Relationship Between the ATC Trainee and the Instructor

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Relationship Between the ATC Trainee and the Instructor

56TH ANNUAL CONFERENCE, Toronto, Canada, 15-19 May 2017

WP No. 155

Relationship Between the ATC Trainee and the Instructor

Presented by PLC


The Learning/training process is a major and important phase in the professional career of every ATCO and is relevant to any ATC unit, on a professional and social level. A good instructor should have a set of soft skills such as… The question is: Does the OJT phase require a specific set of soft skills? The answer: yes, it does. This paper will focus on the 9 relevant soft skills that were found relevant for OJT. Any training unit can use this paper to improve training processes in general and especially improve the compliance between a trainer and a trainee.


1.1. Following WP no 311 “Training for On-the-Job-Training-Instructors (OJTI)” presented by PLC at the 55th Annual Conference in Las Vegas, USA and WP no 157 “The Operational Role of the OJTI” presented by PLC at the 54th Annual Conference in Sofia, Bulgaria.

1.2. A trainee is vulnerable as a new person in a closed group of ATCOs who already work with each other for several years. He/she needs to earn their trust.

1.3. A good relationship between the instructor and the trainee can help to overcome the trainee’s fears and can make the OJT more efficient, quick and even a fun process.

1.4. A good relationship can be established if we can pair the “right” trainee to the “right” instructor, as we all know there are several ways to teach how to be an ATCO in view of a qualification, but nevertheless the soft skills should be common to all the instructors and all the methods.

1.5. This paper will define the skills, divided to three types as coaching skills, behavioural skills and communication skills that an instructor should master to get the best results from a trainee during an OJT.


2.1. OJT is the common way to teach how to become an air traffic controller. After the trainee graduates the basic course he/she will be sent to their new facility where he/she will start to implement all the rules and techniques they learned in the basic course. It will take a long time until they will become operative, and during that process they will encounter many difficulties, questions and misgivings. One thing that can help making this long journey more productive is matching the right instructor who, for the trainee will be the most suitable.

Some of the trainees will get the best results by encouraging them to use their full potential since day one while others need an easy pace and no pressure at all at the beginning. Some of them need the bottom line while others will need the whole story. Nevertheless every technique and every instructor has a couple of soft skills that suit them all.

2.2. The Learning Process

Learning is a change in the student’s behavior as a result of experience. The amount of learning is controlled by the student’s desires. The behavior change can be physical and overt, or it can be intellectual or attitudinal and not easily detected. Yet almost everyone has a set of goals in life and he/she learns best those things that apply directly to these goals.

2.3. Be patient and tolerate

The OJT is a long process which doesn’t happen in one day, during this process there will be ups and downs and a patient instructor can contribute more than an impatient instructor to the trainee’s achievements. Three tips are better than ten tips in order not to undermine the trainee’s confidence.

2.4. Keep the trainee motivated

Motivation is possibly the most important force which governs the student’s progress and the instructor must be able to identify if the trainee is ready or not – ability to learn; we seldom think there are no motivational problems among our trainee but can you keep your trainee motivated during the whole process, even after a bad performance. Readiness – the trainee will learn best only when he/she is ready to learn.

2.5. Be consistent and set as a role model

The principle of primacy shows that instructors must teach all the facts correctly the first time. You are an instructor 24/7, even if you have no student, there is – indirect learning by the students just by their sitting next to you. Double standards should not exist, act as you expect the students to act, act professionally.

2.6. To create an environment that is suitable for learning

The principle of effect, which is based on the emotional reaction of the learner, explains that a person learns best when the experience is pleasant and satisfying.

2.7. To be able to identify when it is enough for the day

Six levels of learning (Bloom Taxonomy 1978 Model, Vanderbilt (2017) Center for teaching. rote is the lowest level and provides the ability to repeat – something he/she has been taught, without understanding or being able to apply what has been learned, understanding is the basis of effective learning. A person with understanding knows the reason for the sequence of events and knows the relationship between related objects and actions, application is the development of the skills needed to apply what is being taught, correlation is the highest level of learning, and with correlation a student is able to associate an element which has been learned with other segments or “blocks” of learning or accomplishment.

We aim for the correlation level because you can’t teach the entire scenario that a trainee might encounter and you want them to be able to solve a problem they have never met in a safe way using – all the tools you gave them.

The Kurt Levin model (Morrison, M. (2014) Kurt Lewin change theory and three step model – Unfreeze-Change-Freeze. says that you can’t teach people all the time, when you pass the breaking point a repression (things that are unpleasant or that produce anxiety may be relegated to the unconscious mind and are thus forgotten) may occur.

2.8. Be creative and don’t use only one method of explaining

Learning with all the senses – the most effective way, when several senses respond together, fuller understanding and greater chance of recall is achieved.

2.9. The Instructor as a Critic

An instructor has the unique responsibility of criticising the actions of a student in order to help the students evaluate their own performance. A critique is not a part of the evaluation process, it is a part of the learning process, and is not necessarily positive feedback. As mentioned, the student is in a vulnerable situation because on the one hand he would like to accept the feedback and correct the things he had done wrong while, on the other hand the defense mechanism pushes him to explain why he chose this form of action, the instructor should be patient and open-minded in order not to undermine the student’s confidence.

An effective critique should be: objective, flexible, acceptable, comprehensive, constructive, well organised, thoughtful and specific.

2.10. Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan

Everyone likes to brag about their achievements but no one likes to share the fact that he failed. Students during the OJT can lose their confidence if the bad results will be known to their colleagues, being discreet is essential to support the trainee’s confidence.

2.11. Human Behaviour

The pyramid of human needs (McLeod, S. (2007) Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. suggested by Professor Maslow lists five levels of needs. The lower level must be satisfied before a level above can be satisfied. The levels are: physical, safety, social, egoist and self-fulfillment.

The self-fulfillment level is the highest level, which can be met only after all lower levels have been satisfied. This is the need for realising one’s own potentialities, for continued development, and for being creative in the broadest sense of the term.

The instructor must go step by step and fulfill each level in order to get to the highest one in order to achieve the goal of certifying an independent ATCO who can continue developing his skills.

To be supportive and to encourage the student during the whole process. Students learn more from wanting to learn than from being forced to learn – seven ways of encouraging a student to want learn are; keep the student motivated during the whole process, keep the student informed, approach students as individuals, give credit when due, criticise constructively, be consistent, admit errors.

Nevertheless there are certain behavior patterns students use to soften the feeling of failure and to protect their feelings of personal worth and adequacy. These are known as defense mechanisms, and while they can serve a useful purpose, they can also be a hindrance because they involve some self-deception and distortion of reality. The defense mechanisms (McLeod, S. (2009) Defense mechanisms. are:

Rationalism – allows trainees who cannot accept the real reasons for their behavior to substitute excuses for reason.

Flight – allows trainees to avoid frustrating situations by escaping, physically or mentally. Most often this takes the form of mental flight as daydreaming.

Aggression – a normal, universal, human reaction that causes trainees to ask irrelevant questions, argue on almost every subject and not willing to collaborate with the instructor.

Resignation – some trainees become so frustrated they lose interest and give up. They feel it is no longer profitable to work further and they accept defeat. A good instructor directs and influences the behavior of the students guiding them and helping them to accomplish their goals – The relationship between an instructor and his/her students have a profound impact on how much the students learn. Students expect the instructor to exercise certain controls, and they recognise and submit to authority as a valid means of control.

2.12. Body language

Is a type of non-verbal communication in which physical behavior, as opposed to words, is used to express or convey information. Such behavior includes facial expressions, body posture, gestures, eye movement, touch and the use of space. During the OJT the instructor can notice the change in the trainees behavior for example facial expressions such as eyebrows shrinking or shallow, rapid breathing or fast leg tapping which can indicate nervous or anxious impression. When the instructor noticed he or she can help the trainee without even being asked to. Even the tone of the trainee’s voice can indicate the level of tense that he is experiencing.

2.13. To be understood

Insights, involve the grouping of perception into meaningful wholes. The instructor must point out to the student the way details work together to form complete ideas and concepts.

2.14. Effective Communication

Effective communication is measured by the similarity between the idea transmitted and the idea received. Effective communication requires three elements: the source (instructor), the symbols (the word and signs used to convey the message) and the receiver (student). The instructor should have a positive attitude toward himself/herself, towards the material being presented and towards the student. For effective communication the instructor should select symbols that are meaningful to the student and should be creative because some symbols will work with a student while the same symbols will not work with another student.


The characteristics of an instructor’s professionalism include:

3.1. Being a role model – you are an instructor 24/7.

3.2. Personal appearance and habits – an instructor who is rude, thoughtless and inattentive can’t hold the respect of the students, regardless of his/her controlling abilities.

3.3. Acceptance of the student – the professional relationship between the instructor and the student should be based on a mutual acknowledgment that both the student and the instructor are important to each other, and both are working towards the same objectives. Try to like your student.

3.4. Be discreet and respect your student – the student is under pressure and telling everyone about his progress can only do damage.

3.5. Proper language – the use of profanity and obscene language leads to distrust, or at best, to a lack of complete confidence.

3.6. Tolerance – to accept several solutions by the trainee as long as safety is kept.

3.7. Patience – a patient instructor can create a comfortable environment and bring down barricades which can prevent a good learning process.

3.8. Creative and flexible – find several ways to explain so that every student will understand and, as in doing our job, every problem has several answers and several points of view.

3.9. Sincerity – any facade of instructor pretentiousness, whether it be real or mistakenly assumed the student, will immediately cause the student to lose confidence in the instructor. Anything less than sincere performance destroys the effectiveness of the professional instructor.

Draft Recommendation

4.1  It is recommended that this paper is accepted as information.


Flight-crew human factors handbook, CAP 737

Air traffic controllers and simulators – the implementation of a participant-oriented learning practice of Naviair – air navigation service in Denmark.

Beaubien, J.M;BAKER, D.P (2002). “A Review of Selected Aviation Human Factors Taxonomies, Accident/Incident Reporting Systems, and Data Reporting Tools.” International Journal of Applied Aviation Studies, 2(2), 11-36.

The HBDI®: A tool for assessment, recruitment and management.

Last Update: October 1, 2020  

January 17, 2020   911   Jean-Francois Lepage    2017    

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