How to Stay Organized as a Flight Instructor

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One of the most challenging parts of being a CFI is also one of the things that flight instructor training doesn’t prepare you for—dealing with the constant flow of students.

It’s incredible how quickly a full flight schedule can make you feel like you’re falling behind. The more flying you do, the more recordkeeping and notes you’ll have to take.

The only way to keep your head above water is to develop a system that works for you, one that you’ll stick with.

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6 Tips for CFI Organization

Lesson Plans for the Real-World

Lesson plans are discussed at length in CFI training, but real-world lesson plan use is different than what is usually taught. Nearly every flight school has a curriculum set up, so all the flight instructor has to do is follow it. FAR Part 141 flight schools have these curriculums approved, but even FAR Part 61 schools use some sort of syllabus, be it from Jeppesen, Cessna, or their own creation.

So you don’t have to come up with the elements of the lesson plan, but you do have to follow it. The closer you follow it, the easier your job becomes.

To keep you on track, you should have a print out of the lesson plan with you at all times when you’re with your student. You can check off tasks as you complete them and keep notes about how well the student performed.

Take Notes…Lots of Notes

The printed lesson plan page is an excellent place to take general notes, too. The more notes you take during a flight, the better.

If you’re going to move right on to your next flight student as this student leaves the building, you’re going to need to remember this flight or ground lesson later.

If you teach six or seven students in one day, that becomes increasingly difficult.

Sometimes, you might not see the student again for a month or more. The only solution is to take notes as things happen.

Notes from each meeting with a student are essential on many levels. On the one hand, reviewing your notes helps you remember what happened the next time you meet with that student.

Your notes also help brief other instructors should your student fly with someone else. If your student is up for a progress check, the chief or assistant chief can review the student’s progress through your notes and find areas they might want to know more about.

Your instructor notes provide a more complete picture of the student’s learning than the lesson plan and standard grading scheme allow.

Taking notes during the flight often makes students nervous. If you have to jot down notes, it’s probably not good, right? Their minds immediately begin to wonder what they’ve done and what the heck are you writing.

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Flight instructors talking in the hangar

You can attempt to stop this from the get-go by telling every student that you have a terrible memory and need to write everything down.

Point out that you write down as many good things as bad, which is a good habit to have anyway. Once they get used to seeing you write notes, they’ll tune it out.

Taking notes in the air requires a little practice.

A kneeboard is good, but you often don’t want your student to read the notes before getting back on the ground.

Printing your lesson plans on a half-page printout and folding it over like a greeting card enables you to make notes on the lesson plan as needed and on the blank side for general notes, too.

Whatever you do needs to be quickly accessible in a crowded cockpit when under pressure, so keep it organized and tidy. Using shorthand or other abbreviations is a great idea.

Tidy Recordkeeping

These notes won’t do you any good if you don’t have a tidy system of recordkeeping.

Many instructors inherit the system that their school uses. But many schools only keep the bare legal minimum and leave lesson notes and instructor briefings up to the CFIs.

In that case, you’ll need to ask around and see what the other instructors do.

It gives you the flexibility to create your own awesome system, but it also means you have to do all the work of creating your own awesome system.

Leverage New Technologies

The tablets that many of us use in the cockpit have a plethora of apps that can help us take notes and keep organized.

One of the best apps is called Notability. It’s a simple note-taking app that allows you to handwrite notes and organize them into folders. Handwriting with a stylus is much faster than typing, making it more useful in the air.

You can also draw, add photos or video, and use it to annotate PDF files. If your school’s lesson plans are in PDF format, you can load them into Notability and mark them up as needed.

You can then type them out later, or at least clean up the illegible parts.

Tablets are great ways to stay organized for many other reasons, though.

You can download many FAA handbooks and publications to the tablet, freeing up your flight bag and reducing the time it takes you to find bits of info. ASA makes a great, searchable FAR/AIM app.

You can also use the voice recorder or video camera apps to record notes or student interactions, with their permission, of course.

Record them doing a maneuver in flight, and then replay and talk about it during the debrief.

flight instructor reaching into airplane

Tablets lend themselves to the cockpit exceptionally well. Popular flight apps, like Foreflight, give you approach charts, sectionals, and planning tools.

But the productivity apps that are useful in the classroom can also be applied in the cockpit by CFIs.

Plan for the Paperwork

Paperwork is not the glamorous part of being a CFI, but it is one of the most critical parts.

Most pilots have an open disdain for paperwork. It’s the closest thing to a real-job that they have to do, after all. And CFIs have even more of it than most pilots do.

The unfortunate truth is that most CFIs don’t dedicate enough time to doing the paperwork.

At the end of the day, you’ve got a mountain of notes you need to go over, and you need to organize each student’s records. But you’re also exhausted and ready to head home.

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Most flight schedules don’t afford the time to allow a CFI to make their notes during the day since the next student is often ready and waiting by the time you’re done with a lesson.

So what’s the solution? A lot of it depends on your school’s scheduling policy. You can always maximize any gaps in your schedule from bad weather or no-shows by doing paperwork.

But you can also build in extra time throughout the day, just 30 minutes here and there, to make sure you don’t fall behind on paperwork.

Perfect Your System

Over time, you’ll pick up on exactly how much you need to do and when.

It’s essential to look at your recordkeeping as a whole system, one which gets completed due to planning and strategy.

If every student has a matching record jacket, and every flight has a form-based lesson plan with a notes section, it’s a lot easier to keep doing the same thing for every flight.

The key to making this work is to ensure that you keep the FAA, the school, your students, and yourself happy. The school and the FAA are worried about the legal minimums—lesson plans completed and organized, various vital records kept safe.

But you and the student should be interested in their learning progress and ensuring that you’re prepared for their next lesson by remembering precisely what they need to work on.

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