As you would expect, working with all pupils is not necessarily going to be straightforward. There can be what I refer to as “obstacles to learning” that crop up, and if you are considering becoming a driving instructor, why would you not want to know what some of these obstacles are?
Firstly I would mention how important it is to check up on us, as instructors because if all is not well with us, then this can easily become a problem when working with pupils. Trying our best to keep active, and that will almost certainly mean factoring into your diary some downtime so that you can make that happen. If you don’t pencil in “me time” into your diary, unsurprisingly, there will be no me time. Meditation techniques can be very useful, the use of effective breathing, even when you have a pupil sitting next to you in the car, will be beneficial. But even if meditation isn’t your thing, just some time when your phone is on DO NOT DISTURB, and you can relax – maybe read, maybe exercise, maybe do yoga. The driving instructor’s job is prone to stress just as many others are. It is also a sedentary existence, with many hours in the passenger seat, having some active time each day is sensible.
If you have experience working with people, 1:1, then it will be no surprise to you how diverse we all are. The superficial chit-chat that we often do with each other bears no resemblance to what happens when we work on a 1:1 basis. When I reflect on my 30-odd years of work experience to date, it is very obvious that some leaders are more capable than others of effectively working with people. In fact, some leaders are so appalling at it, that you end up questioning their motivation for having the job they have, as they are certainly not good communicators! But given the fact that as instructors, we are being paid by our pupils, I think the very least we can do is properly listen to them – that should be pretty much a given. It is a fact that some of us are more inclined to talk rather than listen, I’m referring here just to our natural personality trait, but can you imagine how frustrating it would be for a customer to feel not listened to? The truth of the matter is, if you have any inclination to provide a service that adapts to the specific needs of your pupil, then you literally cannot do that without truly listening to their thoughts and feelings. When I first started out as a driving instructor, I thought it was just a case of me imparting my knowledge to my pupil – job done. But as I have experienced working with more pupils, I have recognised my earlier failings as a personal weakness, and done my best to learn more about how I tune in better to my pupil’s needs. I am fairly sure that, much like teachers and nurses, instructors want to do their best for pupils, because we are in the business of helping people at its core. So the intention is not in any doubt, but I do believe some of us have more tools at our disposal to use in this regard than others. It is not enough, I believe, just to WANT to help your pupil, you need to have some skills to enable that to happen. Being prepared to properly listen to a pupil, I think is right up there in the tool kit.
It would be somewhat boring if our job was simply a case of telling pupils what to do and then miraculously, they just do it. The fact is that some pupils will not understand what you have said, they may not appreciate the significance of what you have said, they may not agree with the approach that you are taking, or they may even think they know better. But then, you can have pupils who suffer from learning difficulties and personality traits that hinder their ability to effectively perform on a daily basis. They may not even mention this fact to you, it can be sometimes quite difficult to understand why pupils behave as they do. But after a while, you start to wonder what is happening, and sometimes details start to emerge from your pupil and honestly, some of these difficulties can be very sad to hear about. Again, we listen carefully, we pay attention, and if we don’t have first-hand knowledge of the subject we can ask for pointers from a driving instructor association/club/forum, or we can attempt to learn about it by purchasing books. This kind of CPD is not only helping you to help your pupil, but it is self-growth in action too. By enrolling on courses and digesting reading material, we are raising our awareness of these subjects and how can that be a bad thing?
But my message to any trainee driving instructor who perhaps has little knowledge in this area is to come into the industry at least expecting to see pupils who have these needs. I think it would be very sad if an instructor was just assuming that every pupil is like every other, and they do not even anticipate that a pupil might require some different techniques to help them. If you like, consider this like a new doctor – how pleased would you be if that doctor was at least considering (and perhaps ruling out) the more obscure illnesses rather than what might be considered the norm? If you were the patient, you would be very grateful to be under the care of a diligent doctor rather than one who tends to assume, on probability, outcomes. They are both registered doctors, both doing their bit to help others, both of them are qualified, and both of them will be paid whichever approach they take, but if your health was in the hands of one of them, you would be in no doubt which you would want. And I think it is the same with driving instructors – we all get paid roughly the going rate, we are all registered with the DVSA, and we have the best of intentions but some of us will have more skills to identify these pupils with other needs than others, and certainly more skills in helping them.
There is a minority of pupils who if you aren’t careful zap all the life out of you and certainly raise stress and anxiety. These pupils are not good for our mental wellness. I am referring to the pupils who have very little regard for the key concepts that we attempt to develop for safe driving. In terms of mindset, they tend to be limiting their understanding of what learning to drive means to just the operation of the vehicle. There can be many reasons for them having this approach, and often it will be other influencers who affect their attitude e.g. parents, peers. Nevertheless, these pupils who occasionally come into our working life are pretty toxic to our mental health. The fact is, you cannot make someone behave in the way you want them to. If they do not want to do mirror checks, blindspot checks, drive defensively etc, they won’t – and that is that. By all means, it can be useful to at least explore why they have the beliefs they do, but you know, beliefs can be very powerful things, and sometimes, we just have to accept that there is only a certain amount of influence that we have as driving instructors. We also shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that frontal lobe development in the male is delayed into the mid-20s, later than for females, and that can have a bearing on the behaviours too.
But of course, by providing a professional service with verbal and documented feedback, it will be no surprise to the pupil, when they insist on having a mock test, only to fail it. Your service has been thorough, without prejudice, the feedback has been accurate and timely, and as the pupil should expect (if they are paying attention), a fail on the mock test is inevitable. An age-old problem that has been with driving instructors since driving on roads ever started, is the pupil who once they realise will not pass a mock test, then turns on the particular behaviours JUST for the assessment. And that issue has been with all of us for decades, some pupils will “play the game”, both on mock tests and the actual driving test with absolutely no intention of continuing those safe driving behaviours post-test. It is sad, and thankfully, rare.
On a cheerier note, the vast majority of pupils will respond very well to good-quality instruction. When we use a range of resources to facilitate learning it is incredible what can be achieved. Our pupils are highly motivated in the main, they are investing their time and money in wanting our service and when driving instructor and pupil are working in harmony, watch out, powerful things happen – the capacity of learning potential in these circumstances is truly wonderful to observe and creates a great deal of job satisfaction. When your pupil who you have personally authorised for test because you know they are confident, competent and capable of driving safely independently, goes on to pass their driving test with ease, that will make you feel good. Not only will your pupil be delighted, and it is so satisfying to see that pupil, who you have seen putting in so much effort, reap the reward, but it is just incredibly rewarding for us as driving instructors. Our pupils will come to us, with varying needs, and once in a while, in my experience so far, I would say one or two per year, they will need the kind of nurturing that is going to take you out of your comfort zone, and you will need to dig deep to help that pupil. When they go on to pass their driving test…… wow, you cannot beat that feeling. That moment will quite rightly make you feel proud, and because you will inevitably have to learn new skills in order to help them, you will have taken one more notch up the professional scale too. I would suggest that no Standards Check grading comes even close in comparison to motivating us to further improve.