes into professionalism. Next week, we’ll talk about the other part—substance.

Bruce Maples is a trainer, writer, and consultant living in Louisville. If you’d like to comment on this article or write to Bruce, click here.