I am the great grand-daughter of a teacher, who’s mother was the daughter of a teacher, who’s daughter grew up to be a teacher, and now is the Aunt of yet another. My Irish family tree buds teachers from every branch, and drops at least one of them to earth each generation. The grandfather I never met, taught the daughter he barely knew, to teach her children in his absence, “If you don’t respect yourself, how can you expect anyone else to respect you?” I have inherited an inheritance of self respect, as I was taught by my teachers that we teach people how to treat us.
Shad and I left Sarasota early Monday morning on our commute to work in Naples. The tour was due to be open for business by 2pm that afternoon and I couldn’t have asked for better company, or a better co-pilot. Certainly he was a qualified round-engine flier that didn’t need any instruction from me, but more importantly he was hands-down the funniest person on tour. I wanted to laugh all the way to Naples because flying is fun, or at least it should be. I know no other part of the world as I do the Florida coast running from North Captiva Island to Naples. It is where I did all my flight training from private pilot through my commercial certificate. Naples has a lovely airport, that’s in a lovely city full of lovely people, but I don’t have many fond memories of flying there. When I walked through the doors of a flight school there twenty years ago, I was quite the naive pilot. A puppy, wagging my tail enthusiastically. Soon after, I was taught a number of costly and painful lessons by the flight school’s owner that took me years to unlearn. I lost a lot of innocence in Naples, and I’ve worked hard to replace my serious memories with silly ones ever since.
Abeam the Ritz Carleton, Shad was telling me some funny story when I smelled something horrible. It was an impossible smell for me to smell along the beach that day, so it must be my imagination. But that horrible smell was more real than the real smells of salt air and exhaust all around me. Smells are impossible for me to forget. It was the smell of my first flight with my first student, and I felt sick to my stomach. When I moved to Florida in 1994, I had enough money from the sale of my car to pay for the two hundred hours of flight training I needed to get from private pilot to commercial pilot, and I took a year off to do it. Getting my private pilot certificate was really fun, and I flew happily around northern Michigan in a seedy Cessna 150. The sad exterior of that little trainer was well compensated by the good character of the shiny people at the flight school in Traverse City. When I came to Florida the equipment got shinier, and the flight schools got seedier. I remember feeling that most of my training was like navigating a shark’s tank, and I was chum in the water. It isn’t very much fun being chum. Eleven months and sixteen days after my private pilot check ride I was a new CFI, hired immediately and given my first students – without any training or mentorship. They were two student pilots who had come to the US to get their private pilot’s certificate. Although I was thirty-one years old at the time, I was a kid teaching kids. A CFI with no experience, 250’something hours of flight time, being told I was qualified to teach those who deserved to be taught by someone with the most experience. Student pilots are very impressionable and generally pretty emotionally charged. You can damage their progress and their spirit permanently, if you don’t know what you’re doing. I questioned the Flight School owner and said, “I can’t do Private’s yet, I don’t have any experience, I’ll screw em’ up. Can’t I have a couple BFR’s or a Commercial?” His response was, “No, I always give new CFI’s Private’s. They don’t know the difference, and I make money while both of you to learn together.” I was back in the tank, but now I was one of the sharks. I can’t remember the face of which one of the student pilots I flew first, but I do remember the horrible smell in the Cessna 152 and apologizing for my mistakes all through the flight. The horrible smell was the smell of chewing tobacco and spit. A fellow Flight Instructor had tried to throw his full chew cup out the window on a ferry flight to the paint shop, and it blew back inside, soaking the interior. He left it as a bit of a F’You to our employer for treating his Flight Instructors like crap, and paying them less than crap. The interior festered in the hot Florida sun and was never cleaned. They just painted the exterior and put it back on the line. Outward appearance were all that mattered. I didn’t work there very long because the smell of that plane, and my lack of experience made me sick to my stomach every day. I realized no matter where I worked, I would have to teach myself to be a good teacher while I taught, because no one else was going to help. When I was hired by FlightSafety a few months later, I had taught myself a lot, most importantly to make my cockpit a fun safe place to learn. I eventually gained a reputation as the “fix-it instructor,” and given mostly students other instructors had screwed up. Since then I’ve met a lot of really good, dedicated Flight Instructors that had to do the same thing – teach themselves how to teach, while teaching.
Twenty years later many Flight Schools are still ignoring the responsibility of teaching their teachers how to teach, showing little respect for the family tree they reap their harvest from. When I see student pilots and their instructors putting their headsets on before engine start, pushing the engine immediately above 1000 rpm after starting, and then doing their run-up on the ramp with people all around – I get sick to my stomach. These pilots did not invent these bad habits, they inherited them. They were taught them by their Flight Instructor, who was taught them by another Flight Instructor before them. Law firms have clerks, hospitals have residents, businesses have interns, universities have teachers assistants, even plumbers have apprentices. Mentors are the gardeners of young teachers, and new flight instructors deserve a mentorship program shadowing experienced CFI’s before they begin instructing. Is kids teaching kids still the best we can do? We teach people how to treat us. When will aviation start teaching the teachers before they teach? If you don’t respect yourself, how can you expect anyone else to respect you?