Coaching and Mentoring Concept. Chart with keywords and icons on white background.

In this blog post I reflect and connect my own past experience in the military and how it relates to how I view my own current participation in various online communities. In this narrative inquiry I explore different concepts in coaching and mentoring. I hope this will provide a useful approach for those who are in a career transition or seeking to improve their job performance. As teaching in higher education and E-learning is what I’m familiar with, this blog post will conclude by focusing on these areas.

From Helicopter Mechanic to Project Manager and Team Leader

In summer of 1999 I reenlisted in the U.S. Army for another three-year enlistment as an UH-60 Helicopter Repairer (15T). I made this choice after realizing my former combat arms job as a Bradley Linebacker Crewmember (14R) would probably not provide me with many transferable skills once I left the Army. The job of being a helicopter mechanic had the technical and hands-on skills that I felt I had been lacking in my previous military occupational specialty (MOS).

I began my UH-60 Blackhawk mechanic initial job training under the 128th Aviation Brigade at Ft Eustis, VA in fall of 1999. A typical training day involved a mix of classroom lectures and textbook work facilitated by the civilian and military staff. These classroom blocks were interspaced with hands-on training in the adjacent aircraft hangar, where we worked in small groups in the disassembly, servicing, and reassembly of various aircraft components. During these hands-on classroom sessions there were frequent spot checks by the instructors to ensure we had performed the proper torque sequences and maintenance procedures. These formal assessments and hands-on sessions were often debriefed using the after action review (AAR) techniques, which often were reinforced from the instructors extensive aviation personal experiences. Classroom sessions often involved formative and summative assessments, which if you did not pass after a second chance, could result in your dismissal from the program. Most of the classroom work involved gaining a working familiarity with aviation forms, bulletins and reference manuals.

As beginning aviation mechanics, we often made mistakes in our hands-on training activities. I once skipped a crucial step in servicing the tail rotor gearbox and drained oil all down the stabilator and aft side of the training helicopter. It was a great source of embarrassment for me, one for which my classmates and instructors ridiculed me endlessly, but it was also an impactful learning experience, especially after my instructor explained how this might be handled if I made this mistake once I got to the aviation unit I would be assigned to following my training. I learned first-hand the importance of following the maintenance procedures with excruciating details. “Once that bird goes up,” our instructors would say, “you get no second chances or do-overs.”

Upon my graduation from the Army’s aviation school in Ft. Eustis, I got orders for an intermediate-level maintenance (AVIM) unit in Giebeldstadt, Germany. Here I was assigned to an aviation unit whose main responsibility was to perform 500-hour and 1000-hour phase inspections in support other Blackhawk helicopter units. These advanced-level inspections involved the complete disassembly, modification, removal and reinstallation of all aircraft components of a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter. Such maintenance projects took anywhere from 60-90 days, depending on a number of factors, including availability of parts, efficiency of the maintenance team performing the work, and any major mechanical problems discovered during the inspection itself.

As a new mechanic to the maintenance team, I was first assigned to do the more entry-level maintenance tasks, such as removing panels and doors. Often times I was paired up with a more senior member of the maintenance team, who would delegate tasks and be a resource when I ran into any problems. A phase team leader and project manager would often oversee the entire maintenance project and provide an additional source of coaching and mentoring. As I began to participate on more of these major maintenance projects, I gradually moved to doing more advanced tasks and without being paired with other mechanics. Near the end of first year I was soon assigned to my own sections of the aircraft and mentoring newer members of the maintenance team. Our maintenance team utilized a mentoring model based on the military principle of decentralized command, where the more senior members of the team carried out the strategic goals of the team leader and our maintenance unit. This meant that team leader didn’t need to micromanage, but simply check in with the senior mechanics to see how the main project tasks were progressing and the new soldiers were coming along.

In my second year as a helicopter mechanic I went before the Army’s promotion board and then attended the Army’s NCO Academy in Grafenwoehr, Germany, also known as the Primary Leadership Development Course (PLDC). Upon completion of the program and returning to my unit, I was soon promoted the rank of sergeant. Later that same year I began leading my own maintenance team and developing the project management skills required to oversee the 60-90-day maintenance projects.

My style of mentoring was built upon the same principles that I had been taught. I assigned the newer soldiers the entry-level maintenance tasks and partnered them with more senior mechanics for advanced tasks. For example, servicing of gear boxes and the main rotor head of the helicopter were often more advanced tasks, so usually I would assign a squared away senior soldier to these jobs and gave them a newer mechanic to mentor. I would check up on these new soldiers, often spending extra time to review their maintenance logs and forms in order to catch mistakes, which if I overlooked, would reflect poorly upon me after my superiors in the quality control department had reviewed them during their evaluation of the maintenance logs. I would frequently check in with the mentoring mechanics to see how the newer soldiers were adjusting to being a part of the maintenance team. When newer mechanics didn’t seem to be developing at an optimal pace or if they were slowing the team down by making crucial mistakes and they had been counseled appropriately, I worked with my leadership and we would sometimes kick them off the maintenance team. It might seem harsh, but there was no place for those who took away from our mission and the readiness of the units we supported. For those that couldn’t make the team, we reassigned them to work in the less demanding jobs of our unit. These soldiers who couldn’t adapt seemed in some ways un-coachable.

Situated Learning & Systems Approaches to Mentoring

Reflecting back on my military experience, I’ve come to realized that the mentoring process that enabled me to move from a new helicopter mechanic to eventually leading my own team was in some ways complex, while in others rather simple. There are a series of projects and procedures that one must be able to accomplish in a timely and precise manner in order carry out the mission of the 60-90 day maintenance inspections we were tasked with. I’ve come to see our process in moving from beginner mechanics to proficient aviation professionals as one that closely aligns with situated learning and systems theoretical models. Allow me to explain.

Our classroom education was only the beginning of our training as new mechanics. The hands-on training and classroom work allowed us to enter into the community of practice of army aviation mechanics. Yet in situated learning terms, we were still only involved in what Lave and Wagner (1991) would refer to as peripheral participation. It wasn’t until we arrived at our assigned companies following aviation school that we began to move into more legitimate peripheral participation while being assigned to an actual maintenance team and surrounded by supportive mentors. As we were assigned more complex tasks and trusted with mentoring roles of our own, then we as mechanics moved into fully participatory role in our maintenance team and unit. By the end of my three-year stint in Germany, having managed and led my own teams, I was what one might think of as an old timer and full participant of our maintenance unit’s community of practice.

This streamlined mentoring process is the hallmark of well-coordinated organizations such as the U.S. military. Although, even in the military this mentoring process’s successful implementation is rare and I consider myself fortunate to have experienced it at least once during my 6-year enlistment. This process relies upon a decentralized command structure and a supportive mentoring system. At any time I encountered a maintenance problem, I had a number of support systems I could rely on to get answers and support from, from our quality control department, to partnering Raytheon Areospace mechanics and our senior leadership. “Systems theory states that organizational success relies on synergy, interrelations and interdependence between different subsystems.” This theoretical model along with situated learning certainly seems to explain my own mentoring process and that of those I mentored while serving as a non-commissioned officer (NCO) in the U.S. Army.

Participating in Instructional Design & E-Learning Communities

Over the past couple of years, my own focus has shifted from that of a professionalizing college professor to that of the professionalizing instructional designer and digital learning specialist. As I’ve sought out ways to enter into the communities of practice of online learning and development groups, I find myself once again a newcomer, looking for ways that I can begin to move to a more legitimate participation within these different groups. There are tools and processes that these communities have identified as important, such as creating a portfolio and participating in the different online conversations and events.

However, as someone relatively new to these communities, I often find the variability in the tasks and visions that are valued in these communities as perplexing. For example, many of these groups seem to value the use of an authoring program such as Articulate or Captivate. Yet there might be those in the group who do not use an authoring program or have experience with one. When I interviewed at one company I was told they didn’t use an authoring program, but rather relied on Camtasia for authoring their training videos. My interview process also taught me that many businesses value some type of portfolio artifacts that show a process in developing learning content, which my original portfolio lacked and is something I continue to work on improving. But are there specific tasks that one learns and participates in that we can identify as signifying that one is moving from being a newcomer in learning and development communities to a more established member of the community?

I also continue to be involved in a formal education process as I pursue an E-Learning and Instructional Design cert through a micro-credentialing program at Oregon State University. Yet my military experience has taught me that formal education alone is far from sufficient to give me the knowledge and expertise required to professional within a specific field. I’ve definitely benefited from focused training on the tools and processes involved in designing E-Learning content through my program. But this, I fear, is far from sufficient.

What I believe I need, in reflecting on my military experience, is the ongoing mentoring and coaching from those who can help me select projects and tasks that can further develop my expertise. In the daily grind of a college educator, I’m not accustomed to documenting my own design and development process. I’m still in the process of discovering tools that allow me to show my work in this way. Is there a way that a coach and mentor can rethink their own mentoring process with a more situated learning perspective as it pertains to professionalizing in the learning and development community? I would like to think so. My hope is that by sharing my own mentoring story in the military it will provide a point of discussion for my friends in the learning and development community who are coaches and mentors themselves. I believe that those involved in coaching and mentoring aspiring instructional designers need to articulate for themselves (and those they mentor) what their own theoretical model is that they are applying to coaching and mentoring.

TLDC Crowdcast: Exploring Mentoring and Coaching Models with Randy Rebman

I wrote the above blog post to help flesh out my own thinking about mentorship prior to going on TLDC. Here is the full TLDC Crowdcast interivew.

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