The Cornered Cat
“Can I teach that?”

One of the most brilliant posts I’ve ever read about training was written by Todd Green several years ago. You can find it [here]. Not to be too cliche or anything, but do go read the whole thing, right now. Then come back to me; I’ll wait.

[Crawl, Walk, Run off a Cliff…]

Done reading? Good!

One of the excellent things Todd wrote there was this:

Knowing how the drill is explained and performed isn’t the same as understanding the drill, the how’s and why’s, the potential pitfalls, the telltale indicators that something is about to go wrong.

I would put that in 87-point font, bolded and in bright flashing lights, if I could. Because I keep coming across new instructors — good people, smart people, people I like and want to encourage in this endeavor — who say things like, “I’ve had two professional firearms training classes now, and I know I can teach that material as well as ____ (famous instructor’s name, not mine).” Again, these are people I like and respect and want to see do wonderful things.

But … after one or two classes, these folks truly are not at that point yet. They feel like they are. But they need to do a lot more homework before they reach that point, if they ever do. Because even though they think they’ll be doing the same thing, they won’t. They’ll only be going through the motions, even though they won’t realize it at the time.

Here’s a story that might illustrate my point. When I was a little girl, one day I asked my daddy if I could steer the car while he drove. Daddy said, “Sure” and pulled me onto his lap. 1 When I got my hands on the wheel, I started wiggling it back and forth, really fast, just a little wiggle but a constant one. Why did I do that? Because I had seen what a driver does with the wheel when they want the car to go straight down the road. As an adult, you are probably thinking, “Wait, what? You don’t do that! You hold the steering wheel straight.” But try looking at it through a kid’s eyes, and you’ll see what I mean. You aren’t actually holding the wheel still. You’re making a constant series of tiny little corrections to your course. I didn’t know that. All I knew was that drivers wiggle the wheel when they’re driving. I imitated what I saw them do, and did not yet have the background to understand what they were really doing.

Just like me as a 6-year-old wiggling a steering wheel, a new instructor who dives in to teach material they aren’t yet qualified to teach is usually doing things they think they’ve seen more experienced instructors doing. But they don’t yet have the background to understand what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it. Maybe their students won’t know any better as long as everything goes right, but everything does not always go right for each individual student. Worse, in firearms instruction, when things go wrong, there’s a potential for them to go terribly, disastrously wrong.

To be clear, although this is about safety, it’s not just about safety. It’s also about basic pedagogy, about teaching skills. Without a really thorough grasp of the material, far more than ever shows up directly inside the course, an unprepared instructor really cannot reliably guide students through potential trouble spots.

Having had one or two exposures to someone else’s material does not make you qualified to teach it. When you’re ready to teach the material, you — like every good teacher — will always know a whole lot more about that material than your students will likely see. You know the principles underneath everything you’re teaching. You know where to present each element of the complete program, and why it needs to be in that order, and when you can make exceptions to those rules. You know six or ten or twelve different ways to articulate the same thing, and are prepared to do so if any of your students need that. You know alternative ways to do things. You know a whole bunch of reasons other people don’t do it the same way you do — and you have solid answers for those reasons, too. You can read your students’ body language and other cues so you know when the students “get it” and fully grasp the concepts behind your material, and you can tell when they don’t. You know when students are most likely to do something stupid and you know a whole bunch of ways to head that off at the pass, before they actually do it.

You simply Do Not Know any of those things after just one or two exposures to the material as a student. You have to put your butt in the chair and do your homework. You have to think. Then you have to get out of the chair and try it, first as a student, then as an explorer, playing and working and comparing notes with other people at your same level. You thrash it out with likeminded others. You try it. You play with the concepts behind it. Then you go back to your teachers and mentors and coaches, and you tell them what you’ve explored, and you ask them the questions that came up, and you discuss the concerns you might have, and you discuss the consequences of their ideas. You challenge their thinking and your own. And you do this over, and over, and over again until the material you want to teach is yours, even if you learned it from someone else.

This is a process that takes time. It does not happen overnight. But there are no shortcuts to anywhere worth going in life.

Do your homework!


  1. Yes, this was a long long time ago, when the world was different and dinosaurs roamed the earth. People did things like that back then.

9 Responses to “Can I teach that?”

  1. larryarnold says:

    Don’t be ashamed to be the guy teaching 2+2=4 at the range.

    Are you kidding? I’ve been teaching the “This is the end the bullet comes out of” class for thirty years, and it’s still one of the most rewarding and difficult classes I do.

    There is nothing more influential than starting a student from “I’m scared of guns,” and ending up with, “IS THERE ANY MORE AMMO?”

  2. larryarnold says:

    But I do agree with the rest of it.

  3. JustSumStuff says:

    Sounds similar for guns & school:
    Those that teach our children in the standard school systems have observation time, student teaching time, proving proficiency by passing tests & 4 years of college. During the first years of teaching, a good school system has mentors for the new teachers. There are classes (credits) to be earned to keep up to date on new teaching methods.

  4. » Blog Archive » Great Minds…

  5. Dann in Ohio says:

    I’m getting close to having been a firearms instructor for a quarter of a century… and I’m still in the eternal learning curve…

    I am always concerned to relay similar advice to new instructors that I teach… just because you went through the class does not mean you are ready to teach it…

    Goodness, I was teaching people and law enforcement the weaver stance twenty-five years ago… I went back to isosceles stance (using and teaching) years ago after several additional training classes and watching weaver-stance trained officers on dash-cam footage resort to the isosceles time after time when the lead started flying…

    Teaching is more than knowing the content… there are a lot of folks who know the content that can’t teach…

    Dann in Ohio

  6. Shandower says:

    Of of my teaching mentors likes to point out that you have XX years of experience in the subject. The student has zero. You cannot possibly teach them everything in one class, so don’t even try. And realize that the things they need the very most to know are the things you’ve probably forgotten and take for granted.

    I cringe every time I see a youtube-trained operator try to teach a newb the forward press thing they watched Travis Haley do, when what the newb NEEDS is for someone to put them on a bench rest with a blank piece of paper 5 feed in front of them and let them get used to just pulling a trigger.

    • Kathy Jackson says:

      Excellent point. Complexity is easy, simplicity is difficult. Keeping it as simple as possible — but no simpler! — is one of the things you learn from mentors and coaches as you’re learning to teach. It does not come naturally.

    • larryarnold says:


      I was teaching an NRA basic class many years ago, and discussing the difference between revolvers and semiautos. I pointed out that a semiato was faster to reload. One of my students got the “say what” look. I repeated the point and opened up so she would ask the question.

      “I don’t see how you can put cartridges in the magazine faster than loading the cylinder.”

      “You load with a spare magazine.”

      “A gun can have more than one magazine?”

      Yes. She bought a pistol, it came with one magazine, and no one told her she could buy another. That’s the level new shooters need.

  7. Pingback:Weekend Knowledge Dump- September 6, 2013 | Active Response Training

Post a Comment