The Cornered Cat
The “expert” mask

Every once in awhile — it happens often enough to break my heart — I run across a female instructor who feels incredibly insecure about her status as a teacher or leader or role model. People who feel that way often work hard to maintain a facade of “expert” in the eyes of their students, and sometimes this insecurity-based effort keeps them in a bad place for years on end. That’s heartbreaking.

Speaking as someone who has been around this business for a long time (I’ve been shooting for 15 years, taking professional-level training classes for 14 years, and teaching at the professional level for over 10 years now), here are a few observations I have about that.

First, the false-expert mask problem happens to male instructors too. I’m focused here on female instructors because 1) I are one, and 2) women often face an uphill battle to earn any respect from students and peers in the first place. That means we often experience the status problem at a more intense level than most male instructors do. So even though men can get caught in the same false-expert trap, it may be less surprising when it happens to women.

Second, just because something happens often, doesn’t mean it’s good. Even though it’s perfectly normal and understandable that someone who has worked hard to achieve a certain status might work equally hard to make sure others can see that they’ve reached that status, there are still good ways and less-good ways to go about doing that. Even though it might work for a little while, putting on a false mask of already knowing everything, and then using that mask to cover a fear of learning (or of being seen learning) is one of the less-good ways to maintain your “expert” status as a teacher.

And third — which brings me to my main point — the feeling itself is a lie. You don’t lose respect when you learn something new, or even when someone sees you learning it! You don’t lose your students’ respect when you improve your skills and knowledge. Quite the opposite. Students respect teachers who have a passion for learning, who have an open-minded and open-hearted way of looking at the world. As a student, literally the first thing I ever knew about Jim Cirillo was that this 72-year-old gentleman had just taken a class from a younger instructor and had learned a bunch of stuff in that class. That did not lower Cirillo’s status in my eyes; it raised it!

For women who have worked hard to get where they are, wanting to cautiously protect your “expert” status by never being seen sitting in the learning position as a student can seem like a good idea. After all, you want your students to think of you as the authority and the expert because you’re their teacher. That part’s okay. The problematic part is that you might be convinced by your own mask, and when that happens, you refuse to take more training or get more information. Your refusal to learn more or to be seen learning something new means you never can become the expert you really want to be. You’ve completely stumped yourself from growing or learning or becoming more advanced in your expertise.

Imagine if your surgeon stopped learning 20 years ago and didn’t take any classes on new surgical techniques – no continuing education, no refreshers on material they might be rusty on. Whatever they learned in med school would be all they ever knew. How good a surgeon would that doctor be at the end of a long career?

If you want to be a role model for other women, one of the roles you must model for them is that of a good student. How does an already-knowledgeable and already-skilled shooter learn more? How does she achieve a higher level of skill or refine her techniques? What does learning more look like, when an already-knowledgeable person does it? Seeing you work at learning will model something for your students that they can see in no other way.

That’s one of many, many reasons that the true experts are always learning, always finding out new things, always keeping their knowledge and skills up to date. That commitment to ongoing education is how they actually became the experts in the first place — not by getting a certificate and then jealously guarding their newfound status.

If you as an instructor set up a mask to hide behind, or too carefully guard your “don’t need to learn more” image because you don’t want your students to think less of you if they see you learning, the result is that you will probably do one of two things to your students.

1) You might prevent them from growing beyond your own current knowledge and skill set, which means you will stop them from becoming all that they otherwise could,


2) They might grow past you when they go out on their own and learn more from others, and when that happens they will find out that you’re a fraud anyway.

In either case, that’s probably not the outcome you’re looking for. For your students’ sake, and for your own, be brave enough to learn!

One Response to The “expert” mask

  1. larryarnold says:

    Imagine if your surgeon stopped learning 20 years ago

    I wish. I’m at the point where I’m getting used to trusting doctors who aren’t old enough to be my children.

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