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Strategies for Surviving as an IT Trainer

You're the basic Excel trainer. The advanced Excel trainer has just called in sick and you've been asked to take the course scheduled for today. What do you do? You're a contract trainer and you need the work. You've been asked to take a Microsoft Project course even though you've never used it before. Do you do it?

For trainers these are not unheard of scenarios. Most seasoned trainers have had to confront these scenarios from hell at some time or other. So here are a few strategies and suggestions from our veteran trainers for coping with just these situations.

Let's begin with a few platitudes based on years of IT training experience. Firstly, software and hardware change at such a rapid pace it's almost impossible to be an expert in all versions of a product – treat with suspicion anyone that claims they are! Secondly, being forced out of your training comfort zone will help you improve as a trainer and help in your own development. Thirdly, and perhaps a little controversially, subject matter experts aren't necessarily the best trainers – they may be an expert in their field but their field isn't necessarily interacting with other people and imparting skills and knowledge.

Yes, these sound trite and corny, but keep them in mind as you face the training scenarios from hell. So how does one cope in these situations?

Man thinking

Strategy 1 – Never bluff or pretend to be something you're not

No one likes a fraud – end of story. Group dynamics being what they are, a bunch of people on a training course will soon see through you if you try to be something or someone you are not. In fact, particularly cohesive training groups will feed on you in a frenzy – any sign of weakness or incompetence and you're dead meat. Been there, done that.

Normally you'll need to give a brief overview of yourself at the start of a course – what you say here depends a lot on the group in front of you. No matter who they are never pretend to have done something that you haven't done. If appropriate, tell them of your predicament – "the expert trainer is ill/away/late and I'm going to be taking this course". Honesty is always the best policy and leads to integrity which is your best collateral in the classroom.

However, having said this, you can deflect attention away from your weaknesses. For example, "I'm not an expert in this version but I've been using earlier versions for years", or "I've been in IT for x years and have worked with numerous product likes this", etc. Even though you may not be a subject expert in the product you are currently teaching the group will appreciate any expertise you bring to the class.

IT training is part humbleness, and part bravado – get the mix right and you'll work wonders.

Strategy 2 – Show people how to learn

One of the most gifted trainers we ever had the pleasure to work with was a lady by the name of Elizabeth. At every IT class she conducted she would take a pile of manuals and books into class with her, even introductory classes in which she definitely was a full expert in. When asked why, she simply said "I'm here to help them learn how to find things out for themselves because I won't always be there by their side when they're back at work".

This was a long time ago when software products had decent manuals and help systems. When asked how to do things she'd simply sit down together with person and work through the manual or the help system until together they had the answer. Today, we can be a bit more high-tech and help people get answers through Google searches and the like.

Training

There will be times in class when you'll be stumped by a question. If you don't know the answer, admit it. "Gee, that's a good question. Look, I'm not sure of the answer let's see if we can find out how to do it". Congratulating the person on their question makes them feel them feel good. Sitting down together with them to find out the answer helps you in building your knowledge as well.

However, as with all of these strategies, use this in moderation. You can overkill with this to the point where people will stop asking questions.

Strategy 3 – Make a commitment, and stick to it

This is a variation on the previous strategy. You won't always have time to sit down with a person to find out the answer to their question. So make a commitment to answering it, and then follow through. And, as an adjunct, the sooner you find out the better.

Again it uses the same approach, "Gee, that's a good question. I don't have an answer at the moment so let me mull over it and get back to you."

Ever wonder why many trainers are so drained after a day of training? It's because they're spending coffee break and lunch break time look to answer challenging questions!

Once you've got the answer you can either announce it publicly to the group if you feel it will benefit them all or give the answer to the person privately at the appropriate time. If the question has been asked late in a course you may need to contact the person by phone or email to give them their answer.

Strategy 4 – If time permits, prepare

Blooming obvious, but you'll be amazed how often this just doesn't happen. If you're going to be running a course on a subject you're underdone in and you have time to spare, then preparation is your best friend. Don't try to become an overnight subject expert – there isn't time.

However, begin by looking at the courseware. If it's good and people can easily work through it, then your bacon will be saved. If it's bad or doesn't work as it should you'll need to know where the holes are in it. Don't persevere in a class if the courseware is bad and you don't know the software all that well – this is a recipe for disaster. Pick out the good points in the courseware and work with those.

(As a cheeky and blatantly marketing comment on the side, the reason why we started developing our courseware was to help trainers train and learners learn. We believe without shadow of a doubt that good IT training requires excellent training resources.)

Another good idea in course preparation is to ask other trainer colleagues who teach the subject where they feel you should concentrate your efforts on, both in terms of cramming to lift your own knowledge, and good points and areas in the courseware.

Strategy 5 – Use the group expertise

This is a classic fall-back and can work brilliantly if handled properly – however overkill here is murderous.

Once you've done a bit of a course whip-around at the start to find out what people are interested in and what skills they have you'll have a feel for the expertise of the group. Most trainers will find that there may be one or two persons on the course with skills and knowledge over and above the others, or they may bring experience in using the product with them. Use them to your advantage – everyone wins here.

When you're asked the inevitable question you can't answer, open it up to the group. Again, reward the questioner: "Gee, that's a good question", then follow up with "has anyone else had a similar experience?" Hopefully someone will respond and say they have. You can then draw them out and ask how they overcame the problem.

Alternatively, you can finger a potential respondent directly with "Mary, how have you handled similar situations?" Providing Mary provides a good answer, she feels good, the questioner has a solution, and you've dodged a bullet!

Strategy 6 – Adapt the course

This strategy is a little more controversial and not always recommended. After the early course whip-around you'll have a clearer understanding of why people are on the course and what their objectives are. If the planets are in alignment you may find that people are more interested in learning about things you are more comfortable in rather than just what the stated outline of the course said they were going to do. Attendees love it when they come away from a course with solutions to their problems.

We'd like a peso for every time we've run an Excel Macros course only to find people on the course with problems that could be addressed in other ways, and often better ways, than reverting to programming and macros.

Of course, hijacking a course in this way is risky and this strategy needs to be adopted with care.

In conclusion

The life of a trainer has its challenges. It's not always beer and skittles. But when things go well it is one of the most rewarding jobs of all. There's nothing better than at the end of a course when someone comes up to you and says "Thanks, I got a lot out of that", and you respond with "my pleasure".

Woman smiling