Why Do I Teach?

Printed in National Association of Flight Instructors Mentor - March 2010

Why do we teach?  And specifically, why do we teach flying? After we attain the basics, food, shelter, etc., the only reason for participating in any activity is because we enjoy it, because it brings some degree of satisfaction or happiness.  Now, we might see that that satisfaction will come to us in the near term, or we might see that it will come to us in the distant future, or it might only come to us indirectly.  But we would not participate if we didn’t see some personal benefit

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So, why do we teach?  I can’t speak for all instructors, but I can answer for myself.  I am a part-time instructor who has been privileged to bring the joy of flying to students for nearly thirty-five years.  In the first few years, flying was my sole source of income.  But for much of my life, money has been a small part of the equation.  So, why do I continue?

Why fly in those small airplanes with their anemic performance in the summers, and their quite uncomfortable pre- flights in the winter?  Why put up with students who just can’t find the centerline, who can’t remember to keep the rudder and aileron in after touchdown, who can’t manage to keep one indicator centered during an instrument approach, let alone two?

A couple of reasons, I think, and both of them revolve around what brings me satisfaction.  First of all, we are all basically social animals.  With only few examples, humans are more satisfied being around other people than when by themselves.  Granted, we all need to get away and be by ourselves from time to time, but by and large, we are more comfortable with others than alone.  And for many people that need is enlarged with a need to share with others.  We like to share our experiences, our photos of our kids and grandkids, and information on our hobbies.  We all think that the objects and experiences that bring us joy will bring our friends some joy.

Yes, there is a good deal of frustration.  But I experience that frustration myself in learning other skills, so I know that the student is doing the very best that he or she can do.  He is not intentionally trying my patience.  But after that frustration comes the break-through - that light that unexpectedly illuminates when a cross-wind landing remains on the centerline all the way through roll-out, when course and glide-slope needles are centered all the way to DH.  And then, it happens a second time.  And there is a realization for both you and the student that that was not an accident – that there really has been a break-through.  And I am just as pleased as the student.  When I talk to other instructors, I hear this moment described as the “Aha moment!”  They don’t come on every flight, of course, but they do come.

For the student, of course, there is the joy of the first solo and the satisfactory check-ride.  While I am excited for them at these milestones, they are not as fulfilling for me as the “Aha moments”.  I think that this is because when I recommend a student for that first solo or for that checkride, I am already pretty sure of the outcome.  I don’t make the recommendation with the thought that I hope they will succeed.  I make the recommendation knowing that they will succeed.  And I am very seldom disappointed.

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I receive another benefit from teaching.  All teachers will say that our students teach us.  And I can only say, “Amen.”  In the January 2010 issue of NAFI Mentor, Mr. Matthew Ella, a relatively new flight instructor, talked about what he learned when he began teaching ground school.  He learned that he needed to know more than the aviation facts.  He had to know how to present the facts in such a way that others could understand them.  And he realized that all of his students came to him with different backgrounds and different levels of aviation knowledge, so he had to adjust his explanations to the students’ needs.  And that experience is true for all of us.  When we try to explain a concept or a procedure, we have to think it all of the way through and understand all of the details. 

One of the examples I like to use for this thought process is the phrase all instructors use when teaching the base and final approach legs in the traffic pattern.  We often say, “Runway, airspeed” as we try to get the student to focus attention to both.  But we know that what we really mean (and what we are really asking our self) is, “Is my airspeed high or low and what is the trend and how fast is it changing?

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And is my glide slope high, low or on, and what is the trend?  And as I roll out on base am I too close, too wide or just right?” When we try to teach the skill, we realize that we need to break it down into small steps.  We need to understand it better..

Similarly, if we don’t know the answers when a pilot asks about VOR receiver checks, or T-routes or Q-routes, it becomes time to get back into the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) and the Airport Facilities Directory and figure out the answers.  And for us whose instrument flying included purchasing the new book of approach plates regularly, or ripping and replacing Jepp charts, it is time for us to learn the electronic systems.  It is time to learn new skills.  So, my students push me to stay current on my skills and my knowledge.

So why do I teach?  Because I get to experience my “first flight” again every time I see it though the eyes of a first-time flyer.  Because I get to play Santa Clause every time I hear, “I have always wanted to do this, but there was always a reason that I didn’t have the time or money.” And because I have such a great group of students who constantly inspire me to be the best pilot that I can.

Here’s to thirty-five more years of teaching