Recently, as I was wrapping up a class, one of the students commented, “You know, I sure have enjoyed having you as an instructor.” When I asked why, she continued, “Because you didn’t make me feel stupid, like the last instructor did.”

A number of other people in the room nodded in agreement. It turned out that they had all taken the class previously from another instructor, and their opinion of this person was not very high, to say the least. They began sharing stories about both the way he taught and the comments he made to them, and all I could do was shake my head and mutter, “That’s so useless.” That got me thinking—what makes for a useless instructor?

In this week’s Head of the Class, I’m going to list three traits of useless trainers. All of us might be guilty of exhibiting one of these characteristics occasionally. If you are guilty of one or more of these on a regular basis, though, you need a dope slap—or a career transplant.

Trait #1: Teaches above the class’ level
He was showing us how to do subreports, and most of us still didn’t understand even basic reporting. It was so frustrating.”

In this case, I’m not talking about students who don’t meet the stated prerequisites for the class. We’ve all been there. The TCP/IP class has people in it who don’t know what a NIC is, or half of the Advanced Visual Basic class has never even heard of COM. These situations should be addressed with the persons doing the registering for the class.

No, I’m talking about the instructor who insists on covering intermediate and advanced material when the class hasn’t grasped the basics. I’m talking about the trainer who is more concerned about schedule than retention. “We’re supposed to be on subreports by three o’clock, and by God we’re going to be, no matter what!”

Your job is not to show everyone in the room how much you know, or how fast you can talk, or how many concepts you can cover in one day. Your job is to start where the class is and take them as far as you can in the allotted time. It doesn’t do any good for you to wind up at home plate if the students are still at second base.

The useless instructor refuses to recognize this situation. The useless instructor gets frustrated or flustered when presented with students who aren’t where she thinks they should be. She fails to recognize that the first task of the instructor is to find out where the class is, and begin there. If you think about it, there is really no other place to start.
The newly hired band director shows up at the music store after school, where all the local directors gather in the afternoons to swap stories and drink a cold one. He comes in the back room and blurts out, “I can’t believe how dumb my band is! They can’t even play a simple scale! What am I going to do?” One of the older directors, whose group consistently garners prizes at contests, looks up and says quietly, “I think I’d begin by teaching them to play a scale.”
Trait #2: Talks down to the class
He looked at me and said, ‘I can’t believe you don’t know how to do that! We covered it yesterday!’ I was so humiliated.”

The above comment, shared by the lady I mentioned at the top of the column, is supposedly a verbatim quote. It was uttered by this other instructor in a moment of frustration, and it was the comment that caused me to mutter, “How useless!”

And after just now typing it, my feeling remains the same. How utterly useless. How dehumanizing. And how stupid.

After making a comment like that to a member of a class, how do you expect to resume teaching? How do you expect the rest of the class, not to mention that particular student, to hear anything else you have to say?

Sure, training can be frustrating. Sure, you will have students at times whose lack of mental acuity threatens to drive you right around the bend. But it is the useless trainer who shows his frustration to the class. And it is the stupid trainer who talks down to his class like an angry parent to a recalcitrant child.

If you have a problem with patience, admit it and start dealing with it. You will never keep the trust of your students if you don’t exhibit patience in the classroom. As the camp director said to my wife when my wife was a counselor, “Patience is a virtue. If you have not a virtue, acquire one.”

Trait #3: Doesn’t know the subject matter
He was reading to us out of the book. It was obvious he didn’t know the material. It was so exasperating.”

The most useless thing you can do is show up to teach and not know what you are teaching. There is no surer way to land in the “Useless Trainer Hall of Fame” than to consistently be winging it in class.

All of us have products we train on that aren’t on our “A” list. It’s even okay, in some circumstances, to admit to the class that you’re not as familiar with this version, or this feature, as you’d like to be.

But there is no excuse for not knowing your material. How long does it take to go through the manual and make sure you know everything you have to cover in class? Isn’t that what they pay you for?

Only an idiot knows in advance what he or she will have to teach and still shows up unprepared. It may have something to do with being middle-aged, but I’m becoming less and less tolerant of idiots, especially when they claim the name Teacher.

Do you have a tale to tell?
If you’ve encountered useless instructors, I’d like to hear about how you dealt with them. To share your story, please post a comment below or send me a note. I’ll include them in a future column. In the meantime, let’s all promise ourselves that when it comes to training, we will do our best not to be useless.

Bruce Maples is an author, trainer, speaker, and consultant living in Louisville, KY.