When you step up to teach a self-defense class, you are literally asking students to bet their lives on the quality of the information you have and on your ability to teach it to them. This is no exaggeration, but just the simple truth. Students come to you looking for the knowledge and skill that can save their lives some dark night. If you fail to teach them well, if you teach them the wrong things, if you give them half an answer or a bad answer, they may pay for your failure with their heart’s blood. Understanding this – really understanding it – should scare you down to your toenails. It should force you to become better and better as a shooter, as a teacher, as a learner, as a student of self-defense. It should jar you out of complacency and drive you to do your best with every class you teach. People’s lives are in your hands.
Sometimes I fear that not all firearms instructors understand this. “I’m just teaching beginners,” I have heard some say – as if they have some private guarantee that none of their beginners will ever really need the things they teach. Or as if it doesn’t matter whether a beginner is started right. But even a beginner needs a solid foundation they can safely build upon, not some half-hearted construct cobbled together of cardboard and glue and hope.
I have even heard some handgun instructors deny that they are teaching self-defense. “It’s just a carry permit class,” they say — as if people carry guns for any other purpose. Or, “I’m just teaching them to use a handgun, that’s all.” But if your students think otherwise, if they come to you to learn skills they think they can use to protect themselves and their loved ones, you’re still on the hook. It’s so tempting to engage in these kinds of denials, and maybe that’s a more comfortable place for us to live as instructors, but it does our students no good.
There’s something related, scary, within the women’s side of the firearms world right now. Maybe it’s always been there, and I’m just becoming more attuned to it. But I keep running into this idea that we can give our students what they need without ever challenging them, without ever pushing their skills and without any risk of hurting their feelings. Everything must always be fun, fun, fun – sweetness and light and hallelujah! But … when we’re talking about self-defense, we’re actually talking about some very serious matters. We can and do have fun on the range, but it’s fun with a deadly serious purpose. And sometimes that purpose will drive us straight through the heart some very personal territory, which is the kind of journey you cannot take without risk.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m a strong believer in encouraging words and positive attitudes. At the same time, those encouraging words should be true, and they should be appropriate. There are times when the most encouraging, appropriate thing to say to your student is, “You can do better than that.” It is good and right to celebrate success, but even better to celebrate earned success.
For me, I have always had a struggle with wanting my students to like me, to think I’m a nice person and fun to be around. Most of the time, there’s nothing wrong with that. But my students don’t come to me to be my pals. They come to me to learn. If my desire to be super nice and super sweet actually gets them killed someday, then I haven’t been nice to them at all.
In order to fulfill my most important responsibility to my students, I have to risk pushing them beyond their comfort levels. And I have to do it in a way that will cause them to work harder rather than to shut down. If I’m not willing to take that risk for the sake of my students’ lives, I have no right to call myself a self-defense instructor.