How to Be a Good Student

How to Be a Good Student

By Rod Machado

Every student wants a good instructor. That’s given. What’s often not understood by these same students is that good instructors also want good students. The problem is that no one teaches students how to be good students. Sorry, but offering the instructor an apple prior to a lesson or not staring at the chin strap on your instructor’s toupee isn’t the “good-student” behavior I have in mind here.

Instead, I’m interested in how we should behave as students (yes, I’m a lifelong student) so that our instructors are inspired to go above and beyond the call of duty when training us. So here are four rules (my top four picks among many) that will enhance the quality of any training you are receiving.

Years ago, I learned that if I wanted to get the most out of any training session with any instructor—golf, martial arts, flying, etc.—that I had to act like a good student. Therefore, Rule #1 is: Show your enthusiasm for what you are learning. You want to channel the spirit of Lee Strasberg, the great acting teacher, to look and act interested in your training.

What? You can't act? I think you can but you just don't know it. Do you remember the last time you were pulled over by the police for speeding? The officerthe fellow with powdered donut all over his facewalked up to your car and peeped through your window just as the sound of your car coming to a stop arrived (foiled by Ernst Mach again). He puffed out a wisp of sugar and said, "You were speeding." That's when you made your grand entrance onto the stage and opened with, "Moi? Why I would never do such a thing. You must have pointed your radar gun at a low flying jet or something." That performance, my friend, should get you a star on Hollywood Boulevard. Believe me, you can act.

So what's the payoff for you when you do act enthusiastic? Well, you probably won’t win an Oscar for your performance, but you might be awarded the title of Teacher’s Pet. This is a designation with no downside when it comes to flight training. Anyone with dual-functioning lobes should realize that teachers pay more attention to their pets, right? That’s right. You want your instructor to look forward to teaching you. One of the very best ways to accomplish that objective is to ensure your instructor knows you are excited about learning from him.

The problem with many students is that they have nary a clue (not even half-a-nary) about how their low-key behavior diminishes their instructor’s enthusiasm to teach them. No. I’m not saying that instructors won’t do the best job possible, even with unenthusiastic and lifeless students who properly deserve to have white chalk lines drawn around their bodies. Yes, I’m talking about “Clamp, hemostat, we’re losing him” lack of enthusiasm. That fact is that morticians often deal with more enthusiastic clients than some instructors. But who would argue that these same instructors will often go above and beyond the call of duty when teaching enthusiastic students? So sit up, perk up, speak up, but don’t throw up. If you understand Rule #1, then you understand an important principle of human nature.

Rule #2 for becoming a good student is to always, always, always do your homework. Then show up for your lesson with proof of that accomplishment. I give no quarter on Rule #2. Trust me here. There’s always a student who shows up with the lamest homework excuse ever, such as, “My dog at my homework.” This is often followed by the double-lame addon of, “Yeah, I had to force him to eat it, but he ate it, so it’s not a lie.”

With respect to this rule, there is no try, just do. Proof? What is this proof of which I speak? Hmm, how about this. At the least, inform your instructor at the very beginning of the lesson that you did the homework and get his acknowledgment of that fact. An affirming head-nod is all your need. Then again, you might make a quick outline on a single sheet of paper covering the material you studied and show it to your instructor—nothing fancy here. You only want your instructor’s acknowledgment that you did what he asked you to do.

If, for some reason, you can’t do the required homework, then inform the instructor of that fact. Just tell him you are unable to accomplish the required assignment. Don’t hold your head down in shame (unless you want to). Then say the following: “I don’t want to miss a lesson with you so if there is something else we can do that’s not dependent on this homework assignment, I’d like to do that if possible.” (Now hold your head down in shame to let his Catholic guilt work for you. Hey, it can’t hurt.)

Rule #3 is simple: Don’t be late, even if you are French. Yes, the French are sometimes “fashionably late,” but your instructor probably doesn’t care about that. Most likely, the only “international” thing your instructor cares about is eating at the International House of Pancakes (pigs in a blanket? Heaven on earth is what that is). The fact is that being late suggests that you don’t care as much about the instructor’s time as he cares about his time. So be on time.

However, there are times when you can’t help being late, such as when you’re having trouble getting your dog to eat your homework. If you suspect you are going to be late, then notify your instructor as early as you can. And, if you are late: pay your instructor for his lost time! No, don’t “offer” to pay him, just pay him. Period. If he won’t take it (not likely at all), then say, “OK, then this is a tip.” Then hand over the dough. Don’t put him on the spot and leverage his Catholic guilt by giving him the opportunity to decline payment for what he justly deserves. Besides, he might temporarily renounce his religion just to have access to your tiny stash of cash. The fact is that paying for your instructor’s lost time is a small price to pay to maintain good relations with him.

Rule #4 is my big closerand I do mean big! Don't talk back to your instructor.

Here’s one example of what “talking back” looks like.

Your instructor says, “I think you should retract your flaps now.”

You say, “I was getting ready to do that.”

That’s talking back and it serves no purpose other than to make you feel you have not been diminished in the eyes of your instructor. More often, it accomplishes the exact opposite of that objective. Your instructor might think, “Well, Mr. Regresso Mentalblock is certainly quick on the retorts but slow on accomplishing objectives in a timely matter.”

Instructors don’t care what you were “going” to do. They specifically care about what you haven’t done at the precise time they mentioned doing it.

So the proper response to the instructor’s request to retract flaps is “Roger, flaps coming up (even if Roger isn’t your instructor’s name).” So simple, so easy to say and it never gives your instructor a reason to think that you are argumentative, which is what talking back is—argumentative. Of course, if your instructor makes a request that you didn’t anticipate or didn’t understand, then, after raising the flaps, ask him when he would like you to perform that behavior in the future. That’s called learning.

Years ago, I had a CFII applicant who just couldn’t stand the idea that someone else knew something he didn’t know. That was strange since he came to me to learn how to teach instrument flying. Every time I shared an idea with him or suggested that he do something in a different way, he’d say, “I know that.”

On one training flight, I said, “Gary, you might want to tune in the VOR station now.” Since he was from Texas, he said, “I’m fixin’ to.”

I felt like saying, “Well, why don’t you fix another one that way you can be fixin’ three?”

After our third flight, during which he constantly talked back, I stopped the airplane on the taxiway, looked over at him and said, “Gary, you seem to have an answer for everything.”

Without so much as a moment’s hesitation, he replied, “No I don’t.”

I replied, “And that’s my point.”

He finally got that point, settled down and obtained his CFII rating, but not without leaving me with the impression that he wasn’t a good student at all—what a shame.

Ultimately, if you want the best from your instructor, then use what you know about human nature. Be excited about your training. Show it. Do your homework. Don’t talk back. And finally, don’t be fashionably late. But, just in case, get a dog who loves to eat wind triangle problems.



Great post. I’ve had students exhibit some these traits, a couple even tried to accomplish ALL of them. I’d like to embellish on #2: If you’re going to chronically disobey #2, don’t complain about how long your training is taking…

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Excellent, well written! Thanks Rod! I find that with #4 often times if the instructor is “suggesting” you do something, it’s because they expected you to do it a while ago and you haven’t done it yet.


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