RANT: SuperTruckers as Driving Instructors

Do these folks really make the best CDL instructors?

Hi there.

One of my instructors wrote this RANT concerning Driving Instructors. I thought I'd forward it to all of my CDL Training brothers and sisters. Warning: this instructor doesn't pull his punches.

SuperTruckers: do these folks really make the best CDL instructors?

CDL training schools tend to hire instructors based on their tenure in the transportation industry. A guy with 20 years of trucking experience must surely be an expert. We like experts, but experts don't necessarily possess the ability to teach what they know to students who know nothing about our industry. How can that be? It has a lot to do with attitude, and the expert's perception of students. Unfortunately, many experts look down on novices. It's an ego thing. Read on.

Teaching is an art.

The ability to convey information to a new student can be a major hurdle in the teaching equation. SuperTruckers speak a language all their own. Here's what I mean: we know that the phrase get back under it means putting the truck back in front of the trailer while backing. Wouldn't it be easier to say "Put the truck back in front of the trailer (by steering to the right or left)"?

We also know that a fuel bump means revving the engine. 'Fuel bump' sounds cool, but it isn't very descriptive. If an instructor takes the time to tell the student to "rev the engine', the instructor can then tell the student how much to rev the engine. If that doesn't work, the instructor can always pull the student over and practice revving the engine to the correct RPM. Better yet, have a first-time student practice revving the engine before they ever leave the yard. This short exercise builds muscle memory in the lower right leg. It also takes pressure off the student by freeing their mind to concentrate on one task instead of many. Instructors are supposed to be helpers.

Teaching concepts that work for us.

Another example of concept introduction that every student can understand: the 10-speed shift pattern. Most students can relate to a 5-speed transmission, but many students don't realize that a 10-speed is just a 5-speed on top of another 5-speed. Starting in 1st gear, shifting to 2nd, then 3rd, 4th and 5th yields a shift pattern in the shape of a capital 'M'. Splitter up and start all over with a new M (6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th). Simple stuff that every student can relate to. Ready for another one?

Same-time shifting. I have an exercise for students who have coordination issues. You know who I'm talking about: the students who (initially) have trouble pushing the clutch and moving the shifter at the same time. Here's the exercise: Grab 2 chairs and place them side-by-side. New student in the left chair, instructor in the right chair. The instructor lifts their own left leg a bit and grabs an imaginary shifter with their right hand. The student mimics the instructor as the instructor demonstrates double-clutching: push the imaginary clutch pedal and move the imaginary shifter at the same time. 1-2, hand-foot, move-move. This exercise also builds muscle memory and helps move students past their coordination issues. Sometimes simply telling a student to perform these two functions at the same time isn't enough. When the student can successfully double-clutch outside the truck, put them in the driver seat, stand outside the open driver door, and have them practice pushing the clutch in 2-3 inches at that 1-2 speed. Repeat this exercise 20-30 times. 1-2...1-2...1-2. Repetition is king. Let's discuss visual aids.

Tiny shift patterns.

I'm referring to the shift pattern diagram on top of the shifter. The one that students cover with their hand during shifting. CDL College relies on a simple, 6-inch-square shift pattern that we velcro to an open space on the console. This diagram illustrates to our students how the shifter can help them shift, if they allow the shifter it to do so. How can a diagram accomplish that? By showing more than just the shift pattern. The 2 outside hard walls and the middle soft wall are labelled on the diagram, as is the detent spring between the middle soft wall and the left hard wall. It's a visual aid that doubles as a teaching tool...but it requires someone to explain these built-in features of the shifter. A top-notch instructor can provide that explanation in under 5 minutes (a hack instructor will expect the student to figure it out with no assistance). You can download this simple 10-speed shifting pattern diagram by clicking here. If you'd like to view a demonstration of how to explain the features of this 10-speed shifting diagram, click here.

Emotion vs. Logic.

FACT: Most students are intimidated by the size of tractors after entering one for the first time, whether they tell you so or not. Intimidation, or nervousness, is easy to spot if you're in tune with body language. The body language of a nervous student shows up as white-knuckling the shifter, pushing the clutch to the floor during shifting, an inability to multi-task, and good old-fashioned brow or palm sweat. Intimidation is an emotion. Emotions are the enemy of learning. Emotions have the power to shut down logic because emotions require no thought process. They're just a reaction. Emotions emanate from the right half of our brain (the creative, artsy-fartsy, Hollywood side). Logic is a left brain activity. The left brain does our heavy lifting (language, math, critical thought). We're all born with an emotional capacity-that's why infants cry instead of solving their own problems. Our logical capacity, the power to THINK, must be earned. This can take years.

Students need to be on the left side if they hope to progress through the training process. How can an instructor assist a student with moving from the right brain to the left brain? By displaying a staunch adherence to logic, which means remaining calm and using every training arrow in their quiver, if need be. One arrow isn't enough. Possessing just one way to explain a particular concept could lead to a frustrated instructor. Frustrated instructors react with their own emotions.

When an instructor constantly yells at and berates a student (especially after the student makes a mistake), that instructor is doing that student a huge disservice. Student emotion + Instructor emotion = a Stress Festival. Stress creates anxiety. Anxiety produces a lack of confidence which results in a student who is more difficult to train. Conversely, when an instructor remains calm (left brain!), the student is more at ease, which facilities their capacity for learning new ideas. This simple concept can transform the speed at which your students learn the correct procedure for shifting. So, why do instructors yell at students?

Because they're selfish.

Did I say "selfish'? You bet I did. Consider the following psychology: some instructors actually take it personally when a new student fails to immediately perform a task that the (selfish) instructor has asked them to perform. Selfish instructors get bent out of shape at the drop of a hat. They aren't in control of their own emotions.

It all goes back to teaching. Some students learn faster than others-that's life...and DNA. At CDL College, we train students from all over the world and we have to overcome a lot of language barriers, but it's not as difficult as it seems. It's a matter of emotional control and mutual respect. The instructor's job is to convey information in a form that ALL students can understand, and avoid judgement, which manifests itself as negative body language, harsh language, and discrimination against the students who don't learn at a pace that the hack instructor has selfishly set for them. It's a large helping of childish melodrama with a side of ego. An emotional instructor is more likely to introduce more harm than good to your organization. An instructor who straps on a fanny pack full of resentment can sabotage your training efforts. They're also prone to handing off their problem students to other instructors, who then bare the burden of taking up the slack. That's not teamwork. Students who have to endure a hack instructor (or instructors) will eventually feel unwelcome. They'll also be far less likely to recommend your school to their friends. Word of mouth is a powerful thing. Word of mouth can reduce (or eliminate) your advertising budget.

Rewards, compliments, and positive reinforcement.

You already know what I'm going to say here, but keep reading anyway, I beg you.

Let's assume that you (the instructor) have just either explained or demonstrated a concept to a student. Now you ask the student to try to implement that concept. He or she then successfully executes the concept, which usually happens if your explanation was easy to understand. Your next move must be a compliment. It can consist of one positive word, or a sentence of encouragement. Positive reinforcement creates a bond between the instructor and the student. The students' learning graph suddenly shows an upward spike. Nurture that upward trend with a heartfelt compliment and encourage that student to do it again.

A case study in hiring: Atom.

We hired a young man named Atom last summer (2015). Atom is 24 years old. He came to us with some Class A driving experience and ZERO teaching experience. Atom is an example of hiring for attitude, not aptitude. We use Atom in the yard as a backing maneuver instructor. He loves his job. His positivity, willingness to teach, and attitude blow the roof off our building on a daily basis (our construction bill is enormous). He has his fair share of problem students, but that doesn't stop him. As a last resort, he occasionally asks one of our senior instructors for advice, or a new training technique. The point is, Atom is always willing to learn a new way to teach the same backing maneuver. He also knows the name of every student he trains. Do you have an Atom on your team?

Let's wrap.

There are some downright horrendous CDL training schools in America. You can read the reviews online: instructors who don't speak a lick of English; instructors who play with their phones during road training (hey, when the cat's away...); and, of course, drunk instructors (interesting priority). Now, raise your hand if you had an inspirational teacher in high school or college that you still remember after all these years. Someone whose class you just couldn't ditch for fear of missing out on something amazing. For me it was my Western Civ teacher, a preppy 80's dude with tortoise shell-rimmed spectacles. His passion for history was off the charts. He made us watch Spartacus (1960, Stanley Kubrick, director) starring Kirk Douglas. He would pause the movie briefly to lecture on the Roman Empire. It was easy to see that he loved his job which, in turn, inspired his students to appreciate history.

CDL instructors are no different. A genuine desire to help your students will inspire them to ask for you the next day. They'll tell other students about you. They'll also start calling you sir and look forward to training with you again. This goal is easily attained-all that's required is a commitment to excellence. After all, it's the students who pay your bills.

If you enjoyed this RANT, let us know. If you were inspired, forward it to someone.

If you were angered by this RANT, stop and ask yourself why.

Yours in training,

Michael Fox

CDL College, Commerce City, CO.