The Pilot's Lounge #57:
Greg Gorak, The Teacher's Teacher
There are flight instructors, and then there are those who LOVE to teach instructors. And those who love something are usually pretty good at it. When it's time for AVweb's Rick Durden to renew his CFI certificate, he knows right where to go for the best refresher.
From time to time it happens that several of the flight instructors here at the virtual airport wind up in the pilot's lounge talking about all manner of things aeronautical. When that I happens, I may delay my drive home because the exchange is usually on a higher plane (sorry) than the usual "There I was" hangar flying that often transpires. The one thing that I know for certain after a lot of years flying is that there is a heck of a lot that I don't know. So, when the instructors gather, I invariably learn something.
The topic this day was recertification for flight instructors. Unlike our pilot certificates, a CFI ticket expires 24 calendar months after it was issued. In order to renew it, the FARs provide a number of choices. Instructors who are active enough can renew simply by showing proof of such activity; pilots who are check airmen for air taxis or air carriers or engaged in similar, regular evaluation of pilots can renew in a similar fashion. For the rest of us, the FAA mandates that we either take what amounts to a checkride or we complete a recurrent training course that is acceptable to the Administrator. The training course may be via a class, usually taught over some portion of a weekend, or a self-study program either with tapes or CDs, or Internet-based.
I listened to instructors express their feelings about the various methods of recertification. In doing so, I found that their comments formed a good microcosm of the various methods of teaching. After all, instructors want to teach their students as efficiently and effectively as possible. What better way to come to some opinion as to appropriate techniques than to listen to them evaluate the ways in which they learn?
Anything But a Checkride!
I wasn't surprised to find that very, very few of the instructors chose the route of going for a checkride to renew. The reality of that method is that it means reviewing absolutely everything one needs for the oral and flight test. That exercise can take a horrendously long time, as it is not only self-study, but it is self-directed study, in that one has to not only master each subject, but also determine which subjects to study in the first place. It also can be expensive to rent an appropriate airplane and, if going with a DPE, pay the examiner's fee.
There was a lively exchange over the various home-study and Internet courses available. Some liked the self-study method, some didn't; some spoke well of specific courses, others panned the same ones. At least one course is set up to be done over an 18- to 24-month period, so the instructor doesn't have to do everything at once, but is doing a little recurrent training each month. Those who had tried it said it was a great theory; however, in practice, only a few of them found that they had the self-discipline to set aside time on specific evenings or weekends, each month, to find a quiet place in the house, get away from the spouse and kids, and do the course work. They generally thought the content of the material was good, although sometimes it was out of date due to some of the fast-changing events in general aviation, especially in the last few years. Many liked the weekend recurrent training classes, especially after cooler heads at the FAA had cut the required class time from 24 to 16 hours. One of the guys said he had trouble staying awake back in the days of the long classes and absorbed much more when they were shortened.
It was about then that I had to depart, but I couldn't get the discussion out of my mind. I found myself considering how it is that I learn most effectively and reflecting on a particularly good teacher that I had recommended to other instructors. Over the 20-some years that I've been instructing, I've renewed my CFI certificate on the basis of activity a few times, but I've generally gone to the weekend ground schools that have been offered by various organizations. I realized a long time ago that I am not one who will set aside the time for an audiovisual course in what is otherwise my spare time. I'll procrastinate and then find myself tying to jam it all in at the last minute and not retain nearly as much. I keep thinking about my intro Psych course in college that was all programmed learning. We students attended one lecture, which explained the course. Then each of us was to go to a learning lab where we did the various segments and tests at whatever rate we wanted. I decided to see how fast I could finish the course because I knew the workload would go up in my other ones toward the end of the semester. I blew through the entire Psych course in less than a month. Aced it, but didn't feel that I retained a lot.
For me, learning occurs when as many senses as possible are involved. I guess I'm pretty ordinary because that matches the research that has been done into how humans learn. I pick up a lot from reading, but get more if I read and then sit in on a lecture or class on the subject and take notes to help it sink in. But, I get much more if it is a class with good visual aids and the other students and I can talk about things with the teacher. To me, effective learning is Socrates' old idea: a student at one end of the log and the instructor at the other, talking with each other, exchanging ideas, and having time to consider and digest concepts.
For me, even in the Internet age, I do much better if I tell the rest of the world to go away for a period of time and immerse myself in a subject. It's how I got ready to take my ATP written, went through two type ratings and, because I know how I work, have renewed my CFI for the last several years.
Stick with Someone Good
I have sampled a number of CFI recertification classes and generally considered them to be well done. A while back I quit sampling and started returning biennially to a specific one because I've been consistently impressed with the quality and ability of the teacher, Greg Gorak. Operating under the name of Gaits Aviation Seminars Inc., Greg has been giving flight instructor recertification classes for over 25 years. He reminds me a bit of the description of a Renaissance man, good at many things and interested in almost everything. Greg spent a lot of time as a professional pilot, was even an alderman in Milwaukee for a period of time, but is first and foremost a person who makes his living as a flight instructor and an instructor to instructors. A number of companies send their pilots to him for recurrent training and have done so for years. He has established one of the most loyal followings in aviation. At a recent seminar in Des Moines, Iowa, the attendees, some who had been coming for as long as 24 years, brought a cake and threw a party (some people will do almost anything to avoid class time). In the time Gaits has put on seminars, Greg has never, ever cancelled one for any reason. He knows people are relying on him and some may be in a position such that rescheduling a class means they will not be able to recertify. Greg and his long-time assistant, Terri Schafer (who handles the behind-the-scenes work and has FAA paperwork down cold), normally arrive 24 hours prior to the scheduled start of a seminar. That allows time to work with the personnel at the site (usually a mid-level motel) to try and assure that everything will function properly when the curtain rises. If weather is forecast to be at all questionable, Greg will arrive 48 hours prior to show time. In a world of surly salesclerks, merchandise of questionable quality and customer help lines that don't, it's nice to know that the recertification class I am paying for is a sure thing.
During the last few classes with Greg, I was struck by the fact that some of the material presented reflected changes due to events that had occurred very recently. I asked Greg how he keeps up with developments in aviation and is able to amend his presentation on short notice. He said that his normal day involves getting into his home office at 8:30 a.m. to check e-mail and read some of the seven different aviation-related magazines he goes through each week. Because his program is computer-based, largely using Power Point, he can make changes whenever needed, so even if he has programs on successive weekends, there will be some minor differences because something in aviation will have changed in that time.
So what is one of Greg Gorak's CFI recertification seminars like? First of all, it doesn't take all weekend. Because Greg feels that it's a good idea for a pilot to have a day with the family each week, his seminar starts at 4:00 p.m. on a Friday and runs with very brief breaks to 10:00 p.m. (eat an early supper). It starts again on Saturday at 7:00 a.m., breaks for a quick lunch, and winds up at 5:00 p.m. with a brief graduation ceremony. In order for CFIs to recertify, the course has to be approved by the FAA, so the topics are specified, and cover everything from how to teach effectively, through human factors, practical test standards, flight safety, weather, current issues, advanced training, FARs, and instructor professionalism.
Greg generally allows about an hour per topic, although some, notably weather and FARs, get more time. He makes his presentations a combination of visuals with appropriate lecture and discussion. He seems to be the first to recognize that the students themselves are the source of a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience, so he takes some time to learn about his students early on Friday so he can elicit information from them from time to time through the weekend as he hits subjects where their background adds to the class. It takes a bit of a diplomat to avoid letting a discussion dissolve into recounting of war stories, but he generally keeps things on topic and moving along.
For me, weather is a tough subject to teach and to learn. I've recently seen some data from a new study on the subject of pilot knowledge of weather that is a little distressing (and, assuming I can get permission from the author, will probably be the subject of column soon). As a result, I'm interested in how Greg teaches the subject. He goes into the basics of reading coded weather reports in a common-sense fashion, recognizing that it is required for obtaining ratings, but then gives techniques for getting one's students to see that big picture, what those abbreviations are really saying about what's out there and what it means to a VFR or IFR pilot. Greg also weaves in the concept of teaching judgment to pilots throughout the presentation, especially when it comes to weather. He has some suggestions regarding having students get weather briefings very early on in their training and start comparing the briefings to what they see when they fly so that they can begin to make judgments about the suitability of the weather for a flight.
I get a lot out of the method Greg uses to teach Federal Aviation Regulations. He knows full well that virtually everyone sitting in there has taken a fair number of writtens and checkrides and has had to spew forth regulations to someone more than once. Greg splits the class up into small groups and gives each group a half-dozen different factual situations and asks them to decide whether it is legal under the FARs and to cite the regulation or regulations on which the group relies to answer the question. I like working with other pilots and listening to their perspectives on this exercise. I like the, um, spirited, discussions that take place between intelligent, educated, experienced instructors who clearly do not march in lockstep over the interpretation of the FARs. Every time I have a disagreement with an FAA attorney who tries to tell me that a regulation is absolutely clear and there can only be one possible interpretation, I think of the hours I've spent in Greg's classes listening to smart pilots argue two or three different interpretations of a regulation.
Once the small groups have gone through their problems, each group presents its set of questions and its answers and supporting data to the class as a whole. It makes for some interesting presentations, especially when there is a strong minority report given by dissenting group members. What makes it even more interesting is the follow-up to the presentations because Greg Gorak is in regular communication with the two FAA employees who are charged with coming up with the official interpretation of the regs: John Lynch in D.C. and Al Pinkston in Oklahoma City. Greg gives their official take on each of the questions we've just wrestled in class, and then points out that every once in a while Al and John disagree on the interpretation of a reg. It makes those of us who dissented on a topic feel much better. However, the class as a whole sometimes expresses its disagreement with the FAA interpretation. For example, a flight instructor who does not have a medical may flight instruct, but he may not act as pilot in command of the aircraft; however, he may log the time as pilot in command time in his logbook. Go figure.
As the session nears an end, Greg always goes into instructor professionalism. He and I see eye to eye on the subject, as both of us feel that being a CFI should be a position at which a pilot can make a living and support a family. He strongly believes that an instructor is a professional and should consider himself as one. He or she is not simply someone who sits around an FBO waiting for students to walk in the door and then spews forth the appropriate lesson from a canned plan. An instructor has to market flying and him or herself to the community. Greg has some excellent ideas on how to go about marketing and charging for one's professional effort; after all, it doesn't make any sort of sense that a tennis pro at the local club gets paid more than someone who takes a student's life in his or her hands every time they go aloft.
I have advocated that pilots who were not instructors, but were either considering the rating or just looking at increasing their knowledge of aviation, attend one of Greg's seminars. The price is still lower than many instructors charge for a good BFR, so $185 isn't much to drop to get a total immersion session in aviation. (I still don't know how Greg can do the classes for such a low rate.) Flight instructors are the last great generalists in aviation. They are the ones who have to know quite a bit about virtually every aspect of aviation; so for someone who wants to expand his knowledge in a broad-based fashion, attending a CFI refresher clinic is a good way to do it.
Two of the most enjoyable aspects of aviation are continuing to expand one's level of knowledge and meeting some interesting, sharp people. When I attend Greg Gorak's flight instructor clinics, I get to do both. You can look up his seminars on the Web or call him at 800/822-6904.
See you next month.