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Dealing With Hostile Learners

Valerie Van Brocklin, a former prosecutor and a highly sought-after police instructor and speaker, said, “I prefer hostile learners to apathetic ones. Hostility is energy and emotion. As a trainer, I’d rather try to redirect energy and emotion than to have to generate it. But hostility is just anger by another name, and anger is a low brain function. It interferes with reason, thoughtfulness, creativity, and problem solving, which are all high brain functions we want our learners to get to.”

There are different types of hostile learners, so there is no universal solution to dealing with all these types. Hostile learners include know-it-alls; the “I’m too important” for this; the complainers; the paranoid, i.e., the department is out to get me; the burned out; and the downers, who are over their heads and down on themselves, so they go on the attack. Other types exist, but you get the idea.

Identifying any hostile learners will greatly help the instructor, and even the rest of the class. Van Brocklin said, “Seek out your hostile learners. They’re sitting in the back reading the paper, rolling their eyes, hmmphing, or sitting with their arms crossed, shoulders hunched and head tucked in. If possible, catch them before you begin or during breaks, introduce yourself. Ask them for their input. Use their input in your training and watch them be won over.”

Instructors should try to put themselves in the shoes of the students. Have you ever been hostile toward an instructor? There are instructors who create hostile learners. For example, a community activist comes into the classroom and begins telling you, “You’d better do it this way,” or a prosecutor that starts off saying, “Cops have no idea of what probable cause is,” when only one cop had no idea during a recent trial. The “my way or the highway” instructor creates his own detour.

Sergeant Gregg Gaby of the Dayton, OH Police said, “I do not think one particular thing causes a learner to be hostile, but I experienced a few things, as either as a student or as an instructor. They include being forced to be at the training; the instructor belittles the person or agency; the instructor displays an arrogant attitude and lack of credibility on behalf of the instructor.”

In general, instructors have more credibility if they have police experience. The Ph.D. who can talk the talk, but never “walked the walk” may see more hostile learners than an instructor with hands-on police experience. But police experience is still no guarantee of instant credibility with an entire class. A terrible or unprepared instructor equates to Dr. Frankenstein creating the hostile monster.

Lieutenant Roger Huntzinger of the Decatur, AL Police said, “Most hostile learners I’ve experienced are senior officers or those [who] work specialized units [who] feel their time would be better spent doing their regular job, such as narcotics officers. Ensure that pagers and cell phones are cut off to separate them from their daily responsibilities. If rank is an issue, recognize them for attending at the beginning of the training session.”

There are some classes that seem entirely hostile. Sergeant Paul “Wojo” Welyczko of the Albany, NY Police said, “I believe an instructor should not refuse to instruct. As an instructor, you have taken on a huge responsibility to obtain skills and knowledge and to pass that along to officers who will derive a benefit from your instruction. No one ever said it would be easy.

“Instead of refusing to instruct to a hostile audience, approach it as a challenge to overcome and to improve your own abilities. Everyone in the class watches how you handle yourself. If you cave under pressure, you instantly lose credibility and you’re toast. On the other hand, if you handle the audience well, those watching will recognize your ability and give you more credibility. This will not only get them to listen to your message, it will also motivate some to contribute to the class and the points you’re making.”

There is no one-pill cure-all to dealing with a hostile learner. Lieutenant Dave Gerber of the Walworth County, WI Sheriff’s Office said, “If you have a hostile student, you need to address it with [him]. Nip it in the bud. If not, it may continue to grow. You undoubtedly have other students in the class who the feel hostile behavior is also unacceptable, and they are hoping you do something about it.

“If you fail, you have just set the standard that type of behavior is acceptable, and it may grow. If you address the hostile behavior properly, the message is sent to all others that this type of hostile behavior will not be tolerated.”

In general, the behavior of an extremely hostile student should be addressed during a break and beyond the ears and eyes of the rest of the class. It may even be necessary to take an unscheduled class break to address extremely hostile behavior. This student may be dealing with a personal family crisis or another serious issue, and it may be judicious to allow the student to leave the class or speak with an agency counselor or supervisor.

There may also be times when an instructor feels like directly confronting a student in front of the class. It’s possible that this technique may work under rare circumstances, that is, if the entire class does not like the disruptive behavior. Some officers have a “problem child” reputation and are generally not liked by most officers. The students would then appreciate what you did by “slam dunking” the problem child. As the saying goes, this is a double-edged sword, and the other side of the sword usually has a much sharper edge.

Professor George Scharm of Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, IL, also a retired police commander, cautions instructors not to be angry or extremely confrontational. He said, “No matter how linked an instructor is, they are still seen as an authority figure. If the instructor verbally attacks an officer in the class, the class will galvanize against the instructor. The officer is still one of them, and they will back that officer.” In essence, the instructor creates an, “us versus him” climate.

Range Master Shannon Bohrer of the Maryland Police Training Commission said, “Dealing with hostile learners starts with instructor attitude. If the instructor presents a positive attitude, is properly prepared, and if the materials are valid and current, most of the students will participate and learn, which puts pressure on the hostile learner.

“The instructor sets the tone and the learning environment, so the instructor should not expect a hostile student. We often find what we look for. When we encounter a hostile learner, because they do exist, the most important thing for the instructor to do is to remember to keep that positive attitude.”

Instructors and training officers need to do all they can to create an environment that is conducive to learning by all. Getting class members involved with hands-on training of useful physical skills, if appropriate, works wonders. Lecture programs can be developed to get class members involved with discussions, small-group exercises, projects, and more. Instructors must remember that no class member—including those who are extremely hostile—belongs to “The Unteachables.”

Ed Nowicki, a nationally recognized use-of-force expert, is a part-time officer for the Twin Lakes (WI) Police Department. He presents use-of-force instructor certification courses across the nation and is the executive director of ILEETA. He can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Sep 2008

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