The Cornered Cat
What makes a good female firearms instructor?

Yesterday, one of Cornered Cat’s Facebook fans asked:

What in particular makes a good female firearms instructor? And how does that differ from just ANY firearms instructor?

Although these questions sound simple, they really are not. Let me start with the obvious factors that apply to everyone. A good instructor knows how to teach, and has the skills to reach a wide variety of students who each have specific learning styles and personal needs. (That one sentence has a whole world of factors hidden inside it. Another post, another time!)

On the character side, a good instructor should be both patient and brave. You have to be patient enough to provide basic learning blocks in small, steadily increasing doses until the students reach advanced levels of proficiency; patient enough to work compassionately with slow learners, even when the students need the work repeated again and again and yet again; and patient enough to explain thoroughly to people who need thorough explanations. You also have to be brave enough to speak the truth as bluntly as necessary to blow away the fantasy thinking that often surrounds self-defense subjects; brave enough to push your students to learn more and do more than the students believe they can; and brave enough to risk making mistakes in front of the class when you demonstrate skills for the students to imitate. You have to be brave enough to give students honest feedback, every time. The more seriously you take your responsibility as an instructor, the more bravery you will need.

There are lots more basic building blocks that go into making a good instructor in general. I’ll talk more about those in later blog posts and articles. (Hoo boy, do I have a lot to say about that!)

But for now, here are a few things you should know about teaching female students.

First, men and women are different. But we aren’t that different. We aren’t a separate species. You’ve been dealing with women all your life and of course you know how to relate to women in shooting classes—you do it with the same respect and thoughtfulness you bring to any other interaction with any other human being in any other venue.

Learning styles differ from individual to individual. I’m not convinced there are a lot of gender-based differences in learning styles; for the most part, effective teachers are effective teachers because they know how to reach every student in the class. The best teachers already teach to a variety of learning styles. I will say that my own personal teaching biases include the really radical idea that you don’t insult your students, berate your students, or yell at your students.

Although not every woman will be nervous going into her first firearm class, some will—and some will feel very nervous indeed. As you get more women into your classes, you become more likely to encounter students who feel extreme levels of worry at the beginning. Also, some of your students won’t be there voluntarily… or not entirely voluntarily. They may have been pressured to attend by a boyfriend or husband. They might dislike firearms or be afraid of firearms. You need to have your radar up for these types of students. Sometimes just a quiet word in private will help them make it through the day and even have fun. I like to begin my classes by telling students that it’s okay to be nervous around guns, that nervousness is a healthy, natural response to working with an unfamiliar object that can kill you! Then I add that nervousness can lead to professional, intelligent respect for what a firearm can do.

Sometimes, if I have students who seem to be letting their nervousness lead to dangerous behavior, I will tell them that they should do the opposite of what their bodies are telling them to do. Their bodies will be telling them to move quickly and with jerky motions, because they are scared. What they need to do instead is to take a slow, deep breath, then move smoothly and really think about every move they make before they make it. That’s how they will stay safe.

Physically, men and women are different—taken as a whole! Individual people can fall anywhere on the bell curve: tall or short, muscular or less-muscular, heavy or light or somewhere in between. Students need to be treated primarily as individuals, with individual strenths and individual needs. Nevertheless, there are a few things we can say about these groups as a whole, and some specific teaching points we should include in any class where there’s a strong female presence.

When you teach classes with lots of women in them, you will need to address the needs of shooters with small hands and shooters with less upper body strength than the average. This is not to say that every woman has small hands—many do not—but in any group of women, there will almost always be several that do have smaller hands than average or that struggle with strength-intensive techniques. So you’ll need to be prepared to address these topics with every group. Specifically, you’ll need to know how to teach someone to safely rack the slide using the punch method, and how to help a student with small hands manipulate the controls of an oversized gun, and how to teach someone with a weak trigger finger to use a heavy double-action trigger. These are all very common needs that arise in classes where lots of women are present. (There are more of these types of things to know, but it’s a huge subject and that’s a topic for a later post.)

Along the same lines, you should know how to assess the student’s hand-to-gun fit, and should have some techniques for tweaking her stance and grip to match the gun she uses. (Again, a huge subject for a later post.)

You’ll need to have a good working understanding of carry methods that work well for a variety of female body shapes. Because on-the-hip carry works so well and with so little difficulty for the majority of men, there’s somewhat of a resistance within the training community to allow female shooters the freedom to choose any other location for the holster. Unfortunately, many women—especially those with pronounced hourglass figures—find it extremely uncomfortable to carry a gun on the hip. You’ll need to know what the other options are, and be able to provide a balanced picture of how each of them can be accomplished in safety. (Huge subject, later posts.)

Women have breasts, while men do not. Again, that’s a generality; I heard a female speaker once get a huge laugh out of an audience by starting her speech with the confession, “I was born flat-chested.” (Hmmm, maybe it was the delivery.) Some women have large breasts, and sometimes breasts get in the way of physical skills such as safely drawing the firearm or returning it to its holster. Sometimes they get in the way of specific shooting techniques such as using the Weaver stance. Sometimes hot brass flies down a woman’s shirt and lands in her cleavage. Sometimes women are reluctant to practice the draw from concealment because they don’t want to pull their shirts out of the way, and sometimes that’s because nobody told them to wear an undershirt to the range so they wouldn’t unintentionally flash anything private while drawing the gun from concealment. You’ll need to find ways to address these challenges clearly and without offending your students.

A good instructor for female students should understand the types of violence women would most likely face. Here’s a blunt truth for you: violence is overwhelmingly a male problem. Most criminals are male and most victims are male. This means male-on-male violence accounts for the vast majority of violent crime. It also means that violence experienced by men is often social and participatory in nature. Bar fights, road rage, gang actions… these are social events that require a very specific set of negotiating skills to defuse and de-escalate. In contrast, when women are the victims of violence, they are more likely to be the victims of predatory, asocial violence. This would include muggings, rapes and sexual assaults, kidnappings, and home invasions—events that usually require immediate and aggressive physical reactions from the targeted victim. Social or participatory violence could be illustrated by two rams butting heads with each other during the rut, while asocial or predatory violence is more like a shark looking for a meal. The skills that keep the rams from really injuring each other[1] during the ritualistic masculine dance are not the same skills that drive away a hungry shark. Instructors who understand these distinctions can  provide much better value for both male and female students.

Good grief, this has turned into a long post! Maybe it’ll become an article later on…

[1] Most of the time.

3 Responses to What makes a good female firearms instructor?

  1. grace513 says:

    Awesome post! 🙂

  2. momwithagun says:

    I think the “dynamics of violence” topic is a hugely important one that far too many instructors don’t do justice to. I’ve been reading a lot of Rory Miller lately, and the thing he keeps saying that really has struck me is that a lot of training (martial arts in particular, but firearms too) is designed around that instructor’s ideas about how violence happens, rather than how real violence actually goes down in the real world.

    The trouble, of course, is that our students too often don’t know enough about the differences between the two to make informed decisions about what an instructor is teaching them. And, too, the moment when a home invader is smashing your bedroom window is far too late to discover that your instructor didn’t know what they were talking about. I know that in my own encounters with violence, the way things went down was not at all like how most people I talk to envision violent encounters to unfold, and the conventional wisdom about how to protect against that kind of violence was of no use to me.

    Frankly, I don’t know what the answer to this problem is. But I think it’s an important one to discuss.

    • Kathy Jackson says:

      Good points, Tammy. I think Rory Miller’s work may be among the most important material being produced right now on the whole question of ways to survive violence. Have you seen his blog? He posts at Chiron Blog and often tosses in really thought-provoking, mind-blowing comments there too.

      Putting a class together can be an exercise in frustration for an instructor who takes their responsibility to the students very seriously. What do you include? What can you safely or reasonably leave out? There are so many things students should hear and be exposed to, but only so many hours of class time. It’s a constant struggle to find the balance that will let students know what they need to learn next, since you don’t have enough time to teach them everything. You often end up giving them information that falls within a very narrow band of possibilities, and then exhorting them to keep learning more outside the class. It always pleases and impresses me that so many do make the effort to learn more.

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