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Posted on December 10, 2020 by in Training

Why Struggling Students Can Be Fun To Teach


This article is directed towards working with insecure students that quickly become mentally defeated in defensive firearm classes. Most of us have probably seen that student at some time. It is not uncommon to hear students curse after shooting a drill, and at worse I have seen then them drip their heads in disgust and allow their shooting hand to drop to their side and point the muzzle of a pistol directly at their foot.

Believe it or not, I love students like this. When others ask me what it is about teaching that drives me, I reply that it is seeing the students leave the class not only better prepared to defend themselves and their loved ones but knowing they now have a say as to the final outcome if targeted by a violent criminal actor. I believe that I can sometimes pick up a glow in a student’s face and see a difference in their bearing as they are leaving the range. This is especially true if that same student was one who started the class was displaying signs of low esteem or a tendency to become quickly frustrated.

In order to accomplish this, it is often necessary to spend a little extra time with an individual student and do a deep dive into their technique and make sure they understand what we want them to do and even the why. This is one of the reasons that my school always has two instructors or one instructor and an assistant instructor in every class if possible. One can focus on the forest (explaining technique and drills and keeping the class moving) and one can focus on individual trees (one or more struggling students). 

Why do some students seem to mentally struggle more than others? The causes can range from mild learning disabilities to backgrounds that caused the students to believe they are not as good to others to outright genetics. I usually craft a plan for dealing with such as student by observing, asking a few questions in order to make sure they fully understand what we are trying to teach them, make an initial assessment of the cause, and then start making small corrections and giving them positive feedback.

Some students have trouble understanding what they need to do in order to execute a technique. They may process what they see and hear more slowly than others, which means that they may need to see and hear the instructions repeated several times and perhaps even rephrased.  Repeating the same exact instructions over and over often accomplishes little. Instructor Julie Thomas is one of the best at doing this, and I have watched her repeatedly help struggling students who by class end were shooting as well as the rest of the students.

Other students become emotionally beat down. They may simply be more sensitive to criticism, or even absent external criticism prone to criticizing themselves without good cause. I treat those students like puppies that I am house-breaking (do not tell anyone that I said that, please). Positive reinforcement is the best treatment, and even if they start out as a complete soup sandwich I find small things they are doing correctly and bring that to their attention. It may take a while to link all of the little things together they are doing well and end up with them  performing the entire technique correctly, but when it happens the breakthrough may be all it takes to achieve a positive overall mental reset. Simple compliments like “exactly”, “that’s it”, and “you nailed it, brother” often work as well or better than effusive praise.

Other students have a strong startle reflex. To quote nationally recognized firearms instructor Wayne Dobbs, “We are not wired genetically to hold something at arms-length that explodes in front of our face, which is what happens when a new shooter holds a handgun with the intent to shoot. This creates an anxiety problem (flinch, jerk, anticipation, etc.) which is for the most part an involuntary reaction to the gun being fired only a few feet in front of their face.” A good way to address this with a student is basically tell them that their reaction is absolutely natural and that a critical portion of the class is to expose them to it repeatedly so that the subconscious mind eventually comes to the conclusion that that they are in no danger. I have found with some females that a part of the problem was the fact that their hearing was so good that over-the-ear muffs alone did not dampen the sound of the report enough. If so, this a good time for them to double plug (use both ear plugs and the muffs in order to reduce the sound level) and they often start doing better immediately.

By no means do I have all the answers. Interestingly enough, when I share my thought on this subject with other experienced instructors I often learn something that helps me to become better able to help my own students.  If nothing else, I hope this article perhaps alters the mindset of some of the instructors that become frustrated at the lack of progress a student may be making. My take on this is that when it comes to an arrogant, know-it-all student it is not my job to first get them into a mindset where there can start learning. However, it is my job to do everything within reason to help those students who have the best of intentions that are open to learning. I view those students at worst as a challenging project, and who does not like tackling a difficult project and completing it satisfactorily?

Steve Moses

Steve Moses has been a defensive firearms trainer for over 26 years and is a licensed Texas Personal Protection Officer with 7 years of experience performing as shift lead on a church security detail for a D/FW area metro-church. Steve is a co-owner and Director of Training for Palisade Training Group, LLC based in Dallas, Texas. Moses is a retired deputy constable and spent over 10 years on a multi-precinct Special Response Team. He owns multiple instructor certifications, including Rangemaster Advanced Handgun Instructor and Defensive Shotgun Instructor, Red Zone Knife Defense Instructor and Adaptive Striking Foundations Instructor, Modern Samurai Project Red Dot Sight Instructor, and State of Texas Personal Protection Officer Instructor. Steve holds a BJJ Brown Belt in Relson Gracie Jiu Jitsu. He is a content contributor for CCW Safe and writes weekly articles on various subjects of interest to concealed carriers. Moses shoots competitively and holds an IDPA Expert rating. Steve is an annual presenter at the Rangemaster Tactical Conference.