Good instructors can be very hard to find. So, when a potential instructor is being interviewed, or is in a trial period, how do you know that they’re likely to succeed?
I believe the strongest indicators are enthusiasm, technical depth, and the ability to listen well.
Enthusiasm — about both technology and teaching — is infectious. An enthusiastic instructor will leave attendees excited to apply their knowledge.
This doesn’t mean that an instructor must be high-energy — freneticism can be draining. Lower energy coupled with a sense of humour can still work wonderfully.
Technical training requires that the instructor has a solid understanding of the technologies they’re teaching. Their knowledge must reach one or two levels deeper than the level which their target audience is expected to achieve. Technical depth brings both confidence and humility. It can also be an indicator of how well they can learn other technologies.
In my experience, listening well is the most elusive, even in an accomplished trainer. Someone who treats teaching as a one-way activity is not likely to be a capable listener, dramatically limiting their ability to engage their students. It’s easier to get away with weakness here if lecturing (instead of training), but even that can be improved greatly by listening skills.
Listening doesn’t just mean keeping ears open. Techniques from active listening (e.g. observing behaviour and body language), reflective listening (e.g. restating and rephrasing an attendee’s understanding), and empathic listening (e.g. understanding from the position of the attendee) are all useful.
Most people don’t get to apply formal presentation skills every day but there are many opportunities for all of us to improve our listening; it’s fair to expect that someone who prioritizes this skill to have developed it well.
What About Other Skills?
Why wasn’t ‘good presenter’ considered critical? Whilst this is indeed a desirable skill, presentation skills are relatively easy to build, especially when the instructor already has the three traits listed above.
And whilst we’re on the subject of useful skills, I would of course consider presentation, coding, diagramming, and other skills to be important. But there is another skill that’s maybe not immediately obvious: the ability to weave a story. People remember and learn from stories. We want a story to be woven into the topic being taught or materials being developed. Some instructors have a small set of stories that they use for the topics they teach; others may decide to build a story around the attendees.
The best instructors are enthusiastic teachers and good listeners with technical depth. These traits are backed up by training skills, including presenting, diagramming, and story-weaving.