Competition Firearms Self Defense

Citizens Safety Academy: How to Be an Effective Assistant Instructor

Want to be a good assistant instructor or ensure your assistant instructors do a good job? Then you might want to check out Citizens Safety Academy’s assistant instructor training course because hope isn’t a strategy.

Over the past few weeks, I had the opportunity to attend three (3) two-hour long webinars that comprised the Assistant Instructor Training offered by Citizens Safety Academy aptly named the Effective Assistant Instructor Webinar Series. How this came about was entirely happenstance. Not the class, rather me attending it. I had heard about the course around the same time that I attended the Rangemaster Advanced Instructor Course where I met Aqil Qadir, the founder and lead instructor of Citizens Safety Academy (CSA), who acted as an assistant instructor to Tom Givens. Aqil kicked it off and got to chatting about the course where he mentioned that the series was kicking off in a few short weeks. He asked me if I would be up for auditing it after I expressed my interest in the course and availability. I accepted the offer because after all, missing an opportunity for a knowledge dump from Aqil Qadir and Tiffany Johnson, who are heavily involved in advancing the current state of Gateway Instruction, would be a fool’s errand. 

Before getting into this after action report, I have to say that I got the better part of the deal by far. Providing Tiffany and Aqil with audit feedback is a ridiculously small price to pay for what I took away in terms of learning. To put it into context, I’m just starting to dip my toes into the firearms instruction world. My experience as an instructional assistant is limited to a class in high school where I got to be a teacher’s assistant and a few classes in college where I was paid to be a grader. That experience, or rather lack thereof, left me with an impression that the role of an instructional assistant was an opportunity to hangout and socialize with peers and students while occasionally doing the lead instructors bidding. I couldn’t have been more wrong especially in the context of firearm instruction. Frankly, I feel as though I owe Tiffany and Aqil the full price of tuition for their instruction which is a phenomenal value given the cost of the course.

While this course is offered in an in-person format from time to time, the class I attended was presented virtually in a webinar format that was split up into three sessions which were recorded. The webinar/recording format was offered to accommodate folks who are unable to travel for the in-person format.  The sessions were sold individually or as a package just like the recordings are available today. The live webinar and the recording formats each have pros and cons. The most obvious benefit is that they allowed the first instance of this course to happen and to be available beyond CSAs internal staff. The recordings will continue to make this instruction available to others without having to wait for the logistical requirements to align in order for another live format instance to be practically feasible. In fact, this class might have never happened in an in-person format to begin with. So kudos to CSA for figuring out a format that allowed it to happen and allow it to continue to be available to others. I’m confident that the recordings will continue to be of value for the foreseeable future. 

Additionally, the formats allow students to revisit the content for the duration of the purchased access agreement. The value of this can’t be understated. Admittedly, I may be a little biased here given that it seems to me that the older I get my ability to absorb and recollect information from live instruction diminishes. That said, being able to revisit the instruction is a godsend given that it’s easy to miss a key point or some supporting content the first time through. 

The biggest downside of the format is that it limits the instructional mechanisms. More specifically, there is no good way to conduct exercises where physical participation is clearly the most effective or efficient mechanism for learning. This generally applies to mechanical skills, of which there were a few in the class. In no way am I saying that the formats were incorrect nor detrimental. Rather, I’m saying that there were a few things presented in the course that could have been better served with in-person instruction. These were few and far between. So even though I would have preferred to receive this instruction in person, instruction via these formats is far better than not having this instruction available at all and I suspect many of the webinar attendees and future consumers of the recordings will strongly agree.

The complete course was broken into three components that correspond to each of the three sessions. The first component covered the role of the assistant instructor, or AI, in the classroom. The second covered the AI’s role on the range. The third presented practical exercises to AIs. All of the sessions defined the role and presented the four core tenets of effective assistant instruction which were then explored in the different contexts. 

Defining the role of the AI was, in my opinion, the most important nugget of knowledge presented. It codifies the mission of the AI, if you will, with clear and concise objectives which are rather simple and straightforward. One could say the mission and objectives are nothing more than common sense. However, spelling it out removes ambiguity and avoids well meaning yet problematic assumptions. Without further ado, the role of the AI is to make the students feel comfortable, welcome, and safe while making the lead instructor’s job easier. That’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less. However, fulfilling that mission is easier said than done and that’s where the four core tenets come into play. 

The core tenets, which are coined “The Four C’s”, are communication, coverage, choreography, and control. When applied correctly, they allow for the class to run smoothly and safely. While this might appear to be elementary, there are a number of techniques and tactics that are not likely to be intuitive and may even be foreign to folks who are entering the firearms instruction space since most of those folks tend to not have experience in education or event planning. As such, the lack of experience also makes many of us coming into this susceptible to the Dunning-Kruger trap – a false sense of confidence that manifests itself from unconscious incompetence when one first starts learning something new or starting developing new skills. 

To complicate matters more, the Four C’s aren’t independent of each other. Rather, there appears to be a symbiotic relationship between them. This is very much like marksmanship fundamentals come together when it’s time to run a gun. For example, an important communication tactic is to use nonverbal communication, such as signing with hands, in order to communicate with students, other AIs, or the lead instructor. While that is all well and good, the AIs and instructors could use the tenet of choreography to establish predetermined signals in order to avoid nonverbal communication confusion that is often the most entertaining part of playing a game of Charades. Taking that to the next level, would be ensuring that the predetermined signals are also commonly used colloquially to minimize the chance of misinterpretation by students who didn’t have the luxury of becoming familiar with the selected hand signals before class. This could be taken a step further by attempting to identify and remove signals that have a negative or offensive cultural connotation that one of the students may be a part of. All of this is just the tip of the iceberg.

There were many other topics discussed in regards to the Four C’s in the context of the classroom. Many of which had me nodding in agreement while thinking, “Duh!” to myself, but only to later realize there was so much more that I didn’t know as the instruction progressed. One example was the topic of using checklists, which is a choreography tactic, to ensure nothing is missed before, during, and after class including things like sufficient lighting, ambient temperature, class materials, waivers, and so on. We also covered class floor plans which not only facilitate learning but can also be used to minimize liability risks that can come from things like trip hazards. The discussions around coverage went well beyond simply having the right ratio of students to instructors, but also in terms of having enough coverage to help minimize learning downtime by doing things like preparing props and equipment used by the lead instructor or handing out and collecting class materials.

There was a fair amount of carry over from classroom techniques and tactics onto the range, but there are some important differences as well as some important pitfalls that may be hard to see yet critical to avoid. For instance, most AIs are accomplished shooters who want to help a student improve. As noble as that is, it is important for AIs to keep suggestions concise and relevant to the goals of the course and in line with the lead instructors methodology. Otherwise, the AI might find themselves coaching a single student while ignoring other students and talking over the lead instructor or making it difficult for the student to pay attention to the instructor. This also means that AIs have to time their communication to happen when the student isn’t doing work and the instructor isn’t instructing. I was fortunate enough to be the volunteer, or victim if you will, in an exercise that illustrates this technique where I ended up singing “I’m A Little Teapot” during appropriate breaks. Of course, I had completely forgotten the webinar was being recorded so I apologize to the ears of future students who watch the video. 

Yet again, there is a deluge of tactics that were covered including the use of deterministic firing line lane assignments (a choreography tactic) in combination with AI and instructor positioning, or blocking, (a coverage tactic) to facilitate learning while simultaneously maintaining safety where the instructional team can easily intervene (a control tactic) up to and including seizing a gun when necessary. Techniques for seizing a gun was one topic that I think would have been much better served with an in-person classroom setting. Regardless, these are the types of techniques that would benefit from “dry fire” practice in order to become proficient with them should they become necessary on the range.

The final session consisted of a series of exercises that helped reinforce the lessons about the Four C’s  from the previous two sessions. This consisted of class exercises with a handful of volunteers to a few breakout groups where students worked together and then presented their findings to the class. I would describe this session as the lab that accompanies the classroom. It was the range time so to speak. While the session took place, several interactive quizzes were presented where the students had an opportunity to earn points for correct answers and speed of answer that could be used to earn one of three prizes awarded to the top performers. 

At the end of each session, the instructors, Tiffany Johnson and Aqil Qadir, and the assistant instructors, Tim Reedy, Carson Baldree, and David Roberson, hung out for an after party which was really a question and answer session. These sessions, which were also recorded, had several thought provoking questions which yielded insightful discussions that were incredibly valuable. 

After having attended the webinar, reviewed my notes, and put my thoughts into this after action report, I continue to have mixed feelings about the webinar delivery format. While I understand that this class may not have happened otherwise, I still think there was enough here in terms of skills and tactics that a physical in-person classroom experience would result in a richer learning experience. However, I’m biased here because I tend to prefer kinetic learning. For the most part the technology worked very well, but in some ways it was a double edged sword. It was fun being able to react and features such as the chat provided a level of student to student interaction that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. That interaction was entertaining and enriched many of the lessons. At the same time, trying to keep up with the chat was a little distracting. I’d argue that the most positive aspect of the virtual learning experience was the ability to bring together the number of students that were present at one time. I don’t recall the exact number of students in each session but they were easily five to seven times the number of students I typically see in a physical classroom setting. This provided a larger number of perspectives that I suspect augmented the quality of the virtual chat and value of the after parties. I can’t definitely say that an in-person classroom experience would be better, but I can say that I wouldn’t hesitate to attend this class again in person given the opportunity. 

In closing, I strongly believe that this class is a must for anyone who has been invited to be an assistant instructor, is thinking about becoming an instructor, or is an instructor who wants to get more out of their assistant instructors. This class is as much of a skill builder as it is a treatment for getting us who are unknowingly stuck in a Dunning-Kruger trap out of it. It’s an opportunity for all of us who are passionate about teaching others to be more deliberate about their experience and reduce the amount of “winging it” that we may be doing. 

One last thing, Citizens Safety Academy, which is located in Murfreesboro, TN, offers a wide range of firearms training that can help folks who are looking to get a handgun carry permit in the state of Tennessee, are looking to get more proficient with their firearms, or are looking to become firearms instructors. Upcoming classes can be found on their course calendar or their Eventbrite page. They have something for everyone regardless of their experience level or lack thereof so make sure to give it a look. I highly encourage existing and aspiring firearms instructors to take a look specifically at what Aqil and Tiffany are offering in terms of Gateway Instruction which is geared towards improving the entry-level student experience. I believe what they are doing in the Gateway Instruction space is critical to help expand, evolve, and destigmatize gun culture and attending their Gateway Instructor Development Course is something that is on my professional development priority list.

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