April 2008Features

Bad Instructor or Bad Match?

Switching instructors isn't always the best option

The story is heard often. Student thinks instructor is ripping him off because he hasn't been signed off for a checkride. Student drops instructor. Student takes double the amount of instruction with a new instructor to get ready for the checkride.

Students and instructors often are on different levels of understanding when it comes to the student's progress. Too often, the student thinks he's being taken for the proverbial ride as the instructor schedules lesson after lesson to prepare for a first solo, a checkride, or another big step in training. This can culminate in an uncomfortable situation when one day the instructor comes in to fly with his student, only to find that the student is flying with another instructor. But switching instructors is not always the right decision, and there can be significant consequences that should be considered before you make the switch.

The first thing to realize is that while there are some bad apples, there aren't that many truly bad instructors out there. And there are even fewer dishonest instructors who see a student only as a source of income. There are, however, many bad relationships and instructor-student matches that make it difficult for the instructor to do his best work, and for the student to learn the most from the instructor. The key is knowing the difference between a bad instructor and a bad relationship, and knowing when to change instructors. It's acceptable to switch instructors because of a bad match.

Professionalism is key

The best way to begin evaluating the instructor-student relationship is to assess the instructor's professionalism. The list of qualities is long, but it can be pared down to a few basics.

Does he show up on time? Instructors expect students to show up on time. If not, chances are the student is charged for being late. So why shouldn't students expect the same of instructors? An instructor who is frequently late is not looking out for the best interests of his student.

Does he charge fairly? Some instructors feel that if a student schedules a lesson for two hours, that student will be charged for two hours. Others only charge for the time they actually spend with the student. There's no industry standard (see "CFI to CFI: Store of Value," p. 62). Understand which method your instructor uses, and be sure to check the bill and bring up any discrepancies. Mistakes in billing do happen, and it's partly the student's responsibility to make sure things are correct. Frequent, significant errors may point to an unsavory character trait of the instructor.

Does he raise his voice or make inappropriate comments? This is a big one. There's no place in the cockpit for tempers, yelling, destructive comments, or anything else that makes the student feel uncomfortable. This is one area in which the student doesn't need to seek out advice, talk to the chief instructor, or wait it out to see if things get better. If the instructor makes you uncomfortable, drop him.

Does he insist you only fly with him on every flight? In a recent post on the AOPA Online forums, a member said he flew with another CFI when his was out of town. He was close to his checkride and wanted to stay sharp while his instructor was on vacation. He scheduled with the owner of the flight school, only to have his CFI call and say he would never fly with him again if he went with the other instructor. Then the CFI proceeded to hang up on the student. If a CFI absolutely refuses to let a student fly with another instructor, there's something wrong. Most CFIs welcome the opportunity for their students to fly with someone else; some flight schools formalize the process with phase checks or stage checks with another instructor. It's a great confirmation that one's teaching skills are up to par.

CFIs who exhibit the negative behaviors above have no reason to expect students to stay under their care. At the very root, the student is a client and the instructor is a service provider. There's no reason to stay with someone who can't exhibit even the most basic professionalism.

A good instructor

Aside from basic professionalism, there are sometimes preconceived notions that have to be overcome before switching instructors. Many student pilots have a bias against young or inexperienced teachers, perhaps thinking they haven't been around long enough to experience what they're teaching, or even learn how to teach very well. But before dumping an instructor because of a perception that he or she is too young to teach effectively, think about this: Young instructors often have the most enthusiasm and drive. Sure, they might be gunning for an airline job, but that doesn't mean they're doing a poor job of instructing. Most instructors who are striving to be an airline pilot are careful, dedicated, professional, and driven--just what the airlines are looking for. And most don't have a second job that conflicts with their instruction schedule.

Before considering age or an instructor's career plans, think about how well they teach. Are they prepared for each lesson? Are the lessons well structured? These traits signify a good instructor.

There are many indications of a great teacher, but one key is flexibility and the ability to adapt. Let's say a student is having trouble with landings. A bad instructor may simply yell at the student to try harder. Or he may grab the yoke from the student as he's preparing to land to prove a point. A good instructor, on the other hand, will think of new and different ways to teach the concept. He may start over with a ground briefing about the aerodynamics of landings. From there, he may take the student out to watch other landings and have the student judge what went well and what didn't. Then he'll take him up and practice the core set of skills in the practice area before returning to the airport to try again, and so on. If all else fails, he'll likely suggest the student fly with another instructor for a different perspective.

The signoff

A few instructors think of their students as cash cows. Get out of this situation as soon as possible because chances are it will continue for the entire training curriculum--and be especially bad at the end. The difficulty is knowing the difference between a bad relationship or instructor and an immoral one.

When a disagreement arises about the student's progress, a student may believe he or she is ready to solo or take the practical test, whereas the instructor thinks more work is needed. This is normal. What is not normal is a situation in which an instructor continually schedules lessons even after saying the student is ready for the next phase, and offers no constructive feedback afterward.

Before deciding to switch instructors, make sure to talk to the instructor's supervisor. This is usually a chief instructor at a larger flight school, or the owner at a smaller school. Chances are the supervisor will speak to the instructor and make sure he is doing his job and giving his students good, quality instruction. If not, it may be time to go beyond instructors and switch flight schools instead.

Life after switching

Switching instructors shouldn't be a decision taken lightly. Before deciding to do so, understand there are usually some negative effects. A new instructor will likely require a student to fly all the basic maneuvers before he provides a solo signoff. If the student was almost ready for the checkride, the instructor will probably require the student to complete a dual cross-country, solo cross-country, and extensive checkride preparation. This is only fair. A new instructor doesn't want to put his reputation and certificate on the line for a student he just started training.

Starting anew with a different instructor often takes more time and money than sticking with the previous instructor, but there are exceptions. Our student on the AOPA forums who flew with a new instructor? "I made the best decision switching instructors," he said.

Associate Editor Ian J. Twombly holds commercial pilot certificates for airplane single engine and multiengine land and single engine sea. He is also a flight instructor.

Want to know more?
Links to additional resources about the topics discussed in this article are available at AOPA Flight Training Online.

Fire your flight instructor

By Dave Hirschman

It's a tragedy each time a student quits flying rather than change instructors--but it happens all the time.

When you hire an instructor, you're putting an extraordinary amount of trust in that person. You're choosing to spend many hours sitting shoulder to shoulder. There will be some stressful moments when you're not 100 percent sure you're capable of doing the things being asked of you--and, for better or worse, you'll be hearing your instructor's disembodied voice in your ears at critical moments throughout the rest of your flying life.

If you harbor the slightest doubt that your instructor is the very best person for the job, you should replace him or her. Now.

This isn't The Apprentice, and you're not Donald Trump, so you don't have to make a spectacle out of your decision. And you may be surprised that, instead of getting petulant or sulky, your fired flight instructor will take your best interest to heart, respect your decision, and even help you to find a suitable replacement.

A short conference between flight instructors is all that's usually necessary for one to pick up where the other left off. "Good headwork, solid preflight preparation, excellent judgment, and highly coachable," an instructor might say. "Average hand-eye coordination, confidence, and motivation. We've covered chapters one through eight, and you might want to review chapter seven. She likes to fly early on weekend mornings--and she's all yours."

Your new instructor may want to review some material to be sure there aren't any major gaps in your training, or so you can learn to do things his or her way. But so what? Your goal is to learn everything you can to become the best pilot you can be. In the long run, it won't matter if you spent 42.6 hours obtaining your private pilot certificate or a larger number.

Student impatience to solo is rarely a point of friction between students and instructors. In fact, I've had far more problems from reluctant students who didn't want to leave the nest.

Billing can be a flashpoint between hard-pressed students and impoverished instructors. Flight schools, and instructors, rightfully expect to be paid for their services. If a lesson is scheduled to take two hours, and does, the instructor ought to be paid for that amount of time. But how about an instructor who is talking on a cell phone while a student unties the aircraft and performs a preflight inspection? Or what about a student who holds short for 30 minutes waiting for air traffic control or weather delays, then cancels the flight? Is it fair for that student to be charged a half-hour of flight time? There are lots of gray areas--and students, instructors, and flight school owners should spell out their expectations up front.

Students who fly with many instructors (and many pilots) will find positive and negative examples in each one. Emulate the clarity of purpose, precision, and effective techniques you admire in some fliers--and avoid the vacillation, ignorance, and peevishness you find in others.

Learning to fly is difficult and demanding under the best of conditions. So is teaching it. As a student, you hold up your end of the bargain with thorough preparation, maximum effort, and focus.

You deserve the same from your instructor. If you're not satisfied for any reason, make a change.

Dave Hirschman is a senior editor for AOPA Flight Training magazine. He is an airline transport pilot and flight instructor who has specialized in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction since 1999.