No stupid questions

Learning to fly (Provided photo — Melinda Walton)

Time to hit the books and refresh on the basics.

As I read through some of my old favorite textbooks, preparing to teach again, I thought of previous teachers. Some favorites come to mind. Mrs. Wilde, my first-grade teacher who cemented my love for reading and for learning. A scattering of others, Mrs. Scaringi, my high school English teacher; Mr. Haschek, an extraordinary biology teacher; Mr. Dunmire, whose monotone could not defeat my interest in chemistry; and, of course, Salvatore Vespointe, my amazing coach from cross country — the only school sport I made the team on. “Nobody ever died from a stitch! Walk it off!”

College had some memorable professors. Mr. Wencel, the best meteorology teacher ever. “Wear Sunscreen! Look at this nose. You don’t want to be dealing with skin cancer in 20 years!”

Earl, the pearl — not memorable in a good way, but I learned much about how not to teach from him.

Mark, who followed Earl, helped put things in perspective. “I want you to go out and find a good stretch of beach. Practice some turns around a point, maybe some ‘S’ turns on your solo.” By then I was working on much more complex and challenging maneuvers, but when I asked about practicing on those, he said, “No, I want you to go out and enjoy the flight, look around, you need to remember why you are doing this. It’s supposed to be fun!”

Cal Singleton taught me to teach flying. He was sharp but also calm and laid back. Nothing surprised or bothered him.

As I progressed, my students became my teachers. If they were not grasping a concept or a particular maneuver, I’d find a different way of presenting it. It was my philosophy that if a perfectly capable student wasn’t getting it, it was the instructor’s job to find a way to success. I knew about struggling. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Perseverance and stick-to-itiveness, are keys to succeeding.

Pilots aren’t typically bookish nerds. They are the kids who couldn’t sit still, the easily distracted kids who liked looking out the window, or who couldn’t stop looking at the clock to see how long until they could get out of the classroom. They liked to figure things out, but not always by reading. Definitely the more hands-on learners. Many were the solid “C” students in grade school. Grade point average is not a true measure of potential.

In my first airline training class, years ago, the initial ground instructor was kind of a The Dude meets Harling Mays type character. Very laid back and very knowledgeable. He looked like he meant business. After the rah rah from management, human resources, and the new-job dog-and-pony shows were over, it was just him.

Now we’ve all heard some well meaning instructor say, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.” It’s typically intended to make the class more inclined to ask questions. That rarely works, no matter how sincerely it is said. No one wants to look stupid to their peers. We’d rather smile and nod, keeping our mouths shut. As Lincoln said, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.”

So this guy, my first airline instructor, looked around, sizing up the random collection that was us and began his welcome aboard talk. He asked a few show-of-hands type questions.

“Any of you flown corporate?”

“Who are my military pilots?”

“Anyone flown freight?”

Hands went up here and there.

“You are all qualified to be here. We hired you and are glad you’re here. Everyone else has been hiring for a couple years now, and we’ve finally joined the game. At America West Airlines, we want the best of the best.” Nods his head, arms folded across his chest. As we began to feel pretty good about ourselves, he said, “Take a look around at each other. I want you to know that we all appreciate you’re here, and we know that you are the absolute best … of what’s left!”

I burst out laughing, not caring if others followed suit. I knew we had a good teacher, and despite our varied backgrounds, we’d get through. He was, and we did.

There was a lot to learn, myriads of systems to memorize, understand, and be able to explain and use. He delved right in, but soon stopped himself.

“OK, this may be the first jet for some of you, and it’s important to understand this up front. There are no stupid questions.” He paused briefly, “Just stupid people, asking questions.”

We all laughed at that one. By getting us to laugh together, and laugh at ourselves, he was getting us to gel as a unit, a team, as crew members. It broke the tension, and opened the way for us to comfortably ask questions. This guy had a sense of humor, and I knew it would be a good class. It was. He knew how to teach and how to keep us engaged.

I’m reminded of a favorite quote from Ezra Bayda: “When you really pay attention, everything is your teacher.” I’ve learned from many people and situations since then, but when I began instructing at the airlines, it was that first airline instructor I most appreciated. I stole his line and made it my own.

“There are no stupid questions, just stupid people asking questions!”


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