Many trainers mistakenly believe that they can teach any subject, even topics that they don’t know. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert argues that students are actually quite good at recognising frauds.
American pop culture producers love to bash educators. The common trope of the bitter, spiteful and gormless teacher is a go-to staple for stories like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The bumbling, ineffective adult character resonates with the viewers’ (or readers’) school-age experiences, since most everyone has had to suffer under an idiot, a petty tyrant or a fool. It’s an easy trope to invoke, requiring almost no talent to write, to direct or to perform. That makes it a go-to technique for young filmmakers who struggle with creating original content.
It’s hard to blame filmmakers for falling back on caricature-level tropes because they’re quick, they’re easy and there are hundreds of well-established models to pick from. They’re bloody terrible templates to base a story around. They’re not interesting, they’re rarely ever believable and they usually have no depth. On the other hand, tropes resonate with audiences because audiences recognize them – no exposition or framing needed. That makes them economical.
The crap-tastic teacher trope is a universally-recognizable figure, even for viewers who were home-schooled during their childhood. Pretty much everyone that ever had to endure a mandatory block of instruction – at work, in school, at a place of worship or on the pitch – has run up against a person that was empowered to teach them something that he or she didn’t actually know. It’s a universal human experience, like useless performance reviews and inept management.
One of my all-time favourite examples of this came towards the end of Army Basic Combat Training. My unit  had completed all of the difficult phases, like rifle marksmanship, grenade tossing and bayonet fighting. We only had a few days left until graduation and desperately wanted a full night’s sleep. Unfortunately, our drill instructors (DIs) had a schedule, and were committed to ticking off our course requirements. We’d reached the point where there weren’t any more dedicated trainers, so the DIs had to teach the courses themselves – and they had completely run out of enthusiasm for their work, same as us. That how our platoon found itself marched out to a giant sand volleyball area early one morning. The lead DI told us that we were going to learn hand-to-hand fighting techniques. Several of the privates groaned, which resulted in the entire platoon doing push-ups in the sand as punishment for groaning, as per Army Standard Operating Procedure.
If I’m honest, I was actually excited to see what the Army had come up with for hand-to-hand training. I’d been studying martial arts for five years prior to enlisting. I wasn’t particularly good at it, but I was keen to learn as much as I could. I figured the world’s most advanced military had surely worked out the world’s most advanced fighting techniques. I figured that this block of instruction would be one of the highlights of the grueling new soldiers’ orientation course.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that I was disappointed. The content might have been top-notch, but we were taught the content by our platoon’s drill instructors. Most of our DIs were signalmen (not infantrymen). They were all too young to have served in Vietnam, and the invasion of Kuwait hadn’t happened yet. The DIs’ fighting experience had been limited to what they themselves had learned in BCT some ten years earlier; since the DIs had never put their fighting skills to use, they had to teach us directly from the Army’s Field Manual.
After about an hour of having us grunts practice some embarrassingly clumsy shoulder throws, the schedule said that we should move onto the chapter involving strikes. As the lead DI read loudly from the FM, we all pantomimed the manoeuvers he described.
‘The football kick!’ he shouted.
‘The football kick,’ we all repeated listlessly.
‘This is a strike against a prone opponent,’ he said like a carnival barker. ‘In this strike, you will incapacitate your enemy using the technique that that you would use to kick a football.’
‘An American or a European football?’ someone shouted back. Everyone in the platoon then had to do more punitive push-ups before the platoon was allowed to continue.
‘Even numbered men, lie prone on the ground,’ the DI commanded. Half of the platoon eagerly dropped to the sand. The Sad Sacks in the group immediately started napping.
‘Odd numbered men, position yourselves perpendicular to your partner,’ he continued. We then wasted nearly five minutes while the junior DIs circulated throughout the volleyball pit, physically moving grunts around so that they wouldn’t kick their opponent in the head because they didn’t know what the word ‘perpendicular’ meant.
Once that was sorted, the Lead DI bellowed ‘Take one step forward so that your lead foot is right next to your enemy’s torso. Your upper body should be bent forward, pointing towards your enemy. Your rear leg should be extended behind you for balance.’ Twenty-five young grunts then struggled to stay upright, each balanced precariously on one leg while bent over like a field of poorly-designed plastic flamingos. One of the farm boys quickly lost his balance and fell over. Everyone else swayed and swore.
‘Now, quickly move your trail leg rapidly forward to replace your lead foot on the ground. Use your momentum of bringing your trail foot ward to kick your opponent with your lead foot while you shift your weight from your lead foot to your trail foot’ The Drill Sergeant intoned.
Nobody moved. After several seconds, one of the grunts said ‘What?!?’
‘Move your trail leg rapidly forward to replace your lead foot on the ground,’ The Drill Sergeant repeated. ‘and kick your opponent with your lead foot’
One of the grunts hollered out: ‘Don’t you mean “kick the ****er with your trail foot?’
The senior DI yelled at the private to shut the hell up and ordered us all to complete the manoeuver. We did. Nearly three-quarters of the platoon fell over on top of their ‘enemies’. The rest of us staggered back, off-balance, and tripped over someone or something else. It was sort of like real combat, in that everyone was confused, bodies were everywhere and no one wanted to be there.
Tempers flared. Several former athletes and street brawlers tried to argue some sense into the idiot DI (including me, if I’m honest). We all failed. All semblance of orderly instruction broke down as the platoon began to realize that our lead DI had no clue about what he was doing, and was making an absolute hash out of interpreting a poorly photocopied illustration in a 30 year-old manual.
In the end, one of the younger DIs circulated through the volleyball pit and told us to just pretend to kick each other – to fake it – until the hour was up so that we could all move on to the next pointless event. It didn’t matter if we learned the content or not, he whispered, so long as the auditors could see that we’d been given the block of instruction. We dutifully obeyed, dusted ourselves off, and went away less prepared for to meet the Soviet Hordes than we’d been before we started ‘training’.
There’s no question that our hand-to-hand combat block of instruction failed because of the instructor, not because of the content. I looked up that FM when I became a platoon leader and discovered that a bunch of talented experts had written it. Our training had been bungled because the lead DI had never been in a fight in his life. He’d clearly never played any sport involving his lower extremities, either. He didn’t know how to kick a football.  Instead of admit that he was in over he head, the DI tried to bluff his way through a bunch of content that he didn’t understand.
I’ve seen this story repeated a bunch of times over the years; not in terms of hand-to-hand combat training, mind you, but in the abstract. I’ve seen lots of instructors try to bluff their way through content that they didn’t understand. In almost all cases, the instructor was given someone else’s content that lay outside their own experience. When they audience realized that they were talking nonsense, the instructor reacted with anger, scorn or petty insults in order to mask his or her own inadequacy. The result was always the same: the crowd was left worse-off at the end of the course then they’d been when they started. It’s teachers like this that give all ‘instructor’ types a bad name. The phenomenon even has its own aphorism: ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.’ Small wonder, then, that the trope of the incompetent teacher resonates so strongly with audiences.
The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. Not in fiction, and not in the workplace either. Strong characters and effective teachers share several common characteristics:
- They know their trade, craft or subject well because they have extensive experience doing it.
- They know how proficient they are in their skill, and of their personal limitations.
- They’re confident enough in their skill-set to acknowledge when they get in over their head.
- The stories that they share to explain ideas come across as genuine and believable.
A good example of this sort of strong and believable characterization comes from one of the greatest Western movies of all time: John Ford’s 1959 epic The Searchers. In it, cowboy action hero John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, an proficient combat veteran whose nieces are abducted by Comanche raiders. Wayne spends the majority of the film trying to rescue his relatives and to pursuing vengeance against their captors Over the course of the film, the audience comes to understand Ethan as a complicated and severely damaged man. On the one hand, he’s viciously racist and prone to disturbing violence. It’s insinuated (but never confirmed) that Ethan was actually the father of one of his brother’s abducted children. On the other hand, the audience learns that Ethan was former CSA soldier who likely experienced unimaginable horror during the US Civil War – so much horror, in fact, that Ethan volunteered to fight in the Mexican Civil War after the fall of the Confederacy to try and exorcise his demons. The audience learns that Ethan is not ‘good’ man in any sense, which makes his quest for vengeance against his equally-broken (and understandable) Comanche counterpart all the more tragic. Both men are victims of their times and circumstances.
This character works. Ethan Edwards comes across as a believable product of his environment, being equal parts admirable and reprehensible. His motivations are internally consistent. His actions accurately reflect his training and experiences. While a viewer may not respect Ethan’s attitudes or actions, they do come across as sincere and believable for the character.
Compare Wayne’s portrayal of Ethan Edwards to my gormless lead drill instructor, and several points of differentiation spring to mind: Wayne’s character came across as far more believable than the goofy signals sergeant who tried to teach us the ‘football kick’. The former had relevant practical experience in fighting, was logically motivated to use his skills and had a clear objective that aligned with his beliefs and experiences. The latter was a poseur, trying to bluff his way through an exercise that he didn’t understand, didn’t care about and wasn’t personally invested in. As an audience member – either in a theatre or on a training field – we could tell which character was more genuine… and, therefore, which was worth paying attention to. We probably could have learned more about hand-to-hand fighting if the DIs had simply sent us off to the base theatre for a Kung-Fu double feature.
My point is, the sincerity principle holds true for teachers, lecturers, instructors and trainers of all types, everywhere. When a student attends a course, it’s because we – the audience – are ignorant in some aspect of a specific field or skill and need someone more knowledgeable or more experienced to help us overcome our deficit. We’re not stupid. We can easily tell when our teacher-figure is incompetent, unskilled or disengaged. We also know that it’s a fool’s errand to try and learn a skill from a person who’s incapable of teaching it. To be forced to endure a useless class is a form of low-level torture – especially when the instructor refuses to admit their inadequacy. That, I think, is why the ‘bitter, spiteful, and gormless teacher’ trope resonates so strongly with audiences: we’ve all experienced the type, and we’ve all learned to despise them for having failed us.
Knowing this, then, it’s logical to assume that any attempt to teach a subject or a skill that you don’t actually know well is bound to end in dismal failure. That’s… not actually true. The problem isn’t about unqualified teachers teaching. It’s extraordinarily difficult to find an instructor who’s actually fully qualified for all aspects of a given subject. Most teachers have a partial set of useful skills and experiences, and some large gap where their life and their curriculum don’t synced up. The broader the subject, is the harder it is to find someone who is fully proficient in it. That’s normal.
No, the problem comes when an unqualified instructor tries to bluff his or her way through content that they don’t understand. Students aren’t idiots. Most people are pretty good at spotting phonies. Likewise, most people are also highly sensitized to being manipulated. It’s pretty normal to resent people who waste your time, especially when you’re paying for the instruction. 
The better way to teach a subject that you’re not an avowed expert it, then, is to be transparent up front about the limits of your competency. If you don’t know a subject well, ‘fess up to it. Make it clear when you’re venturing outside your own strengths and into someone else’s content. Cite your sources and consult with people who are smarter than you when you get in over your head. Your audience may be miffed that you’re not the expert that they want, but they will respect you for not trying to hornswoggle them. Treating your audience with respect and transparency is far more effective than trying to bluff your audience with lies, assumptions, and whatever answers you could glean from a Google keyword search. A credible instructor is like a credible functional character: interesting enough to listen to, even if they don’t have all the right answers.
 1st Platoon, Alpha Company, 6th Battalion, 10th Infantry Regiment. Amazing how these details stick around in memory.
 European or American.
 I’ve found that the older a person gets get, the more he or she resents the loss of their precious time more than the loss of their money.
Title Allusion: John Ford, The Searchers, (1959 Film)
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.