How to Become a Better Firearms Instructor

“YES!” you say as you look at the memo. It’s about time, I didn’t think the department would ever send me to a good school — this will be great for my career and promotional exams…and a week in Orlando…this is great!

You continue to read the captain’s memo and your eyes focus on the frightening words at the end of the memo: “Upon your return, be prepared to conduct a short training session for your coworkers in this area.”

They have got to be kidding…I don’t want to conduct training; I don’t know anything about training….besides, I’ve seen how we treat trainers. Your euphoria quickly turns to fear and dread.

But, you can do this. You can approach it as a one time challenge for which you want to perform your best or you can view it as an opportunity to add a new facet to your career. You may find you enjoy the excitement of sharing information with others and decide to develop an expertise in this area. Additionally, there is no better way for you to expand your knowledge than through instructing others. Here are eight tips to make your training session a pleasant experience and to minimize your stress:

1. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare…

Determine exactly what the department wants you to teach. What are their goals? Do they want you to give the officers specific guidance and information, or just a brief overview and summary of the information that you received?

While attending the conference, take good notes and consult with the instructors. Let them know what you’ve been asked to do and obtain their assistance. They can guide you as to what information is most valuable and what resources you might find helpful. Note any particular techniques or strategies the instructors use that keep your interest, motivate you, and make the class more informative and enjoyable.

When you return to your department, prepare your lesson plan, including the information you feel is most critical. Determine the goals and objectives of the class and prepare an outline. Incorporate examples to illustrate points you are trying to make. Practice your presentation over and over to determine things such as timing and flow. Have a friend or coworker observe you and critique your presentation. Total honesty is important and you should pick someone who will give you good feedback. Giving and receiving constructive criticism can be difficult, but, if done correctly, can be extremely valuable. Preparation is crucial. Though it can often take eight to ten hours of preparation for one hour of presentation, it will lead to success. Not only will the presentation go more smoothly, but it will also increase your confidence. A well planned lesson will be easier to teach and easier for the student to learn.

2. Make Sure the Physical Setting is as Comfortable as Possible.

This is especially important in law enforcement training — given the various shifts that attendees work. Fatigue will most likely be an issue. The room temperature should not be too warm or cold and the ventilation should be adequate. The seating should be arranged so that class members can see the instructor, as well as any audiovisuals, and be able to interact with their classmates comfortably. The chairs should be comfortable and a hard surface should be provided for note taking.

Determine a schedule and stick to it. This is important in order to ensure each topic is adequately covered and the learners’ expectations met. Breaks are important for adult learners and a ten minute break should be provided every hour. If you teach into the break time, the class will notice and you will lose them. It is important for people to get up and stretch or get a beverage. The training session should also end on time. Anything you present after the scheduled conclusion of the session will most likely not be integrated. The class will be thinking about where they need to be (picking up children, on-duty, or at an extra duty detail) rather than listening to what you’re saying.

If at all possible, beverages and light snacks should be provided at least at the start of the session. A table outside the room, or at the back of the room, set up with coffee and water along with doughnuts or bagels would be beneficial. If attendees need their coffee and it isn’t available, there will be a loss of attention as the attendees try to figure out how they will get some coffee on the first break. They may miss some of the session, as well as cause a disruption, if they leave to get some.

Minimize interruptions in the class by enforcing a policy of not having pagers or cell phones during the session. The department should have a procedure in place with a central contact for “true emergencies” or for leaving messages. Unfortunately, some officers or supervisors may try to use a page or call as an excuse to leave or take a break from training.

3. Be an Exciting Facilitator.

It is important to set the classroom climate early in the session. Though you are a coworker, in this case, you are also the instructor and should be dressed professionally. Share with the attendees why you are there as the instructor and what it is that the department wants you to share with them. Emphasize that you are not the authority, but that the comprehensive training you have had resulted in expanded knowledge of the topic which you want to share with them. Explain generally (and specifically) how this will benefit them in the performance of their jobs. Encourage them to participate in the class, noting that their job knowledge and experience will make the class more interesting, as well as benefit other class members. It is important to establish rapport and a feeling of cooperation at the beginning of the session.

The class should view your role as one of “facilitator,” as opposed to that of an expert and ultimate authority. As mentioned earlier, some members of your class may have more police experience than you and their insight and knowledge could be invaluable to the other class members. Utilizing their expertise during the class, when appropriate, will boost their self-esteem and help them and others to buy into the subject matter and the class.

A high energy level is one characteristic of a good instructor. You should be animated and vary your voice tone, pitch and volume. Do not stand behind a podium, but move around the room and use appropriate gestures, facial expressions, and voice changes to emphasize your point. Good eye contact with members of the class will greatly enhance interaction in the class. Work hard to detect and eliminate any distracting mannerisms or phrases. It’s not uncommon to attend training sessions and see students keeping track of how many times an instructor says “O.K.” or “like” rather than listening to the content of the class. It is also important not to “talk down” to members of the class.

4. Present Meaningful and Useful Information to the Student.

The instructor should first make the learner understand why they will benefit from the training session and how the material they learn will impact their jobs or their lives. Explaining what they will learn, and how it will help them, will expedite their acceptance of the material that is presented. Students will integrate material that is relevant to them more quickly and readily than information they perceive as unnecessary. Skip the history and technical background if it is not something the student needs to know. It is important for students to see the relevance of the material to their lives or their job performance.

If you are presenting new material, it’s important to present it slowly and to build on current knowledge. The more complex the information presented, the longer it will take students to integrate it into their current knowledge base. Your knowledge and experience in the field will assist you in knowing which material to cover.

Calls that you (or others) have handled can serve as illustrations to points made in the training session, but you must monitor the situation and make sure the class does not deteriorate into the sharing of “war stories.” This is a particular problem with law enforcement training and, while it seems interesting at the time, the session is not productive and no new material will be learned when it is simply a rehashing of war stories. These sessions can often turn into a session of “us” versus “them” and rapidly go downhill, resulting in nothing but bad feelings and anger. These emotions are not conducive to learning.

5. Use Active Learning Techniques.

There are certain delivery methods which can assist you in keeping the interest of the class. Using techniques that require active participation will result in increased understanding and retention of the information presented. You should emphasize and encourage participation and questioning by providing a supportive atmosphere. Additionally, using techniques fostering activity will further enhance the learning process. These active techniques include demonstrations, displays, projects, discussions, role-play, simulations, case studies, group work, and problem solving.

Using audiovisuals, such as videotapes, audiotapes and PowerPoint® can also assist you in making your point and maintaining interest. Additionally, it is a good idea to give participants something to take home. Providing a handout for note taking, review, follow-up and future reference is beneficial.

These techniques, which require the class to be active and involved in the learning process, will enhance their incorporation of the new knowledge.

6. Provide an Environment of
Mutual Respect and Support.

Members of your class will possess varying abilities in the classroom, as well as various educational histories. Some learners may need encouragement and support to view the training as a positive experience, and some attendees simply will not want to be there. Others will be motivated because it is a topic they have wanted to learn more about, or because they enjoy learning new things. Some will have had good experiences regarding education and training in the past, and others will have bad memories evoking negative emotions.

It can be helpful to begin the class with some type of “ice breaker.” This is an activity intended to get the class loosened up and comfortable with each other. It is usually a brief activity which actively engages them and gets them participating in some way. It can be a small group or introduction activity between two or three individuals which they may then share with the class. Throughout the session, participation is important and should be encouraged. A fear of failure or a negative self-concept may keep some individuals from participating. You should give recognition and encouragement for effort.

Change is scary and, if your training session concerns a change in policy or procedure, some members of your class may feel threatened by the new material and the implied changes. They may behave defensively and/or antagonistically in the class. It is your responsibility to balance the information presented with the debate and discussion that will result. Egos should be put aside (as much as possible) and discussions should be nonconfrontational. You, as the facilitator, should protect the minority opinion and keep disagreements civil, as well as facilitate the building of bridges between various opinions.

Overall, the atmosphere should be nonthreatening and friendly. The use of humor can be beneficial — as long as it is not derogatory humor and is in good taste. It can serve the purpose of breaking the ice and/or lightening the mood and thereby enhancing the climate of the class.

7. Gather Data Relevant to Your Class.

It is important to keep records regarding two aspects of your class. The first area is the acquisition of knowledge by the students. You want to determine if the individuals have learned the information that you (and the department) have determined is important.This is done using pre- and posttests. If the instructional material is appropriate, and you have done a good job of presenting it, there should be an increase in knowledge demonstrated between the test taken before the start of the class and the test at the conclusion of the class.

The second type of feedback you should obtain is evaluative in nature. Anonymous evaluation forms should be provided and students should be encouraged to use them. You should specifically ask about the strengths and weaknesses of the class and ways in which the class could be improved upon. The value of evaluation forms comes in trends that can be seen. Individual responses should be considered with the understanding that some individuals have their own agendas regarding training and that, sometimes, personalities enter into the process. Don’t agonize over each and every form. However, reading and using the information on these forms to improve your class will lead to better performance as an instructor and using appropriate recommended changes will lend credibility to the process.

8. Make Use of All
Resources Available to You.

First, check with your department and governmental body. Your agency or municipality may have people on staff with the task of conducting or coordinating training and educational programs. These individuals can assist you in your presentation, regardless of whether or not they have any expertise in your subject matter. They are knowledgeable about techniques, activities and resources.

Colleges and universities in the area can also be a wealth of resources. Contact the adult education program or continuing education division for assistance. These individuals are knowledgeable about the latest training techniques and the most up-to-date resources. They can also steer you towards community resources.

There are several professional organizations that specialize in public speaking and training. Toastmasters International is an organization that has clubs that meet throughout the U.S. and in 70 countries. Members learn to speak to groups and improve their communication skills in a supportive environment. Chapters can be found in most communities and you can visit them on the Web at The Professional Speakers Association helps its members build on their skill with professional techniques, but recommends utilizing Toastmasters to learn the basic skills. Their Web site is The American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) is a leading resource for workplace learning and performance issues and offers information and research on training, and acts as a clearinghouse for information regarding the topic. Training and Development magazine contains valuable information concerning the training process.

Lastly, there are many books, magazines, newsletters, and journals devoted to adult education, training, and law enforcement training. The resources mentioned above can refer you to many of them, or you can research the topic at your local library or on the Internet.

Follow these guidelines and enjoy your new challenge….you may even open up a new career path.


Larry Pearson is an NRA certified pistol instructor and a member of the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers, as well as a former police officer, former military firearms instructor and lifelong student of the martial arts. He also felt that he had something of value to share with the firearms community, and wondered which gunzines he should approach with the above essay. The problem was that he was dealing in ideas and concepts, and virtually all of the present gunzines only want articles about products and services so that their advertising department can sell space and everyone can make money. This is the American way. This is his first published work.

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