Recently I had a brand new trainer stand up and teach for the first time. She was a great recruit for the job, with all the right people skills—generous, patient, interested in teaching, positive, helpful—that I described in my article People skills are key to success for new and veteran trainers. She had the first two of the four elements I consider essential for success in the classroom: subject matter expertise and confidence.

However, I was uncertain how this first class would go. For her sake, and for the sake of her students, I wished the timing of her assignments had allowed me to provide her some help with the other two cornerstones of her foundation as a trainer: presentation skills and adult learning theory.

She got through the class fine, and the evaluations were positive, yet she still has a lot to learn. A day or two of coaching would make her learning process easier and make her a successful teacher sooner.

What is that recipe for success in the classroom? How do you develop a good candidate into an effective trainer? The answer: Develop a train-the-trainer program.

Developing basic skills
A good train-the-trainer program provides both the adult learning theory and presentation skills that a trainer needs, in addition to mastery of the subject. Beware of what I call sheep-dip seminars, though: Stay clear of events promising to deliver umpteen tricks, tips, and “sure-fire” ways to succeed in the classroom. These sessions are usually led by highly energetic speakers who lecture in an entertaining fashion most of the day, with only a few interactive or written exercises to give the learners an illusion of active participation. I’ve come away from these workshops with lists full of good ideas and absolutely no idea how to implement them.

Your new trainer needs active learning activities combined with feedback to make use of those good ideas, and can probably generate his or her own ideas, given an opportunity. Make sure any train-the-trainer course you choose is experience-based and models best practices in adult learning. After all, if you have a vendor give these classes, they had better walk the talk themselves.

How to make it interactive
A few years ago I developed a two-day course for use in my company with newly recruited trainers who would be on temporary assignment during software implementation projects. I called it “Coaching for Technical Trainers” instead of train-the-trainer, to avoid any possible inference by management that these sessions would involve content or subject-matter expertise. Most of this course was interactive and participatory. By the end of the two days, the walls were covered with charts the new trainers had developed themselves, with titles such as:

  • What makes training effective
  • Adults learn best when…
  • Pros and cons of lecture
  • Benefits of asking questions
  • Creating a learning environment
  • Needs of different learning styles

The course also included several practice sessions, where I had the trainers teach short segments to help them gain confidence in front of groups, explore how to handle “problem” students, and get feedback on their presentation skills. (Of course, the best feedback for trainers takes place on the job, which for them is in the classroom. But why wait to learn at the expense of their students that they need to speak louder or face their students instead of the visual aids when speaking?)

How adults learn
If you can’t provide such a structured learning experience as this for your new trainer, the next best approach I would recommend is for them to read an excellent book on the subject, such as Paul Clothier’s The Complete Computer Trainer, or Malcolm Knowles’s classic, The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species. This should be accompanied by discussions with an experienced trainer, to give the new trainer a vision of what good training looks like, as well as ideas for practical application in the classroom.

A basic understanding of adult learning theory is essential. Without it, you risk developing a well-meaning trainer who spends years using the pedagogical model of trainer as the authority and learner as the empty vessel waiting to be filled with knowledge, which is just not effective.

However you develop and nurture your new trainer, ideally you will build in him or her the following characteristics:

  • Feels comfortable presenting to groups
  • Applies principles of adult learning
  • Engages and motivates students
  • Encourages participation
  • Paces the presentation according to needs of the group
  • Checks for understanding
  • Gives feedback during skills practices
  • Encourages students to see the benefits of the new system or software
  • Understands and is able to explain the big picture as well as the details of the system.

An article in the August/September 1996 issue of Technical & Skills Training speaks to the characteristic I feel may be the most important of all: understanding the need for practice to achieve mastery. The article states that:

“Savvy instructors …do not squander valuable time or roll over learners while attempting to get through the course outline. Rather, they establish a comfortable learning environment where students feel free to make mistakes and try things over and over until they get them right.”

Next we’ll look at how to evaluate trainers who have been in the classroom for a while, whether they are candidates for a job or already belong to your staff.
Have you developed an in-house program or is there a vendor you really like? What skills do you consider the most important and how often do your trainers have to brush up on their professional skills? Tell us in an e-mail how you keep your trainers at the top of the game or post a comment.