Filling the Toolbox

I spent 8 years as a 911 operator and fire / rescue dispatcher.  I spent over 7 of those years as a 911 operator and dispatcher trainer.  I was a good trainer.  Easily one of the best in the center. And a big part of my success as a trainer came down to a decision I made before I even started.  When I was assigned my first trainee, I was given the policies regarding call taker training. As I read through the material, I came across a line that nearly brought my career as a trainer to a screeching halt before it had even begun.  As a trainer, I read, I was expected to prepare my trainee to handle any situation he or she would ever face over the course of their career.

I was dumbfounded.  911 calltaking is by its very nature a highly unpredictable job.  I had been working as a calltaker for less than a year. It was not unusual for careers in the center to span decades.  And I was expected, in a matter of weeks, to prepare my trainee to handle anything and everything they might ever encounter?  How?!?  How could I possibly prepare them for something that I had no capacity to predict?

I struggled with this question for some time.  I began to consider my own training. Had I been adequately prepared for the job?  I thought so. I was a fairly competent calltaker. Had I faced scenarios that had never been mentioned during the training process? Yes, a fair few.  Did I have the capacity to handle those scenarios, in spite of the fact that I had not explicitly received training on what to do? Also yes.

I began to think about scenarios like that. The moments in my work where I was faced with something unheard of, something bizarre or completely out of left field. Moments when a 911 call presented me with a situation that I had never considered,could never have imagined, and had certainly not received training on dealing with.  I thought about the tools I used in those moments. Confidence. Independent problem solving.  A thorough knowledge of available resources. Thinking on my feet. Finding relationships between seemingly unrelated incidents. Knowing when to call for help. Recognizing the times when it was more important to act quickly than to act correctly.

As I contemplated, I realized that it was those sorts of skills, and many more, that truly lent me the confidence I felt in my own capabilities every time I picked up a ringing 911 line.  And now I also felt confident that I could do my duty as a trainer. Each time I trained a calltaker, my focus was not on filling their head with a whole bunch of ‘do this’ and ‘do that’ sort of instructions.  Instead, I found ways to help them fill their toolbox with the tools I knew they would need. When we were faced with a tricky or complicated situation, I challenged them to find their own answer rather than asking me for help.  I celebrated their ingenuity, creativity and effort regardless of whether their chosen action was technically correct. When they asked me questions, I didn’t give them an answer, but rather reminded them where they could find it for themselves amongst our vast array of resources.  And it wasn’t long before my trainees distinguished themselves as the best of the best.

If I had no capacity to predict what challenges my calltaking trainees would face, I have far less capacity to predict what challenges and opportunities Cat’s life will hold for her.  And yet, it’s my job as her mother to prepare her for them.  But that’s ok. I’ve faced this problem before. I’m not going to try to prepare her to deal with the world as it is today.  I’m not going to try to picture what the world will be like in 10 years and prepare her for that.  The world is changing far too quickly for that to make any sense at all.  I’m simply going to help her fill her toolbox with the tools that serve all of us, children and adults, kindergarteners and college students, homemakers and CEO’s.  

And I do that, by and large, by stepping back.  I want Cat to learn to solve problems. I step back when problems arise and let her try.  I want her to learn to manage her time well. I give her as much control of her time as I can, and let her experiment.  I want her to learn to carefully weigh risks and rewards, so I largely turn decisions about risk-taking over to her. I want her to learn that she has to work hard to achieve the things she wants in her life.  So I step back. I let her set her goals for herself, rather than imposing my goals on her. I let her work towards her goals or not, and experience the consequences of both choices. She succeeds. She fails. She climbs. She falls. She plays. She works. She lays on her back and watches clouds pass by.  She chooses.  And she learns and learns and learns. 

I have no idea what Cat’s future will hold.  But, watching how rapidly her understanding of the world is growing, I have little doubt that by the time she gets there, she’ll be ready.

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