This is a topic I've wanted to write about for a while, and now is about as good of a time to do so as any...
Many of you are either presently taking or planning to take fire technology classes at your local community college to prepare yourself to become a firefighter. I want to share some of my experience--10 years of teaching at the college level, three of those years as a fire technology coordinator--so that you can learn from the mistakes of others and not follow in the same footsteps as those that have not succeeded.
One of the classes I am presently teaching is the "Introduction to Fire Protection" class. I get to see students in their first semester, many of them fresh out of high school and with no life experience to speak of (not that there is anything wrong with that). This can be rewarding, depending on the student. It is great seeing students succeed from their first class into a firefighter job a couple of years later--that is what makes my day.
We start with about 60 students on day one, and in the past, I have graduated only about 30 or so, with about 20 of them getting an "F" and the other 10 dropping sometime before the final drop deadline (no grade of record). These numbers are typical in our night class, but with a slightly higher success rate). I have been frustrated with the high failure rate, but based on this class being the first one in the fire series, it does make sense. Not everyone knows what they are getting into or if they actually want to be a firefighter. Obviously many students take one class (like the introduction class) and never take any other ones or even attempt to become a firefighter. That's OK, not everybody is cut out for every job.
One of my biggest frustrations is students that cannot follow simple directions or do not put their heart and soul into what they are trying to accomplish. We are not there to baby sit you, we are here to provide you with a rock-solid foundation to start off your fire service career and set you up for success. Do some of the instructors spoon feed students? I would by fooling myself if I didn't say that it does occur not just at our college, but at most colleges nationwide. As instructors, we are not doing you the student any service spoon feeding you.
Since a class starts with about 60 students, and there are probably only about 20 or so that really deserve to be there (deserve meaning they will do the best they can and have a good shot at getting hired if they don't give up or do something stupid). I wish I could go right to that 20 that should be there and focus all of my efforts on seeing them succeed. Well, one of the things I require of students is that they pass the midterm with a grade of at least 80 percent (which is a "C" - 79 percent or less is failing). If they don't pass the midterm with at least 80 percent, they are advised that they can no longer stay in the class.
Well, I am now down to about 25 students in my class and had to drop about 15 after they failed the midterm (another 20 or so dropped in the first few weeks for whatever reason). These students are the ones that will probably be successful, based on their progress to date. Also, I doubt that I will be giving many, if any, grades of "F" at the end of the semester. Getting a grade of F is worse than getting a "W" (withdraw)".
Now some think that is unfair that they could not stay in the class. Well, there are some very common themes with virtually all of the students that failed the midterm and got dropped from the class that you can learn from. Most (if not all) of them would have been successful if they had:
- Shown up at all class sessions. All of them had missed at least one day.
- Shown up on time to all class sessions. Most of them had been tardy to at least one session. The fire service does not appreciate tardiness.
- Turned in all of their homework assignments. Here is one of the spoon feeding things I have mixed feelings on: every week they get some questions to answer and turn in the next week. These questions are virtually the same as the ones they see on the test next week. You would think that if you do the homework you would get 100 percent on the test, well, that is not the case. Homework is not required, but they get up to five extra credit points for doing the questions. Extra credit is only added in at the end of class after they have passed with at least a "C". All of the students who had failed the midterm had failed to turn in all or some of the homework assignments.
- Passed the midterm. One of the reasons I would rather drop them if they fail the midterm is because if they fail the midterm, there is a very high chance they won't even get higher than a D in the class at the end. In the past, most of the students who failed the midterm (before we dropped them for this) failed the final and ended up with an F or a D. Only in rare circumstances did students get their act together and kick it into overdrive and pass with a C or better.
- Passed the weekly quizzes with at least 80 percent. All of the students we dropped had failed at least one quiz. Most of them had failed over half of the tests they had taken.
- Turned in other assignments early or at least on time. Another interesting coincidence is that these same students were the same ones that turned in any special assignments (reports, etc.) late or at least attempted to turn them in late. We typically don't accept late stuff.
- Taken responsibility for their actions, or lack of actions, and actually held themselves accountable. I've heard every excuse in the book and I bet I'll hear new ones every semester. Do you think the fire department that wants (or wanted) to hire you cares that you forgot to completely fill out the application or that your application was late because you forgot the final filing date?
I hand out a "student contract" on the first day of class to "lay the foundation and the ground rules" up front. They get a copy and they sign a copy for me to keep. Even if they don't sign it, that's ok - they still know the rules of engagement. Well, what are some of the items I put in the contract that will fail them? Here are the items:
- Following instructions, either oral or writtene, is paramount to your success as a future firefighter. Not properly following instructions on the fireground can lead to the death or serious injury of a fellow firefighter and/or yourself. Learning to follow instructions in this class will help you be a successful firefighter; an asset to yourself, your crew, and the citizens you provide service to.
- I agree to abide by all of the requirements set forth in the course syllabus that was handed out on the first day of class, including (but not limited to) the following items:
- The green 100 question scantron score sheets (Form 882-E) will be required for weekly quizzes, the midterm examination, and the final examination. Turning in a scantron that is not the required scantron will result in my forfeiting points from that test for not following directions. Also, using anything but a # 2 pencil to answer your questions that does not allow the scantron machine to properly score your test will also result in your forfeiting the points from that test.
- All assignments, homework, projects, etc. are due at 8:00 a.m. at the start of class. Showing up late to class and turning in an assignment after 8:00 a.m. may result in your not receiving full credit for that assignment. If you show up on time you are assumed to have your required assignments with you at that time. No points will be given for homework, assignments, projects, etc. not turned in after the class for the day ends.
- I will show up to class by 8:00 a.m. so that I am not a disruption to the rest of the class or the instructor. Tests are usually administered right at 8:00 a.m.; If I arrive during the middle of a test, I may not be able to take the test or if I am allowed to take the test, at the instructor's discretion, I will only be allowed the remaining minutes allotted to the class that is presently taking the test. As soon as you walk into the class, please turn in any required homework or assignments onto the instructor's desk in the front of the room.
- All homework assignments and paperwork must be stapled if more than one page. Items not stapled will not be accepted.
- I understand that no make-up quizzes will be given. If I arrive late to class and the quiz/examination has already been administered, I will not be able to receive the points for missing the quiz/examination.
- The trade article is due no later than the fifth class session, February 21, 2005. The trade article must be from a fire service related trade / technical publication, not from a general circulation newspaper such as the San Francisco Chronicle. Failure to turn in a trade article will result in your having to withdraw from the class with a "W."
- The rough draft of the group project MUST be turned in by the date requested. Failure to turn in the rough draft will result in your having to withdraw from the class with a "W."
- I may be dropped from the class if I miss two classes in a row, or 12 total hours. Time lost due to excessive tardiness or leaving the class early (unexcused) may count toward the 12 total hours.
- I will be dropped from the class if I do not show up at the first class meeting. This is necessary to make room for the students that do show up and want to add in to them. It is not fair to those folks wanting to add in to have to wait a week to see if there will be an open spot or not.
- I will be dropped from the class if I show up at the first class session, but then miss the second class session.
- If I am given an add number by the instructor, I have no more than 24 hours from the end of the first class session to enroll in this class. Since class ends at noon on Monday, you have until noon on Tuesday, the next day, to utilize your add number. If you have problems using the add number, you need to contact the instructor ASAP. Failing to contact the instructor by noon on Tuesday will result in your not being able to use the add number and your not being able to continue in the class.
- I may be dropped from the class if I do not show up to take the midterm examination or if I do not receive a passing score on the midterm.
- I will turn off my cellular phone and/or pager when I am in the Fire Technology 50 class, so as to not disrupt the class. I understand that I will be given a verbal warning for failing to do so on the first occasion, and that on the second occasion; I will receive a written warning that will go in my class file. On the third occasion, I face being dropped from the class for failure to follow directions.
- I agree to be mature and take responsibilities for my actions and not make excuses for why I did not complete something or why I failed to follow instructions.
- I understand that I must abide by the college rules regarding plagiarism and cheating. If I am caught cheating or plagiarizing anything, I will no longer be allowed to continue in the class. Cheating and/or plagiarism will not be tolerated.
Some say it sounds too harsh or too strict. Well, if we as instructors do not properly lay the foundation for these future firefighters, they may not be fully prepared for the para-military environment they are wanting to get into. I would rather have someone struggle and have a setback by failing a class now at the college level than after they get hired and are in the academy and/or probation. Failing something at that level may lead to termination. Failing things now still gives you time to regroup and get yourself back on course for success.
Some of these items in my contract might be petty. However, I want to get the students to actually read the fine print and most of all - learn to follow directions! Many of us do not read instructions or directions. I bet we all can say we have firefighters (especially ones that are fairly new) that cannot or have trouble following instructions. Some of our paid recruit academies do a good job of weeding out those that can't.
This way, by giving the student a contract on the first day, they see what will fail them and what will keep them in the class. There are no secrets. You either follow directions or you do not.
Just a lot of thoughts I wanted to pass on to help set you up for success... Learn from the mistakes of others and properly prepare yourself for a career as a firefighter! Now is the time to start off on the right foot!
STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a battalion chief for the Santa Clara County, CA, Fire Department. Steve is an instructor with the Chabot College Fire Technology Program in Hayward, CA, where he publishes a free monthly newsletter, "The Chabot College Fire & EMS News", that is geared toward better preparing the future firefighter for a career in the fire service and the current firefighter for promotion. He is an Executive Board member for the Northern California Training Officers Association, where he is a past president. To read Steve's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach Steve by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.