What exactly does an instructor do? One definition states that the job of an instructor is “to furnish with knowledge, especially by a systematic method; to teach, train or educate.” In our case, you will be furnishing knowledge about hazardous materials and hazardous materials response. The systematic method involves the Power Point presentations, lesson plans and practical and written testing procedures as established by the North Carolina Office of the State Fire Marshal. You may already teach now in an informal way in your station by conducting company level evolutions and drills. We are now talking about taking this a step further and entering the formal teaching environment of the classroom.
The first thing we have to do is never say, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” While there are always good and bad instructors, just like there are good and bad employees in every line of work, think about some of the instructors that taught your classes, showed you the ropes and that you really learned from. Would you have said this to them? Probably not. Therefore, let’s never use that line again. It’s insulting to teachers and instructors in every field, not just emergency services.
What Do You Have to Do to Teach?
That depends on what you have in mind and how far you see yourself going as an instructor. The first step is the Level I Instructor Course. This course gives you the tools to present a prepared program such as the Hazardous Materials Operations Course created by Jones and Bartlett, IFSTA, etc. The second step would be to take the Level II Instructor Course. This course takes your classroom journey to the next level by giving you the tools necessary to create your own Power Point presentations, lesson plans, tests, etc. Level II is more difficult than Level I, but it will open more doors and instructional opportunities for you in the future.
After you have the general requirements out of the way, it’s time to become qualified to teach Hazardous Materials. You do not have to be a member of a hazardous materials team in order to teach hazardous materials, but you do need to be certified at the level you’re teaching. For example, you must be a Hazardous Materials Operations (Level I) certified to teach operations level classes. You must be a Hazardous Materials Technician (Level II) in order to teach technician level classes. This will require you to attend a one day (usually six hours) Qualification Course where you will review the Power Point slides, testing policies, etc. You will also be required to demonstrate every practical skill that you will be evaluating. This practical skill evaluation requirement was just added this year.
Teach For the Right Reasons
Now that you know what you need to do to get certified to teach, you have to stop and ask yourself, “Why do I want to teach?” If your first or only answer is to make extra money, STOP!! You’re going into it for entirely the wrong reasons. You will not be a good instructor because your intentions are purely mercenary and you will not be willing to dedicate the extra time — that you are not compensated for — that is needed in order to become a really good instructor. If you are doing it just to get another certification for extra money on the job or just to pad your resume, don’t waste your time. There may come a day when you will be asked to actually teach. You will do a disservice to yourself and your department, but it is your students who will suffer the most. They deserve better.
For those of you who are still reading, let’s talk about what you need to do in order to be a good, if not great, Hazardous Materials Instructor. Teaching involves not just getting up in front of a class, but also hours of preparation time before and during the class as well. You will not need to memorize every slide. This is discouraged in fact. If you memorize every slide, your presentation will be robotic and monotonous. You will come across as disengaged and your students will lose interest rather quickly. You should be familiar with each slide, but use them only as a memory jogger. You will be more engaged and your presentation will be much more interactive and interesting. Your students will be able to tell the difference and become more engaged themselves.
As a Hazardous Materials Instructor — either Operations or Technician — you will be given all of the slides that you will need in addition to any evaluation paperwork that you will need in order to conduct and teach a class. Will you be satisfied with this? Maybe, but a good instructor will always take the time to augment the program with additional information. Remember, you can ADD information to the program, but you cannot CHANGE the program or DELETE anything from the program. You should customize the program to fit your individual style. This may take several hours, if not longer, to scour the Internet and other sources to look for additional information to add to your program or extra visual aids such as images or video clips. You must also be able to discuss any major hazardous materials incidents that may happen while you’re teaching the course because your students will be interested and they WILL have questions.
Even when you’re not actively engaged in teaching a class, your responsibility as an instructor does not end. You still have to maintain an active awareness of what is happening in the world of hazardous materials. A significant event that happened last week may serve as an excellent case study for years to come. A National Transportation Safety Board or Occupational Safety and Health Administration report may have just been issued about an incident that occurred several months or years ago that will shed some light on an incident that you have been using as a case study. The advent of social media makes this a lot easier. Do you have any idea how many hazardous materials related pages there are on Facebook alone? New tools and techniques are being produced all of the time. In order to be a good instructor, it is up to you to be current on these new trends. You cannot take the easy way out and just wait for the next Instructor Upgrade from OSFM.
Don’t worry about being nervous in front of a group of people or a perceived lack of public speaking ability on your part. Everybody is nervous when they first start teaching. It gets better the more you teach. Just as your techniques in stretching hose improve with time and practice, so will your teaching technique. The same goes for using Power Point. It may be difficult to get used to at first, but the more you use it, the better you will get and the more comfortable you will be with not only using the program, but also in developing your own presentations as well.
As a Hazardous Materials Instructor, you never know where your path may lead. You may start out teaching operations level classes for the local community college’s recruit program. You may be called upon to teach an upgrade or annual refresher class for your department or a neighboring department. This may lead to opportunities teaching at national conferences such as Firehouse Expo or FDIC. Who knows, at some point you may even start teaching at the National Fire Academy. The longest journey starts with the smallest step. Take that step, get qualified as a Hazardous Materials Instructor and start teaching!
Mark Schmitt is Captain/Hazmat Specialist for the Greensboro Fire Department in Greensboro, N.C., and a veteran of over 20 years in the fire service. The majority of his career has been spent in special operations. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and holds a Master of Public Administration in Emergency Management. Schmitt has taught numerous hazardous materials courses for the Greensboro Fire Department, local community colleges and the North Carolina Office of the State Fire Marshal in addition to serving on several hazardous materials related committees at the local and state level.