Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Five thoughts for firearms instructors...

Over the past couple of years, I've read a number of blog posts and articles about what new shooters and students should look for when seeking out a firearms instructor. Most of the suggestions are pretty good and some are just common sense... suggestions that would work for finding and selecting an instructor or trainer for just about anything.

The problem I see is that no matter how hard you try to prepare as a student by doing your research, reading reviews and AARs, and planning... a student really won't find out how good an instructor is until they take the class or training and that is why they often seem to rely a lot on the opinions and recommendations of friends and acquaintances when selecting a place or person for firearms training so your reputation as an instructor may be you single biggest asset in this business.

Personally, I do pretty well as an instructor. I'm not nationally known and I've never been on Top Shot. I don't really advertise, yet have no problem filling most classes by word-of-mouth from previous students and friends who have shot or trained with me. I've trained literally thousands of youth and adults, men and women, kids and grandparents... and I still love every minute of it... especially that smile of the first shot fired, or when you hand that target with a solid group to a student, or even that experienced shooter who just corrected a poor trigger-pull habit that was dragging their hits down and left.

Ultimately, it's up to the instructors to provide safe, competent, and professional training and instruction... and if you do that well... it will benefit the students and you as the instructor no matter what your motivation is... building your business, promoting self-empowerment and the second amendment, doing service to society and common good, increasing your circle of influence, or whatever it is that drives you as an instructor. With that in mind, allow me to offer some thoughts to the instructors out there that will benefit them and their students.

Be Professional.

A good firearms instructor is safe, competent, and knowledgeable... and that is clear to his or her students. You should dress, act, and speak like a professional. Everything you do adds or takes away from your professionalism and reputation. I am a half-century old, overweight, gray-haired man, but I still do my best to dress, act, and speak like a professional. No matter where you are or what you do, you can always improve the professional presentation of what you do.

We have our own shooting range, and now we have a new, small-but-big-enough, multi-purpose building that is heated and air-conditioned for training and instruction. We've also built a brand new half-bath that the women love and even the men appreciate.

Yes, our classroom is a "barn"... but it is set up and appropriately outfitted to be a professional classroom environment. We, and you, are not running a five-star hotel, but make sure you present yourself, your materials, and your facilities as professionally as you can. Proof read your documentation. Clean what you can clean. 

If you're using a primitive range, then trade in that third tree on the left and rent a good, clean port-a-potty if you can or at least clean the one that is already there. Make sure your equipment is clean, usable or at least in good repair, and professional. Be set-up and ready when students arrive.  Greet them professionally.  Act professionally. Speak professionally and leave the four-letter words, gutter-talk and drill sergeant baloney for your buddies in the man-cave.

Speaking of women... I have a pretty good reputation with the ladies. What I mean is that my reputation is such that I have a lot of women choosing to take my courses. Guys, if you act like a professional... then the women will feel comfortable and confident with you as instructor. I don't think it's necessary for women to be trained and instructed by women, but there are a lot of neanderthals out there who don't know that women learn, think, and react differently than men and a professional instructor will know how to have the gals achieve success with professional instruction and a professional learning environment. Yes, I do own several FlashBang holsters, concealed carry purses, and other training aids just for the gals.

Be Honest.

You say that sounds like a no-brainer, but in our world of guns and tactical ninjas... that is a significant problem.  You have instructors who honorably served their country, but their four years as a 91L Construction Equipment Repairer with service in Iraq turns into a special op's gig with missions they still can't talk about for the sake of national security.  Worse, you have posers who just outright lie.  DON'T DO IT! Don't exaggerate your credentials!  The best credentials you have are your current reputation and you are continually building it. If one lie or exaggeration is found out, it will be assumed that all your credentials are lies or exaggerations. Just ask Cory over at Range Time.

I worked as a police officer in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I did a good job, learned a lot, and like most... was just plain lucky at times. There was no SWAT or SRT experience in my daily duties. Jeepers, we didn't even have ballistic vests back then and our main entry tool for breaching during a search warrant was an eight-pound sledge hammer the sergeant brought from home. 

I've had my gun pointed and ready to shoot a number of times when facing a deadly threat, but thank the Lord, I never had to shoot or kill anyone. Just because an instructor has military or law enforcement experience does not necessarily have anything to do with their worth as an instructor. For all you know, they did everything wrong in their last fire-fight and only made it out by the good Lord's graces, not their special-ops-ninja-like tactical skills.

Now, with that being said... Military and police experience can be very valuable to some instructors, but I don't think military or police experience is necessary to be a good instructor and I've met and have been trained by a lot of poor instructors over the years that had extensive military and law enforcement experience and conversely had excellent training from firearms instructors that never wore a uniform since Cub Scouts or Brownies.

Finally, if you don't know something... don't lie or fake it. There is not a single question I've ever been asked that I didn't have an answer to... but sometimes that answer is, "I don't know, let me check on it and get back to you." Then check on it in a reasonable and timely manner and make sure you get back to them!

Be Certified.

Some type of basic certification is essential. It gives you some starting credentials and a framework to use as a foundation and lets your students know that you have at least met some kind of minimum standards. I'm a big supporter of the NRA's training programs and certifications. If you follow the NRA's curriculum for each course... they have good materials, solid instructional design, and are very thorough.  That being said, there is a reason the NRA uses the word "BASIC" in most of their course titles.

There are other entities out there offering training and certification for instructors including Tom Givens' Range Master, Rob Pincus' I.C.E., the USCCA, and others. One of my goals is to complete Givens' Range Master Instructor Development Course in the next couple of years as time and money allow.

Be Safe.

You need to practice safety as if you had a zen-like, fifth-degree blackbelt in safety. No one wants to take a course from the instructor who shot himself in the leg or had a student accidentally shot. When my students walk through the door, I want them to feel safe. How I act, pick up a firearm, point a firearm, have them double-check the action and chambers in addition to me checking them each time I pick up a gun in the classroom helps ensure safety, it teaches them to be safe, and gives the students confidence that they are in a safe environment and that safety is paramount.

Just like every NRA Range Officer is taught, even in the classroom, I begin with a safety briefing. There is a sign in the classroom and at the shooting range that lists the local emergency numbers, the property description, the contact names for emergencies, and other pertinent information. They are shown where the first-aid kit is, the bathroom, the telephone, etc. Students who feel safe feel comfortable and confident in their instructor; and safe, comfortable and confident in their instructor learn more effectively. Ask if there are any safety or medical concerns you should know about as an instructor before or as the class starts. If you've ever had a diabetic student with a gun in their hand faint and collapse on the range like I have, you'd know what I'm talking about.

As an instructor you need to provide a safe learning environment in the classroom and on the range. I've taken some pretty advanced courses myself and it makes me cringe when an instructor says something like, "lock-n-load... big boys rules" because I have no idea who all these people with loaded guns are standing around me looking around as concerned as I am... especially the dude that looks as if he just took his AR out for the very first time and keeps dropping his magazine on the ground while trying to release the bolt. If I don't feel safe, I'm not staying because my life is worth more than my ego or a little embarrassment. I tell students to let me know if they ever see something or feel that something is not safe. I will explain it or correct it, even if it's another student doing it.

Also, I think it is just being a responsible instructor to get some basic, if not advanced, first-aid training and appropriate first-aid supplies on hand. First-aid and CPR training and certification are a good start and I recommend further training like some type of trauma first-aid training as band-aids and two-by-two patches of gauze are not going to fix a gunshot wound.

Finally, safety in numbers is something to consider. I often train small groups as I work alone or with with my wife on hand as an assistant.  Therefore, I typically keep classes very small as in four to six at most.  Sometimes I work with other instructors and at 4H Shooting Sports we work with one-to-one or one-to-two instructor-to-student ratios for safety. 

The first time I have new students on the range and they have loaded their guns I usually call a cease fire and have them unload their guns to see if they can do that safely.  That little exercise will tell me a lot about my students and their current skills levels. I've had veteran law enforcement officers drop their magazines and lay the gun down on the shooting bench and say they're clear and safe without ejecting the round from the chamber and locking the slide back so never assume anything about safety or your students' capabilities.

A final thought on safety is sometimes you can do everything right and it can still go wrong. Work with a competent attorney to have a legally solid liability/indemnification waiver and carry insurance. I carry instructor insurance through the NRA/Lockton program and while not inexpensive, it's not outrageously costly either.

Be Competent.

You need to be competent in the skills and knowledge you are instructing and be competent in being an instructor. You should be able to competently demonstrate anything you teach. Does that mean that I can out shoot any student? NO! It does mean that I can demonstrate and competently shoot anything I'm expecting my students to shoot? YES! I don't think a defensive line coach has to be able to block and tackle every three-hundred pound lineman on his team, but he should be able to instruct, demonstrate, and competently execute the knowledge and skills that are necessary.

You need to know guns, shooting, and techniques... so get trained. A good instructor is a good student... always learning and actively teaching. I read articles and blogs, watch DVDs and YouTube... but more importantly... I practice regularly, attend training from other instructors and schools, and even get personal coaching and training from other instructors. There's a reason Tiger Woods has a coach. There's a reason Peyton Manning uses a personal trainer.

When you attend training and instruction yourself, you can learn a lot about being a good instructor by observing, both good and bad, habits of other instructors. I have learned a lot by watching other instructors and have no problem borrowing or adapting something they do well. I've taken higher levels of training that I don't feel ready or competent to teach yet...  and that is OK, because as I've grown and progressed as an instructor... I've offered more to my students, but there are also other entities, schools, and instructors that offer more advanced training than I do and all I can say is, "Awesome, learning... go get you some!"  In fact, my wife and I have already signed up for the Advanced Concealed Carry course at the Tactical Defense Institute next spring. I know how to show a gal a good time!

Finally, every class I teach builds my competence. If I see a gun I've never laid hands on before, I'll ask a student if I can look at it... or even put a couple of rounds through it. Most are glad to share and oblige. Sometimes a student will have a product or holster I'm not familiar with. I'm not afraid to say so and ask about it to build my knowledge base. I can honestly say that after all my years with firearms and instructing, there are very few modern firearms that I haven't had the opportunity to shoot via friends, acquaintances and students... and that knowledge helps you to be a competent instructor and assist your students.

Final Thoughts:

For new instructors... don't get discouraged. I think I do a pretty good job, but it has taken years of learning, practice, acquiring firearms-equipment-facilities, attending additional training, and working with hundreds of students. I've built a collection of firearms, accessories, and training aids that allow students to try many popular brands and models, and learn more effectively through hands-on activities that provide instant feedback. 

If you're a really new instructor, consider partnering with or observing an experienced instructor and don't forget to get back to basics and fundamentals by occasionally taking a beginning or intermediate course or training yourself... you might refresh your skills and you may learn a better way to instruct something your doing.

As for bad instructors... get better or give it up... or you end up making all of us look bad.

So... take a look at what you do, how you do it, and think about some of the items discussed... maybe you can add some thoughts in the comments to help me learn and progress as an instructor...

And as my Good Book says in Proverbs 27:17... "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another."

...and there you have it... Five thoughts for firearms instructors...