I was a Certified Flight Instructor for 10 years at the Burlington, Vermont international airport. I couldn’t get enough of flying. Actually, this was during a difficult time in my life, and getting up in the air helped me to keep my feet on the ground. After a couple of years of giving primary instruction, I was finally qualified to teach instrument flying. This is an entirely different ball game. Flying in the clouds without autopilot is quite tricky, and in order to understand one of the lessons I learned about teaching, I have to tell you a little about staying alive in the air. When you are in IMC (instrument meteorological conditions) it is easy to become disoriented and to even lose track of whether the plane is up or down. It requires intense concentration just to stay in the air. When the pilot gets to the destination airport, however, the fun really begins. Back in the 80’s there were three basic types of instrument approaches to a runway. The most accurate approach, still used today, is called the ILS, the instrument landing system. As the pilot approaches the airport, air traffic control vectors her to intercept a radio beacon emanating from the runway. While keeping the plane level, controlling airspeed, and talking to ATC, the pilot has to carefully watch a needle on one of the dials on the panel. As it swings from the stop to the center, the pilot has to play the wind and perfectly time the rate of turn to a heading published on her approach chart. This lines her up with the runway. Then as the plane gets closer to the airport, another needle moves from top to bottom. When it is centered, it monitors the rate of descent. Now the pilot has to keep both needles centered, control the heading, the airspeed, and the rate of descent. If all goes well, the clouds open at say, 500 feet, and there is the runway! It is really an incredible feeling. (Don’t worry about all this on your next commercial flight. The pilots are very well trained, and besides, in the modern world the autopilot does most of the work.)
Now to the lesson. One day an older student came to see me. He told me that he had been working on his instrument rating for over 6 months, and gone through 5 instructors and many thousands of dollars. He just couldn’t get it. Would I please give him a try? I felt so sorry for the guy. He was a physician, and the head of Neurology at a local med school. He was clearly in the top 1% of smarts. So I told him I would give him one month of lessons, and if he hadn’t qualified by that time, we would call it quits. He agreed.
Before our first lesson, I gave this situation a lot of thought. I knew that flight instructors in general, and instrument instructors in particular, could get understandably jittery. If the student is flying in the clouds toward a mountain range, all the while waiting for the ILS needle to move, and he misses it for even a fraction of a second, many instructors begin tapping the dial and yelling ILS ILS. This has many deleterious effects. It makes the student feel like a failure, and the anxiety of the instructor is contagious. Further, it doesn’t give the student a chance to catch himself, and correct a mistake on his own. It seemed obvious to me he could never learn in that atmosphere. I must admit, however, that sitting in a cloud heading toward the mountains, and waiting, waiting, for the student to react to the needle takes a certain amount of starch.
There were no clouds on the day of our first lesson, so I put the Doctor under a hood that restricted his vision to the instrument panel. He had already done the approach into the Plattsburgh, NY airport over 50 times, so I figured he knew the numbers he needed and he had his charts on his lap. As we flew across Lake Champlain to Plattsburgh, I didn’t say a word. I would catch him peeking once in a while to see what I was up to, and I would quickly look out my window, ostensibly enjoying the view of the lake. We received our vector to intercept the ILS and still I waited. The needle started moving and although he didn’t see it right away, I kept quiet. (It of course helped that I could see the mountains that day). As I hoped, he caught the movement at the last possible moment, and managed to line up with the runway. His maneuver was far from graceful, but I figured it was really the first time he had ever done an approach on his own. It was a raggedy day, but we survived. At one point, he asked “how am I doing?” and I told him to just keep flying the route and we would talk about it back at the airport. Once on the ground, I pointed out five or six things he might have done to make the flight smoother, but I could already see a change. By God, he had done it!
We flew every day for two weeks, and while we were in the air, I hardly said a word. Back in the office we would critique the flight together. My suggestions made sense to him since we were talking about actual situations we had just experienced. It was clear that he already knew what to do; someone just had to let him do it! It was a marvelous thrill to watch this fine man grow in confidence and expertise by the hour. At the end of the two weeks, the Doctor qualified with the FAA for his instrument rating, cutting our agreed upon time in half. After his flight test, he showed up at my office with a big grin and a bottle of Jameson.
The lesson I learned is now obvious, I think. If a student is truly to learn flying, or philosophy, or music, she must at some point claim the learning as her own. The teacher is not the star of the show, nor ultimately is the teacher responsible for the student’s learning. Rather, he needs to walk the razor’s edge between modelling his love of learning, caring for his subject and for his students, and then getting out of the way. A jumpy flight instructor, a piano teacher cracking your knuckles with a ruler, or a university professor tyrannizing his students with grades are all examples of lousy teaching. “The true teacher,” says Lao Tsu, “teaches without words. She views the parts with compassion, because she understands the whole. Her constant practice is humility. She doesn’t glitter like a jewel but lets herself be shaped by the Tao, as rugged and common as a stone.”