The Cornered Cat
Instructor Ethics 101

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.

14 Responses to Instructor Ethics 101

  1. shellebelle216 says:

    I love this! I am an inspiring instructor, so this is something I hope to carry with me.
    “It is good and right to celebrate success, but even better to celebrate earned success” is my favorite!

    • Kathy Jackson says:

      Thanks. 🙂

  2. kalaryn says:

    I wish the guy who taught my CCW class could read this. I paid the man basically for a bunch of stories and very little information and what information he gave I already knew.

    Maybe there should be some sort of this like the BBB for self defense instructors so when people feel that an instructor isn’t up to par they can put them on a list.

  3. kalaryn says:

    One other thing about the CCW instructor, the thing that really made me nervous was there was another woman in the class, she seemed really uncomfortable about handling guns and my only thought was, “eek, this woman is going to be out in public conceal carrying a weapon. That thought scares me, I don’t think anyone who isn’t comfortable with a gun should be carrying in public until they are.”

    • Kathy Jackson says:


      Good comments. Please forgive me for disagreeing with you a little bit on that last one, though.

      I’ve taught a lot of people over the years who were uncomfortable with handling guns when they came to class. That does not worry me in the slightest!

      First, they’re in class to learn, which includes becoming more comfortable with the tools. So it’s perfectly okay for someone uncomfortable with the gun to come to class hoping the instructor will help her become more comfortable with it. That’s one of the goals of good instruction.

      Second, and probably more important, people who are nervous handling guns usually become very safe gun handlers with just a little good instruction. The nervous ones are usually nervous because they understand how dangerously bad a mistake with a gun can be. So for those reasons, I’m always a little bit happy when I have a nervous student: she’s there because she needs to be there, and she’s going to become very safe with the gun before she leaves my class.

      • kalaryn says:

        I agree with you one hundred percent and I just hope this lady found another instructor to help her with becoming more comfortable with guns because the guy who was teaching our class wasn’t doing much in the way of helping her.

        I do agree that nervous people around guns are usually safer, I’m still a bit uncomfortable with guns that I’m not familiar with and honestly I hope to never lose my overly cautious handling of fire arms because I’ve read so many stories of accidents from seasoned shooter and they were mainly because they became relaxed and less vigilant.

        I like your last line: “she’s there because she needs to be there, and she’s going to become very safe with the gun before she leaves my class.” I wish the instructor I had mentioned felt that way.

  4. says:

    A+, Kathy! Jenna and I are instructors because, frankly, we’ve been scared to death of some of the instructors we’ve had. I only hope and pray to not make some of the same mistakes.

    • kalaryn says:

      I’m going to check out your site “carryoncolorado” since I live in Colorado.

  5. Female and Armed says:

    You did it again. Your posts speak far more than words on the screen. You are a nice person and I do like you, but I agree, helping my students learn to think and respond safely and effectively is more important that if they like me. The smiles are always a nice bonus.
    Bravo…this is a must read.

  6. Dann in Ohio says:

    I’ve been an instructor for a very long time… and every time I read your posts… I think, “we are totally on the same page”…

    I think that so best serve students, you need to be a student… and I am continually learning and seeking out training to make me a better instructor… because you’re right… it’s a BIG responsibility knowing that the what I teach can save lives or… costs lives – if it’s wrong or inappropriate…

    And you’re also right… denial serves know one… be honest… assess honestly… confront reality… like I discussed in my recent post on “the weaker sex”…

    Good stuff Kathy, thanks again!

    Dann in Ohio

  7. keads says:

    An excellent post! I agree completely it is the most demanding thing I do to teach this subject matter. I also agree that the best instructors I have had pushed you to your failure point. Only then can you truly learn in my opinion.

    The instructors that rationalize the import of the subject matter away with the comments you note are doing a disservice to the students. I ask everyone at the start of a “new shooter” class why they are there. Almost all are prepping for my state’s CCH class. They are there for the final goal of self defense.

    The CCH class has a state defined curriculum. You noted in a previous post about your feelings on that. I tend to agree with you but we are also an open carry state with no required training for that. I would prefer that the people that choose to open carry understand my state laws on justified use of deadly force by civilians before they do that, but it is what it is.

    So having said all that, when you coming back east =)

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