Managing Student Fear For Effective Learning

As pilots, we all will eventually have to face the incapacitating effects of fear. This will either come during new flight experiences while training or when facing a shocking and unexpected emergency (e.g.  US Airways Flight 1549 or Neil Williams’ amazing inflight recovery). The startle response has received lots of recent notoriety, (and several previous blogs) but the fear new students experience during initial training, is seldom acknowledged and the “elephant in the room” we need to examine – and fix! Ultimately, our goal as educators should be to develop resilience in our learners: “a set of processes that enables good outcomes in spite of serious threats.” In aviation, like all high-performance operations, “stuff happens,” and pilots need to react with flexibility utilizing their resources not with “fear and freeze.”

Resilience is the ability to persist in the face of challenges and to bounceback from adversity. There are a number of evidence-based protective factors that contribute to resilience: optimism, effective problem solving, faith, sense of meaning, self-efficacy, flexibility, impulse control, empathy, close relationships, and spirituality, among others (Masten & Reed,2002).

Fear is most often regarded as a “weakness” or just a passing problem in flight training rather than a natural and common reaction. Consequently, though fear may be mentioned in passing during initial training, it is seldom addressed directly. The new pilot-in-training is sweating and thinking to themselves, “this is scary, I might die here…” while the CFI is busy describing the nuances of control usage. The student is often learning nothing as a result – their whole reality is fear.

Additionally, a scared student pilot feels unique and isolated in their suffering since every accomplished pilot in the room seems fine – “is it only me?” Adjustments to fear take time and incremental exposure; fear is a common and natural response to suddenly being a mile up in the air in a tiny aluminum tube. Unacknowledged fear may be a big part of our 80% drop-out rate during initial training. Every military spends months adjusting and tuning their recruits to accommodate fear; they know it disables any useful human performance.

People in the grip of true terror can feel utterly hijacked. Soldiers throw down their guns and run away. Pilots lose control and crash their planes. In such cases the grip of fear feels like possession by some implacable alien force. Indeed, the word “panic” comes from the Greek god Pan, whom the classical Greeks believed could overtake travelers in lonely spots and send them suddenly running in blind terror. To the ancient mind, possession by a malign deity seemed the only plausible explanation for such behavior.

Incapacitating fear is a natural biochemical “fact of life” built into our biology for survival over thousands of years of evolution. Fully formed, this natural reaction is called the startle response. In aviation, either during training or in emergency experiences, the results are incapacitating; fight, flight or freeze. Fear and “lock-up” (failure to process and perform correctly) are an integral part of most Loss of Control accidents and most people understand startle. But panic is an on/off reaction not analog.  We have to avoid triggering this biochemical hijack of your higher brain functions because once that sets in, the higher cortical functions shut down and we descend  into “survival mode.”

Panic and fear can trigger very rapidly during initial training from even a little bump or inappropriate demonstration; it can be a whole new (scary) world for a beginner. In the training environment, panic means no learning, no useful higher-level problem solving for complex situations – your student is processing with only their “reptilian brain” (help!) How do we stay calm in the face of scary or startling encounters and develop resilience? The human eventually adjusts to any risk with exposure over time. This can be a great thing for high-level performance and resilience but this is the same process that can generate complacency and “normalization of deviance.

The military spends lots of time and money conditioning its soldiers to adapt to scary and challenging environments (e.g. combat) attempting to “train out” the natural human reaction to chaos and danger. Despite this extensive training, >50% of soldiers in combat are incapacitated by fear and not even firing their weapons (much less achieving any accurate effect). The latest efforts involve full force “emotional mastery training” for all army recruits (and even Marines are learning to meditate). Fear research is big and DARPA is (of course) even experimenting with implanting computer chips to help with this problem (in case you thought Jason Bourne was a stretch).

the troops who went through a month long training regimen that included daily practice in mindful breathing and focus techniques were better able to discern key information under chaotic circumstances and experienced increases in working memory function. The soldiers also reported making fewer cognitive errors than service members who did not use mindfulness.

Initial mastery during flight training involves understanding and accepting the real (rather than perceived) risks, and incrementally mastering the fear (emotional/biochemical) as the environment becomes more comfortable and acceptable. This requires overwriting the initial (natural) caution with cognitive understanding and physical mastery. The CFI has to be an understanding coach and carefully monitor every student for fear to create the appropriate pace of exposure and adaptation. This comes from creating an open, honest learning environment with good communication. Soon enough, the personal satisfaction of progress (mastery) ameliorates the aversion and provides a neurological reward for the learner. This is called incremental masteryThis progress can be quickly ruined by an inappropriate fear-inducing demonstration – “watch this” or some startling random occurrence. The savvy CFI has to control the “fear level” carefully to make progress. And “time off” requires a step back and a slower pace.

During every step up the ladder your student takes, some elements “caution” and fear are conditioned out as they understand and achieve control of an initially scary situation. If you jump too quickly into a scary situation they do not understand, fear is the perfectly natural reaction. Every savvy educator must carefully scan and request continuous feedback (especially in the early lessons) to make sure the pilot in training is happy (and encourage them to “self-interrogate” to assess their own status). Once you carefully achieve 3-4 hours of solid, enjoyable learning, the initial fear will diminish and be replaced with smiles and high fives. But introducing stalls too abruptly on the third sortie, when everything is still chaotic and confusing is a sure recipe to lose a learner. Cue off your learner’s comfort level here, not a predetermined schedule.

Even if you overcome fear during early training, you might encounter it later when the engine goes quiet some dark night over the mountains. I teach “self-calming” techniques to all my pilots because if you fly long enough, you will eventually encounter the scary dark corner of a real emergency. Even Sullenberger, with 20K+ hours and 50 years flying, clearly said his first and biggest challenge in US Airways Flight 1549 was pushing back the overwhelming fear and adrenaline to calm down and “get to work.” People who can master fear can perform amazing feats. More remarkable than Sully was aerobatic pilot Neil Williams, close to exhaustion, who folded up a wing on his Zlin in competition, but managed to fly it upside down to the airfield and land unharmed.

Something extraordinary must have been going on in his brain. Some mechanism in his psychological tool kit must have somehow protected him from panic and perhaps even given him an extra dose of mental power to get him through the crisis. Whatever he possessed, it was a rare talent. Rare, but not unique. The annals of human achievement are peppered with stories of people who managed to survive lethal danger by thinking on their feet. How do they do it? What makes them different? And, most importantly, what can the rest of us learn from them?

Read more about self-calming and controlling fear in an emergency in these previous blogs – fly safe out there (and often!)

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Life is Short, Fly SLOWLY (and Enjoy)!

As pilots, we are truly blessed to see the world from above and control this process artfully. Less than 1% of the US population will ever know this joy (pilots are rare). Unfortunately, we often get numb to this privilege, and  seldom appreciate our flying with full awareness. As a tonic, I recommend (again) this wonderful book by Michael Maya CharlesArtful Flying” (SAFE members get a discount and Michael will sign a copy for you!) I also encourage you to read this article just published in GA News: (again, SAFE members get a free issue of this publication).

Flying is fun because you see it, feel it, and hear it while you are doing it — it’s all very sensual. The eyes see, the ears hear, and you feel the movement in the seat of your pants. Your hands feel the stick or yoke, the throttle, and other controls.

Whenever possible, I fly low and slow. I relish looking at the farmers’ fields with their neatly squared off patches of color.

Lastly, I encourage gratitude for those who taught each of us to fly. Artful flying is a lifelong apprenticeship and we learn lessons every day if we keep our eyes and ears open; there are teachers everywhere. I personally have been blessed (again) with some of the most amazing educators and mentors. As I scan the rolls of our 3K SAFE members – our group is amazing. (I will be posting some of the websites on our home page soon.) We are currently reformating our Mentor Program to be more interactive and I encourage you to get involved (at any level) since sharing knowledge is the essence of SAFE. If you are part of this program already, stand-by for new ideas…

And SAFE members please sign-up for an invite to our Annual SAFE Meeting on Tuesday at 8PM EDT on Zoom. Fly safely (and often) and appreciate it fully – we are all blessed.


Teaching Effectively With Zoom!

Life is a series of “learning opportunities.” Usually, we don’t choose these challenges but – especially as pilots – we must step up and “make magic happen” despite the circumstances. And so it is with COVID and our sudden global pandemic. Social distancing, it seems, requires every educator to become capable with Zoom and virtual presentations.

This modern platform is super easy and very capable in terms of usability and dependability. And fortunately, just about everyone now has some exposure already. With a little effort on the part of the presenter (and the audience),  Zoom can move from a clumsy chat room for bridge ladies (and online comedy memes) to a pretty capable educational tool. Zoom is especially good with latency – the killer of online interaction – and usability. A little effort goes a long way toward optimizing this experience. The books shown here are available free or at minor cost (Kindle) and highly recommended for more details and optimization.

The obvious and immediate deficit of all online education is the emotionally distant nature of the medium. Instead of teaching people directly, we are connected by wires, with little chance of casually discovering the cues we often navigate by in front of a class. Online teaching is initially frustrating, interacting with tiny virtual images, But pretty soon your mind adjusts and everyone gets the rhythm. Ultimately, Zoom is just another technological tool and the time spent to make it less “obvious” as a medium makes the educational experience much more enjoyable and effective. Your control of the medium will also give you better control of the educational experience.

These three elements, latency, tiny-people dynamic, and conversing in an unfamiliar space, add up to create those awkward stutters in conversation students mention as the critical challenge to trying to learn in this environment.

Consequently, we have to teach differently in this space. It’s like the difference between teaching in a small classroom and teaching in a large auditorium. In the auditorium, we have to project our voice, perhaps exaggerate our expressions, and move about the stage to address different segments of the audience. Different spaces demand different approaches. The primary solution for this clumsiness that comes with the videoconference classroom is to become more assertive in how we lead our students.

Starting with the basics; you need a strong, stable internet connection, so test your internet connection with fast.com and assure a minimum 10Mbps download and 5 Mbps upload. Consider a wired connection if you are in a busy environment (or your kids are gamers blasting your modem). Test your actual connection with a Zoom Test Session and take time to optimize your audio and video settings. Use a headset and a good camera set at eye level. There is nothing more frustrating for students than struggling to hear the presenter or spending the whole session looking up your nose holes. Assure good lighting and an environment free from distractions. A virtual background is easily enabled if you have a cluttered office and no one will ever know. Take a read through the Zoom Best Practices pdf is here. Digital Trends also has a good primer on best practices and common problems and best practices.

I recommend setting up two computers if you can swing this (laptop and desktop). Log one in to initiate the meeting and use the second one to log in as an “attendee.” This allows you to play with all the controls while you see what is “going out on the air” on the desktop unit. This is especially important for “sharing your screen” and getting your powerpoint or video to play (look for the boxes on the bottom or the share screen for your video sound – check”on” and also “optimize your video” also “on”). Next to the video controller is a little up arrow that enables “virtual backgrounds” which is very helpful if you are in a cluttered environment.

Definitely start your session with everyone muted (enabled in settings) and selectively open up the conversations to eliminate the annoying background noise issues. This technique also allows you to discover where the problems are. The “waiting room” and ‘chat’ features are great tools to filter entries and also set the expectations for your session. You can transfer documents directly to attendees using chat if you enable this feature.

Once you have spent some time to set-up your session correctly and tested it,  play with all the controls, practice and record your session. The vital part of Zoom is enabling any feature you want in the settings BEFORE the show. Screen sharing is easy but it has to be switched on in settings (and practiced). The optimal set-up uses a second monitor to cue up your presentation panels if you have a lot of documents. If you are using powerpoint, that runs great full screen (or “play in a window”) and is just screen shared. But please don’t overdo the powerpoint – we all have suffered “death by powerpoint,” and Zoom has the capability to be lively and interactive. If things are not working right, try the extensive Zoom Help Center. The cheat sheet on keyboard shortcuts is here.

This is just a taster, and I hope that helps – log in and start pressing the buttons and experimenting. The “record” feature is great for practice (and built-in). This allows you to see “the audience view” – which you never get this opportunity see with a live talk! Become a “Zoom Professional.” We all hope to get back to in-person events at some point soon when it is again safe to interact in bigger groups. Fly safely out there (and often)!

Get the SAFE Toolkit App  (FREE). This also has all the new ACS codes plus required pilot endorsements and required experience right on your smartphone. Join SAFE and receive other get great benefits (1/3 off ForeFlight!) Flying Mag.

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Self-Promote (Without Being a Jerk)

With COVID we have a record number of CFIs looking for work. But many CFIs have not learned to “market themselves” since times have been so good for the last 3-5 years. Additionally, many honest educators find self-promotion awkward and distasteful (good for you). Our industry has an epidemic of egos and YouTube experts (only exceeded by the fitness/diet supplement “egosphere“).

But we need to get aviation back flying (and we all need to eat) so every CFI “business” has to learn to promote (tastefully). This blog title is from Bruce Kasanoff’s book (and it is available free online). Here are some ideas on self-promoting (honestly) and getting paid to fly again.

To be successful in any business you have to be noticed – and in some sense, all business is show business. There are, after all, 7.5 billion other humans roaming our planet now. But getting the self-promotion message correct is critical. Totally self-absorbed promotion is not only personally embarrassing and annoying to others, the educational content is also poisoned with ego. The key to promoting successfully and non-offensively is to focus on other people with a solid product that meets their needs. If your business mission is honestly aimed at finding and helping other aviators, you will succeed (and also sleep better at night).

Adam Grant shook the business world in 2013 with his best selling book Give and Take. Grant pointed out (and repeatedly proved in peer-reviewed studies) that those who”give” (wisely) rather than “take,” consistently end up better off in life both financially and in terms of satisfaction and happiness. This may seem non-intuitive but is well supported by research.  There are important qualifications and nuances to avoid burn-out with this strategy – but it opens the door to some interesting points about doing business.

To sell anything, there has to be a “need” – some disparity in capability or resources. Next, that need or disparity must be made known to others with some kind of marketing or publicity (we are assuming an honest business here and not a “manufactured need” that plagues commerce in our culture).  This proposition can be particularly difficult and uncomfortable to frame when the product is you or your services. How do we promote without appearing self-serving and egotistical? If you are performing an honest service, “sales” can occur – with a little help – through testimonials and industry reputation. If you are honest and effective the word spreads pretty fast – but yes, it does take some “encouragement” or promotion.

As an honest CFI, you can feel better about “sales” by understanding that every relationship is at some level a “sales proposition” – but only if by “sales” you mean an honest and potentially mutually beneficial relationship (as in “To Sell is Human“).  As aviation educators, if there is a need – and we indeed sell our time and expertise to fill a gap in skill. knowledge and judgment –  there also must be a stated endpoint where your client reaches the desired proficiency and independence. Ultimately, our goal as an instructor must be to become superfluous or we are fostering dependence and endless need.  We have not succeeded in creating a confident, independent pilots-in-command if we are “always necessary.” We do, unfortunately, see this a lot in aviation; the sage in the right seat, all-knowing and always present. Our job is to get out of the plane!

So there is an incredible paradox built into the educational “sales” paradigm; filling a specific need but the client must grow and transcend the relationship. To solve this enigma, it is essential to have an initial honest agreement between every CFI and every client – lawyers call this a “letter of intent.” This should state clearly in objective terms;  the scope, duration, financial and physical terms of the relationship and the objective standards for success or completion. Otherwise, a CFI can become a lifetime “right-seat-fuzzy forever” to assist on every flight and the learner only achieves “half-baked helper.” The focus should be on your client’s success and independent achievement; make it about them. This is the honest heart of educational self-promotion;  “serve don’t sell.

Many aviation relationships fail precisely because there was no initial honest agreement or intention. Just consider how many students drop out because their training was harder, longer, or more costly than they were initially told  (or not told). Another big fail is when an aviation educator overstates their experience or capabilities instead of honestly referring a client to a better match. If your specialty is not “glass panel” or “tailwheel” (fill in the blank)” another instructor might be a better match if we are honest. The almighty dollar always interferes with accurate self-knowledge (and referrals) here.

There are also in aviation, like in every business, the CFI “snake oil salesperson” promoting their unique techniques or magic safety propositions (misinformation is human). Educators “selling” creative techniques with no support from SOPSs or official industry best practices are a clear warning sign of trouble. Their “magic method” is no different than the “secret supplement” sold by online health promoters. At best they are expensive distractions but at worst they can be clearly dangerous conveying bad habits that are hard to shake later. Our lives as pilots depend on sound knowledge and technique. In aviation (as in life) success requires the same things; time, hard work, and money. And if it is “too good to be true,” in our business, it can get you dead quick.

So watch out for shortcuts, magic methods, and “mandatory strange procedures” – this is self-promotion at it’s worst.  If you encounter an instructor with some highly promoted level of gravitas (lots of experience or hours) “selling” a unique method – and its “my way,  the only right way” – keep walking (or run). Airplanes fly on physics, not hope. Everybody wants your eyeballs ($$) and has a Patreon promotion site. Fly safely out there (and often!)

Get the FREE SAFE Toolkit App  (FREE). This also has all the new ACS codes plus required pilot endorsements and required experience right on your smartphone. Join SAFE and receive other get great benefits (1/3 off ForeFlight!) Flying Mag.

Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business). Bind online or call/visit AIR-PROS.COM

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