Integrating Mentoring with the Formal Educational Process (reprint from ISFSI’s “The Buzz” newsletter)

“Kids, what’s wrong with these kids today?”  Paul Lynde lamented 54 years ago in the movie Bye Bye Birdie. This question still resonates strongly in fire departments across the country. Today’s younger generation confounds older firefighters and officers of how they learn and communicate.

Whether it’s the new recruit having difficulty learning new skills or a 10-year medic who can’t grasp new protocols; mentoring will assist in reducing learning obstacles and improve understanding of how best each person learns.

Mentoring is a key educational process in the fire & emergency services. The impact of using mentoring to build key organizational values and expectations, as well as providing both informal and formal education is significant. Understanding how to use mentoring as a component of a departments education and training program will help to improve not only information retention but better performance in the firehouse and on the emergency scene.
Whether you’re developing the next generation of firefighters, teaching veteran members new information or developing potential fire officers; it doesn’t come by osmosis. It comes from a structured program and processes that have been proven effective in fire service personnel development. This starts with a structured mentoring program. Whether a new recruit or working to the next grade of leadership, being part of a mentoring process is crucial to being successful in your quest. Whether on the fireground or in the station, mentoring provides a guided process of how to learn from others who have been there.

Mentoring has been identified as an important influence in professional development. The major function of mentoring is to promote individual development that is part of organizational success. Successful mentoring programs require proper understanding, planning, implementation, and evaluation. Many agencies don’t tie mentoring into their formal training programs. Whether it’s in-house training or outside training, those educational processes should be integrated into the organization’s mentoring program. Based on the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, in general, we forget about 50% of what we learned an hour after we have learned it; 70% in 24 hours and 90% in one week. Many times, we also provide information overload in classes and programs we teach as we have to pack a significant amount of information in a compressed time frame. Then we expect these students to be able to recite the information they just learned verbatim or be able to replicate the 22-new skill sets they learned with 100% accuracy.  The reality is when you ask them the compression rate for CPR or ask them to rig a 5:1 haul system in three minutes, they just give you a blank stare.

Integrating your education and mentoring programs doesn’t happen by waving a wand and wishing it to be so. It requires planning, which includes buy-in from stakeholders, and a process to measure performance. Developing a roadmap and timeline of where you want to go and how to get there (project management). There needs to be a strong connection between those who provide training and those who are mentoring. Exchange of information needs to be an active two-way street. To effectively monitor and manage this integrated educational process an assessment that measures personal and organizational performance is important to the success of mentoring tool. Some of the metrics that should be analyzed are: Is the program working? What could be improved on?  How and what needs to be fine-tuned. I personally find it the planning, monitoring and retooling part of the process that fails the most. It’s the development piece of turning a project into a program that wanes due to the amount of time and effort needed to keep the momentum moving forward. It needs a cheerleader who has patience, energy and willingness to take regular beatings. However, the benefits of having patience and perseverance far outweigh not trying or giving up. Once there’s a good wind behind the sails and the compass is set in the right direction the chances of the program being a success is much more likely.

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