One of the biggest things I learned as a firearms instructor which took years of focus and near 360 degrees of observation of the student – the ability to assess whether there is a learning opportunity versus a teaching moment. Basically it is the ability to observe an issue and exploit it by weighing the situation and potential outcomes for the greatest benefit for the class and individual student. The core of this ability is knowing the subject matter inside and out and the ability to read your students.
It’s easy to teach a firearms or a tactics course if you have a basic understanding of the material. Applying the material to drills and exercises can be a little more difficult but nothing overly hard. Though, easy and effective aren’t mutually exclusive. Having attended courses taught by the entire scale from bad to great instructors. I have seen some firsthand examples of what works and what doesn’t as far as teaching is concerned.
If we look at the two extremes of firearms/tactics instruction we can get a better feel for where we should fit.
1. Heavy instruction with little practical exercise. Students have an overwhelming amount of information to process and apply to the little practice they have.
2. Heavy practical exercise with little instruction. Students are unable to determine the finer points of performance and nuances of the instructor’s material due to lack of guidelines.
Finding the balance between instruction and hands on training will provide an optimal atmosphere for learning new concepts and helps in execution of said concepts. This is obviously based on the content you intend on teaching. Mandatory sexual harassment courses should not have a practical exercise portion. Qualifications (in most cases) don’t need a sit down classroom section.
Step one in the grand process is to know the material you intend to present. If you can provide concepts from your lesson in a conversation and the person(s) you are talking to don’t know you are teaching, you are winning. To truly become masterful of your focus, you must never stop studying and never stop discussing the material. Newer, older, better, and worse concepts all will come up as you teach. Your familiarity with all aspects of the material is a lifesaver and helps you gain additional credibility due to your diligence in your studies.
Now imagine you are teaching and a big distraction occurs in the middle of class – knowing the material helps get the class back on track. Natural segue ways return focus to your planned lesson. Questions that are unrelated to your immediate lesson plan can be refocused back to subject matter as well in some circumstances if you know the material.
The next step is the ability to read your students and assess their needs. This is an incredibly important skill. Reading your students takes some practice and isn’t readily apparent if you are new to teaching. Experience in public speaking helps refine your personal balance of presenting set content and providing some adlib material. Ad libbing can be quite helpful but to be effective you already need to know the subject.
This insight of reading your class is not something you immediately gain at the start of a class. You need to set a balance of your instruction and the opportunity for the students to replicate the concepts you are providing. Obviously a larger class requires more time for assessment – this can turn into a negative experience for some students because of mundane repetition.
Teaching concepts which don’t involve practical applications are more of a performance art to be successful. In a sense you create your act, there is some tailoring to the body of students and some further refinement for some individuals. I taught DARE for a number of years – there was a fixed curriculum taught, but this still required a connection to be made between the student and instructor. This connection helped encourage class participation, not the forced kind either. This connection helped students understand better and it helped me teach better. Real questions were asked by the students because they were comfortable.
A couple years ago I was on the catwalk at a counter-terrorism course as an instructor and I found two students were in a less than effective position to protect their team. Since I knew the material being taught I could identify the issue. This issue was worth exploiting for furthering the students’ understanding of the concepts being taught. At this point I had to weigh if I should intervene and create a teaching moment and correct their issues or allow them to fail and create a learning opportunity hopefully letting them learn from their mistakes.
I opted to fix them. I explained to them the issues with their current positioning and fields of fire. As soon as I pointed out the big issues, they filled in the finer points of where they failed. They had a grasp of the problems but just didn’t see it because they did not see the bigger picture.
Many times, if my fellow instructors choose to create a learning opportunity for students in force on force training it is accompanied by laughter which is easily heard. If you hear a lot of laughter from the catwalk – consider it an indicator that something is wrong. We are seeing things to come and it will be a painful learning experience for you.