An Unconventional Career Path for a Curry School Graduate
Many graduates of the Curry School of Education have successful careers as public or private school teachers, school principals and superintendents, and as college professors. My career path was different.
Twenty-five years ago, at the ripe old age of 43, I earned a Master’s of Education Degree in the field of Instructional Technology from the Curry School of Education. While working towards this degree, I was employed as a FBI Supervisory Special Agent assigned to the FBI Laboratory’s Forensic Science Training Unit, at the FBI Academy, in Quantico, Virginia, as an Instructor. Twice a week, for several years, four of us FBI instructors enrolled in the Master’s Degree program would drive to Charlottesville to attend evening classes with students half our age.
We were particularly interested in the field of Instructional Technology because it focused on effectively using media such as slides, films, video tapes, photographs, and audio recordings for classroom presentations. Our students were adult learners consisting of seasoned police officers from around the world attending the FBI’s National Academy. The National Academy was and remains the flagship of schools for mid-level law enforcement officers who hope to advance their careers within their respective agencies. All students attending this 10 week school were required to take a course called the Management of Forensic and Technical Services.
Many of these students balked at taking the course since they held management positions and were no longer involved in processing crime scenes. As instructors, we faced the prospect of teaching 20 forensic science topics to individuals who, for the most part, had little interest in forensic archeology, forensic anthropology, mineralogical evidence, etc., and crime scene management techniques. Our dilemma: How do we convince these managers that this course is valuable for their career; and how do we make some very basic topics interesting so the students looked forward to coming to class?
One approach advocated by the Curry School was for the instructor to “walk in the shoes” of the student and ask the question: “What’s in it for me if I take the course?” I answered the question regarding the value of the course by remembering the leadership skills I learned in Vietnam as a 2nd Lieutenant, U.S. Army Combat Photography Officer.
RULE #1: As a supervisor, you are responsible for everything your personnel do or fail to do.
RULE #2: If you take care of your people, they will take care of you.
Consequently, when I taught “Crime Scene Processing Techniques,” I introduced cases where the investigators and evidence technicians mishandled the crime scene and discussed the impact their failure had on the investigation and the reputations of their supervisors. I then presented cases where the CSI personnel acted professionally. My message: If you don’t know what your personnel are doing, how can you measure their performance? If your employees know you have knowledge of their expertise and you express appreciation for their efforts, they will work more diligently in the future. Sometimes, fear of failure can be a tremendous motivator for a student to learn.
The second question on how to make the topics more interesting was resolved by having several brainstorming sessions with my fellow FBI Academy faculty members comparing instructional techniques we had used in the past. One of our group assignments was to create a 10 minute instructional video on a topic of our choice. We decided to produce a video about Ballistics and Firearms Identification. A part of the video featured a demonstration of the bullet recovery tank where a weapon is fired into a stainless-steel tank, 10 feet long and 5 feet high, filled with water. The water absorbs the velocity of the test bullet and enables a Firearms Examiner to compare this undamaged bullet with one discovered at a crime scene to determine if the same weapon fired both bullets.
After the instructor fired the test shot into the tank, we drained the tank and another student climbed inside. We then resumed filming the instructor explaining the procedure. At some point during the instructor’s lecture, the lid of the tank slowly opened, a hand emerged and delivered the bullet to the instructor, who continued to speak as if nothing unusual had happened. In reality, there would never be a person in the tank when a shot was fired, but the shock effect on the audience was profound and after the laughter subsided we had the full attention of the audience.
The moral of this story is that if you can introduce humor or something unexpected into your presentation, you can retain the attention of adult learners.
After serving several years in the Forensic Science Training Unit, I became one of the original FBI Criminal Profilers. As a Criminal Profiler, and now as a retired Agent and member of the Academy Group Inc. in Manassas, Virginia, I have trained law enforcement officers from around the world in the art of Criminal Profiling Techniques. As a police instructor, I am confronted with a different instructional problem: How to provide meaningful training to both inexperienced and experienced homicide detectives simultaneously, when I was never a homicide detective. Once again, I rely upon an instructional philosophy advocated by my professors. Before any presentation it is imperative to conduct a “needs assessment.” I learn everything I can about my audience, i.e., what is the ratio of experienced to inexperienced homicide detectives, how many represent large police agencies versus small town departments, and how many of my students are women, etc. (experience has taught me that female detectives frequently have greater intuition and insight than their male counterparts).
One technique which has proven to be effective is getting students involved in their own training. It would be very easy to tell countless war stories about unsolved cases that were resolved by using Criminal Profiling, but presenting these cases to the class to analyze in small groups has proven to be a very beneficial approach. Detectives with varying degrees of experience from large and small departments can work together, share ideas, and the cumulative effect is the increase in knowledge about criminal behavior by every student.
For over 40 years, I have had the privilege of training law enforcement officers in a wide variety of topics. I continue to learn from my students and consider it an honor to give something back to the law enforcement community that serves us all. My master’s degree in Instructional Technology has been of tremendous value to me in my unconventional educational career path.