In terms of mindset, the first ‘trap’ that many prospective driving instructors fall into is thinking that teaching someone to drive is just an extension of the experience they encountered when they learnt to drive. A perfectly reasonable link to make; after all, when all of us make judgements about things, we are very often considering comparisons to previous experiences, so why would you not do the same in this instance? And this is going to be also relevant when you are helping your learner drivers practice, they will have limited experiences to pull on, so inevitably they will heavily rely on you to guide them with your judgement. As they practice more and start to build a bank of driving experiences, their ability to judge situations will naturally improve because they instinctively start to make connections with driving situations happening now that have also previously happened. It is this layering of driving experience that makes for good learning because ultimately the thing that distinguishes a good driver from a mediocre driver is how much thinking goes on while they drive.
You may have found that learning to drive was a relatively painless experience, perhaps the time it took was 12 driving lessons over a 3 month period. You may have passed your driving test first time, with not a great deal of drama involved, in fact, when you look back at it, the whole process of learning to drive was actually quite fun. This does not necessarily mean that you are ideal to become a driving instructor. The path some other learner drivers take is far from straightforward. In fact, if you have no previous work experience working closely with people in a learning environment, you may initially be very surprised at just how much some people will struggle to learn to drive. It is true that some pupils will saunter through the process with remarkable aptitude, but others will not. What might appear to you to be common sense, obvious, natural, easy to perform, logical and easy, for others will be quite the opposite. You might find yourself scratching your head wondering, “Why on earth is he not getting this?”
Let’s take just one example of risk management. How each of us perceives risk is personal. We will have a bank of emotions from previous life experiences where the presence of risk has stopped us in our tracks – or maybe not. Appreciating where risk lurks in driving situations is not a given. The DVSA attempt to start developing hazard perception in the theory study because it is a key skill of safe driving. However, it is too much of a leap to expect a pupil who passes the hazard perception in a theory test, to then naturally transfer that over to practical situations while they drive. Developing a “risk radar” takes time, some pupils take more time than others.
In most childhood lives, at some point, a parent will need to start pulling away from continually supervising their youngster, as they instinctively know that their child needs to independently sense higher risk. This is a difficult phase in parenthood, we are deliberately exposing our most precious belonging to danger – they may get physically or mentally harmed, maybe even both. And yet, if a young person is not given the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them, that potentially also has far-reaching consequences later in life. The challenge we have as driving instructors is that mistakes that happen in riskier situations on the road while practising need to be managed, which is why a key competency of a driving instructor is ‘risk management’. We need to organise practice sessions so that our pupil experiences new situations of varying technical challenge, appreciating success but inevitably making mistakes along the way that they can learn from. It is far better for our pupils to make mistakes under our supervision than when they are driving independently post-test.
Take the rather tame-looking situation of driving towards a T junction, where we intend to turn right onto the major road. The major road is set at national speed limits so in theory, the most speed traffic will be travelling is approaching us at 60 mph, but we must be alert to the fact that some drivers simply do not comply with maximum speed limits. This situation is high risk. If your pupil gets this wrong, it could be quite literally fatal. This situation needs managing, and one of the first discussions that should have previously taken place with your pupil is whether they even appreciate why this is high risk. What could go wrong, “What could possibly go wrong?” I often say to myself at the start of a new day. The pupil may be anxious, and lose vital foot co-ordination when they go to emerge, and the car stalls half in, half out of the junction. Nightmare. Your pupil may be concentrating so hard on the approach to the junction, that they forget to put the gear lever from 3 into 1st gear – they try to move off in third, stall, half in, half out of the junction. Your pupil can’t properly hear your words of guidance on the approach to the junction such are the levels of fear, excitement, adrenaline, anxiety, and unease inside their body. No amount of your words of slowing down is making any difference, they cannot hear you, the ability to hear has been shut down as their body goes into ‘survival mode’. As such you get on the brakes and thankfully manage to get the car stopped but the front end is overhanging the give ways markings, you’ve got it, half in, half out. What a nightmare. And on it goes; there are plenty of things that can go wrong.
What is the current ability of your pupil, what are you both considering to do next, what skills does your pupil currently possess that can transfer over to this new skill. How does your pupil feel about practising this new skill. Are there any concerns or questions regarding how they practice it, what do they think could go wrong. What kind of location would be sensible to start off with, does the time of day or weather conditions make any difference to managing risk. How much assistance would your pupil like from you beforehand and during the practice – what options can you offer your pupil to facilitate learning. Does your pupil have to attempt to do everything all at once – can this skill be taught in stages. How will we know what progress looks like – should we measure ability, and if so, how so that it helps your pupil rather than adds pressure. How would they describe/grade the level of risk with practising this new skill.
Without wanting to sound like I am being anti-private lessons, I am not, but it is true that on many occasions in private lessons, the amount of considering the above (which is far from an exhaustive list) will sadly be zero. With no prior warning, Dad and son find themselves at a T junction as described above, and Dad, thinking that this is nothing particularly unusual – he has to do these kinds of junctions all the time while driving, just leaves it to his son to try. And the poor son, will do one of three things, again, that is instinctively in all of us, hard-wired into our survival instincts. He will either freeze and just sit at the junction in a blind panic. He might initially sit at the junction, but once he consciously or unconsciously recognises the high risk, just attempt to emerge out of that junction as soon as he can, regardless of what is in the major road – flight. Or, on the approach to the junction, sensing that danger is ahead, he may just pluck up as much courage as he can, try his best and forge through that junction, in for a penny, in for a pound – fight.
And this is perhaps one of the greatest skills that a driving instructor can possess: to attempt to understand how a pupil thinks and feels about things, rather than settling for their own perceptions. Pupils are no different to every single other person in life, we all live on emotions, and if a driving instructor does not make any attempt to understand the emotional state of a pupil, they will forever be frustrated at the seemingly random driving behaviours that their pupils make.
But there are other skills of course. Empathy is not a given in all of us. Our pupils generally work very hard when practising, the effort levels can be immense. If things go wrong, even repeatedly wrong, it is a skill not to take that personally, not to judge or criticise our pupil and to instead think how can you help them out even more. We facilitate learning by offering our pupils options. We want them to consider which tool(s) to use for a particular practice: a demonstration from us, how much verbal assistance we give them, do we do anything with the clutch/brake for them, do we do observations for them while they practice something else, do we spend more time talking through the theory of the practice first, will non-verbals assist the pupil better than the spoken word, how can we arrange the practice so that it is enjoyable while also beneficial etc.
Enjoying practice is good for our pupils, just like enjoying our work is good for us as driving instructors. We as instructors need to feel a sense of enjoyment, safety, progress, satisfaction, worth, calmness and pride because physical and mental wellbeing are just as important to us in our work as it is for our pupils while they practice.
So you might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned how good a driver you are; when you consider being an instructor, our role is one of creating an environment for meaningful learning rather than being a driver (the amount of actual driving we personally do in a given day, is rather low). Our role is to keep things safe while our pupil’s practice. Our role is identifying strengths and weaknesses in our pupils’ driving techniques, providing feedback constructively to pupils and affecting positive change. Our role is to accurately assess when is the correct time for pupils to go to test. Our role is to provide learning techniques that aid learning. Our role is to make the experiences of learning what is arguably one of the most important activites that we do in day to day living, as comfortable, safe and enjoyable as possible. Our role is to develop safe drivers.
But having said all of the above, it is a skill to know our own limitations and have self-awareness as to when we just cannot help a pupil. I don’t see that realisation as a weakness personally, I think that is a strength because once we start to recognise our weaknesses, we can actively work on learning and improving ourselves so that we also continue to improve. Whether it be yourself who can identify weaknesses by analysing driving test reports, listening to feedback from pupils, systematically measuring pupil’s road safety metrics or whether you get constructive feedback from a CPD course or a DVSA assessment – either way, continually striving to improve yourself is definitely the way forward.