By Tech. Sgt. Chuck Broadway
Defense Media Activity
The noncommissioned officer is referred to by the Joint Chiefs of Staff as the backbone of the armed forces. NCOs and petty officers have the tremendous task of safeguarding the voice of the enlisted force from the front lines of supervision, and are trusted as liaisons between senior leaders and the junior enlisted force.
As the technical and functional experts of their career fields, NCOs and petty officers are charged with performing the role of leader and advisor, instilling professionalism and dedication to service to those within their sphere of influence. In order to prosper as leaders, NCOs and petty officers must learn valuable leadership skills. This is accomplished by attending various levels of professional military education commensurate with their rank. For NCOs and petty officers, this means attendance at a service-specific NCO Academy, or Chief Petty Officer Academy for the Navy.
While each service academy varies slightly, the overall mission of this level of professional military education is to teach appropriate levels of leadership and warfighting tactics. For the Air Force, there are 10 NCO academies worldwide which train and equip technical sergeants for leadership roles they may face in their remaining careers. The notification of attending NCO academies, for many airmen, is met with feelings of anxiety and uncertainty.
To combat these feelings, and set prospective students on a path towards success, the following is a list of advice and lessons learned gathered from recent students and instructors.
Prior to Arrival:
Read the Course 15 material. The Air Force NCO Academy curriculum uses this material exclusively. It is available prior to attending the course and knowing the information beforehand will only provide added value to your learning.
Read strategic documents such as the National Defense Strategy and Air Force strategic documents located on www.af.mil. This is a piece of advice that isn’t typical; however, it allows for a more strategic mindset, subjecting you to a higher level of military thinking than you may be used to. The National Defense Strategy provides a framework of Defense Department strategic guidance and goals of contingency planning, force development and intelligence.
Read and complete all pre-attendance documents. This seems like a no-brainer. All students receive reporting instructions, a required materials list, and travel instructions. For the NCO Academy, these items are specific. It is important to devote time and effort to properly completing these documents, and ensuring you have all the required materials. A laptop with commercial internet access is absolutely essential. While there is Wi-Fi available at the schoolhouse and hotel, if possible, bring your own Wi-Fi router. With more than 100 students attempting to access internet at the same time, having a dedicated line of internet will mitigate connection issues. It may also make you popular with classmates in nearby rooms.
Research the local area and prepare a budget. You may be traveling to a location you’ve never been to before. Thus, you will want to see the local area and partake in various activities available. Do some research online, ask colleagues who may have visited before, and plan a budget of expenses. You won’t get full per diem while attending the academy, so budgeting is critical.
During NCO academy:
Network. While the goal of the academy is to instill new leadership skills, taking advantage of networking opportunities is one of the biggest benefits of the academy. Many airmen are closed off from other career fields for a vast majority of their careers. The Air Force is full of diverse professionals with differing personalities, experiences, perspectives and specialty skills. Opportunities such as NCO academy bring these various people together and learning from the positive and negative experiences of others will undoubtedly benefit everyone.
Be social. In order to network, you must be social, to at least some degree. While not every airmen is an extrovert, interacting with classmates will enhance your NCO academy experience tenfold versus remaining in your room while not in class.
Use classmates and/or online programs when editing papers. While students cannot copy each other’s work, peer reviews and group editing sessions are allowed, and are a great way to help your classmates succeed.
Balance classwork with downtime. NCO academy is filled with writing assignments and a plethora of reading. It is vitally important to maintain a good balance of studying and free time to ensure success. One student suggested using Friday as a “me time” to unwind and enjoy the local area while spending quality time both Saturday and Sunday to get ahead of schedule on writing assignments. This will help alleviate stress during intensive portions of the academy curriculum.
Create a private social media group/group text message with classmates. Communication is an important attribute of leadership. There will be group volunteer opportunities during NCO academy, as well as people needing transportation to/from the schoolhouse. Group communication provides a single method of contact to make all members aware of planned group activities or carpool opportunities.
Complete your travel voucher. This should also be a no-brainer, but not everyone makes it a priority. Ensure you complete this task as soon as possible, and correctly. Since many others are filling out virtually the same thing, with only minor differences, offer advice in your group messages for your now former classmates.
Maintain professional relationships. Graduation signals the end of the academy, however it does not mean the end of the impressions the experience has on a student. With the advent and popularity of social media and cell phones, maintain contact with classmates and bounce ideas off each other. Again, diversity is an advantage of the military and we can constantly learn from each other.
Employ what you learned. The Air Force has just spent a good bit of money, and you have spent time away from your job and family to attend this training. USE IT! Instill the leadership tactics you learned and provide guidance and counsel to those within your organization.
The biggest piece of advice many former students have said is to come in to NCO academy with an open mind. You will not always agree with your peers on all topics discussed, but being open-minded and accepting of other perspectives will help you grow professionally. Prepare yourself for a learning experience, step out of your comfort zone, and take time for self-reflection. The connections you make at the academy could span your entire career, or even longer.
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