In the past 30 years I have met hundreds of individuals who undertook to train people to use firearms or, more comprehensively, to deal with threatening situations. Some were excellent. Most were not. The ones that fell short, in my opinion, either never considered the following, or lost track of these ideas along the way:
1.) IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU.
This is “Rule Number One.” Your only concern is the students, the value to the students of the information and technique you are putting out, and whether the students are understanding the process. You are not there to impress anybody, sell anything, embellish your image, find a date or stroke your own ego. You are there to safely teach skills, impart knowledge and afford insight. Period. The training will suffer commensurate with how concerned you are about your personal interests. You have to get yourself out of the way.
2.) TEACHING FIREARMS IS A CALLING, NOT A BUSINESS.
Concern over making a firearms training program a commercial success carries with it pressure to compromise program content in order to sell courses. All of the common problems we have seen develop with private instruction programs (as distinct from agency programs) have been at least in part the result of economic pressure imposed when someone decides they need to make a profitable business out of teaching. This does not mean that one cannot have a quality training program in the context of a business; there are many who have made a living at it without compromising the training. What it does mean is one must be constantly aware of the potential adverse effects of economic pressure to recruit students.
Examples of what goes wrong are: unrealistic claims about what might be accomplished in short periods of time; professing to have unique knowledge, or having “invented” “new” methods superior to anything that has come before; instituting high round counts or circus-like drills to entertain students, rather than achieve specific instructional objectives; failing to address poor student performance for fear that addressing deficiencies may cause students not to like you, and therefore not recommend the course to others; lying to students about their achievement in order to instill false confidence and sell the next course; relaxing safety standards in order to put students through exercises which fit students’ expectations, but for which the students are not sufficiently prepared; entering into cabals of service providers who agree to promote sales by talking each other up and everyone else down; using misleading images and theatrics in advertising.
Education and training are work. We all know that work is a “hard sell” to the uninitiated. One who puts themself in a position where they are unable to easily walk away from potential revenue will be forced to “sell” harder. At that point one must make a choice.
3.) WHEN TEACHING FIREARMS WITHIN AN AGENCY, THE STUDENTS ARE STILL YOUR STUDENTS, AND YOU MUST REMAIN DEDICATED TO THEIR WELFARE, REGARDLESS WHAT SOME OF THE BUREAUCRATS MAY WANT.
Administrators have concerns other than your students’ ultimate welfare, and usually know nothing about the nuts and bolts of training. Bureaucracies impose limits and requirements which are not informed by the singular objective to impart knowledge, skill, and insight to everyone in the program. This can make it difficult for a conscientious trainer.
Common examples of agency requirements diverging from the best interests of the trainees include: refusing to take the amount of time it takes to properly train; installing less qualified instructors over more qualified instructors in order to reward them for unrelated service, or park an incompetent in a training slot to “get them off the street;” rigid adherence to existing procedures rather than adapting to new information or changing needs for new skills; lowering performance standards or “dumbing down” course content in favor of pushing more people through a program.
If you cannot change the system, at least keep in mind those are YOUR students, who are relying upon you. Use every opportunity to train them beyond minimum course requirements.
4.) INSTRUCTORS ARE ACCOUNTABLE FOR THE FINAL RESTING PLACE OF EVERY ROUND FIRED.
Every person who discharges a firearm anywhere for any reason is legally, morally, ethically, and financially responsible for the final resting place of that round. This applies in training. But in training, the Rangemaster is also accountable.
If a student generates a miss, the Rangemaster/instructor is responsible for determining what happened such that the student missed that shot, and then to either undertake to correct the problem or make a conscious decision to disregard that miss as the product of an immaterial factor or circumstance. This is something the Rangemaster owes the students. Courses in which misses or other performance defects are routinely disregarded, whether negligently or in a misguided effort to “keep students happy,” reflect inept and irresponsible instruction. If you pander to students by overlooking their failures, or tell them they are doing well when they are not, you have become a deceiver and you are betraying your students.
5.) YOU DETERMINE WHAT SHOULD BE TAUGHT, AND HOW, NOT THE STUDENTS.
We have all encountered students who will try and tell you how they wish to do things. They will explain they were “taught” to do some aspect of the discipline “differently” than you have instructed, or they will ask to be shown something they saw on U-tube or read in a book. This means either that they have already been sufficiently instructed, in which case they do not need you, or that they want to do your job for you.
Accommodating the whims of students against your own better judgment abrogates your instructional responsibility to the students. It leaves everybody as ignorant as when they showed up, and creates confusion on the part of those other students who are there to learn serious skills.
Yet, some instructors pander to these wishes, because they want to be popular. The results are courses which are more entertainment than instruction: unnecessarily high round counts; the teaching of fads; using amusing drills with no substantive teaching objective; and creating false expectations about how well a student might perform after the course.
Don’t do that. (See Rules 1 and 2, above.) You are a teacher, not an entertainer. While we all want to engage with students and have fun in the class, entertainment must always be an adjunct to learning.
If you are not completely confident that you know significantly more about the subject matter than your students, you should stop until you are.
(Note: sometimes students are under constraints imposed by law or their employer regarding particular equipment or methods. This is different than a student presuming to tell you what they should be taught. In those cases, explain the differences between the required methods or gear and the methods or gear you would otherwise recommend, and move on.)
6.) YOU MUST TEACH ACCORDING TO ONE DEFINED, WRITTEN CURRICULUM.
A curriculum is worked out over time, with calm reflection; it is not whipped up in the moment. A solid, written curriculum defines what must be taught, and in what order, and helps keep things in perspective as the course unwinds. Further, the written curriculum is proof (if it is ever required) that what you were doing was deliberate and thought out in advance, and the utility of each exercise or subject can be explained in the context of the overall course.
Of course, things always need adjustment to accommodate weather, range conditions, special needs or unexpected events. We move a lecture up if the class has to get in out of weather, we repeat an exercise if we deem additional practice is needed, or we end instruction early on a day where the students are getting tired. But one must always be able to point to the curriculum, and explain how even an ad hoc expedient fit into the overall program.
Further, all staff must adhere to the same curriculum. If the Rangemaster demonstrates a particular method for getting something done, and a coach or instructor does it a different way, it suggests to the students that one trainer lacks confidence in the other, or, worse, one or both might not know what they are doing. Often both methods are perfectly sufficient, but the apparent contradiction undermines confidence and creates a distraction. If you wish to teach different ways to do the same thing, incorporate that idea formally into the program, so it is apparent that everyone is actually on the same page.
If you are assisting or coaching, and you disagree with how the Rangemaster does something, remember that it is not about you. Talk about it with the Rangemaster in private. If you are not satisfied, you can start your own program and do it your way. But it is not fair to anybody for you to simply take your own direction in the middle of a course.
7.) BEING A FIREARMS INSTRUCTOR DOES NOT MEAN YOU SHOULD TRY TO TEACH LAW.
A know-it-all on the next bar stool can sit around and pronounce the law all day without consequence, since he bears no special relationship to anyone in the room. But one who is hired to train people in the use of firearms has undertaken a greater responsibility. That person must know what he or she is talking about. Chanting the familiar standard “immediately necessary to protect the life of another human being from serious bodily injury or death” does not nearly cover it.
In many (probably most) civilian firearms training courses, the instructor wanders into this territory, holding forth about the justification defense, “stand your ground” laws, what to do prior to and after a shooting to “avoid liability,” and “how it will look in court.” This is purportedly to help students understand the limits of their legal right to use deadly force, and to govern themselves accordingly. But unless one has a legal education, and has demonstrated at least minimal understanding of legal procedure and the rules of evidence, and has actual experience in how the law is applied, these lectures are a mistake. In fact, they constitute a crime.
In my home state, the practice of law is defined as being (among other things), one who, for hire, “instructs and advises clients in regard to the law, so that they may properly pursue their affairs and be informed as to their rights and obligations.” One who does this without a legal education, who has never been tested to demonstrate minimal legal competence, and who has never taken an oath as an officer of the court, is engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. A first offense is punishable by not more than one year in prison. Any subsequent offense is a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to five years in prison (and results in automatic lifetime forfeiture of one’s legal ability to possess firearm or ammunition). Every state has similar laws.
There is also a civil cause of action for unauthorized practice of law, meaning anyone you mislead, or who says you mislead them, can sue you and your company (or your employer) for damages. The “corporate shield” will not protect you in such an action, and one cannot get legal malpractice insurance unless one is a lawyer.
My point is not that non-lawyers who pronounce the law are committing technical crimes. My point is that unless you are broadly trained in the law you do not really know what a justification defense consists of, or how to prove one. Unless you have defended or prosecuted cases in court, you really have only a vague idea of “how it will look in court,” or, more accurately, how it might look in court, depending upon a hundred different variables. Witness the fact that even experienced police officers, who are specifically trained on the elements of various offenses, and who have testified as witnesses dozens of times, are often bewildered at the outcomes in their cases.
Stay in your lane. I know of only two experienced instructors in this Commonwealth who are licensed attorneys. Unless you are an attorney with relevant legal experience, either bring an attorney in to cover this subject matter with your students, or refer your students to their own attorneys for advice.