Looking Back: My First Instructional Design Project: AFJROTC TX-945

Looking back, I now know I did my first instructional design project in high school, when I was a Cadet Major in the TX-945 Air Force Junior Reserved Officer Training Corps (AFJROTC). It was my senior year (’96-’97) at North Shore High School in Houston, Texas. My instructor, Colonel Thomas W. McCay, asked me to create a booklet that could be carried in cadets’ back pockets and pulled out to be studied while they waited in lines at a boot-camp-themed AFJROTC Summer Leadership School.

Col. Thomas W. McCay, USAF (ret.)

Col. McCay, USAF (ret.)

The camps are a lot more fun than I’m making them sound.

Here’s a video that shows a more recent AFJROTC SLS.

As for the booklet, we divided up the content into introductory and five days of training (called Training Days, or TDs). Instructors and cadet leaders responsible for the students of the schools would quiz the students on the content of the booklet, ask them to give thoughtful, highly impromptu, and most definitely “on the spot” reactions to the content. This was both in the form of rote memorization (WHAT ARE THE CORE VALUES OF THE UNITED STATES AIR FORCE, CADET?!) and thoughtful reflections (Which of Colin Powell’s rules do you think you need to apply right now?).

Rushing to complete the task, assisted by friends (Thanks Gregory and Tiffany!) and guided by the Colonel, I’ll never forget handing him the prototype as he left to present it to other Aerospace Science Instructors (ASIs) who were meeting in the area. Holding it up with a smile, he told me, “And they said it couldn’t be done.” Still grinning, he smacked it against his hand, nodded his head to me, and strode out the door.

With some revisions, the guidebook was done and used that summer by hundreds of cadets.

I share this story in part because, time and again throughout my career as an instructional designer, people say that things cannot be done, and I take extreme pleasure in proving them – and sometimes even myself – wrong.

Of course, eventually you learn your limitations – or at least I did – and learn the hard lessons of failure. But if people genuinely have a learning or performance need, we shouldn’t say, “That can’t be done.” Rather, we should roll up our sleeves and work together to figure out how we can “adapt, improvise, and overcome.”

Yes, that quote’s from Heartbreak Ridge. And yes, back in the day we cadets could quote it – and every line from Major Payne – by heart.

The other reason I share this – really the main reason – is because I’m eternally grateful to Colonel McCay. During the three years I was in the AFJROTC, he provided a kind of home, a kind of safe place for me to grow and learn. I learned from the kinds of successes I describe here and the failures and heartaches I experienced then. I learned a lot about life from being in this Corps of Cadets.

Col. Thomas W. McCay, USAF (ret.)

Col. Thomas W. McCay, USAF (ret.)

The Colonel’s eyes – sharp and always on the alert – always seemed to find me being my best. His words always reinforced that.

I know I wasn’t the only kid dealing with garbage in those times, but it sure seemed like I was some kind of special kid to the Colonel. He spent time listening to me, helping me to grow, spent time with my family, and he worked tirelessly for the good of the cadets of TX-945.

There’s no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t have become a teacher without him noticing that I was pretty good at teaching others how to march with the Guidon, without him helping me remember my successes in the midst of my failures, without him helping me to learn how to “get in step” with the people around me.

Some of these lessons I’m still learning.


The Colonel at North Shore High School

To this day, Colonel McKay continues to inspire me. I am inspired by the sheer number of people whose lives he has made a profound difference in. I’m inspired by the way he is doing everything in his power to live life to the full, to always keep moving forward, and to pass on whatever he can to whomever will listen. I’m inspired by my friends who are all still connected together because of our common experiences under the Colonel’s leadership.

I’m inspired by the men and women my classmates have become.

The Colonel may be retired, but he’s still inspiring others today. Here’s some photos of him speaking this past Veterans Day.


The Colonel speaking on Veterans Day, 2016



The Colonel with children on Veterans Day, 2016

Thanks, Colonel. For all I said here and more. I wish you all the best and hope you’re proud of this knucklehead.


The Colonel, enjoying retirement.

As for my first instructional design project, you can view a pdf of the completed project (which was simply an old copy I took some rough pictures of) below.