In teaching, don’t criticize, condemn, or complain

In a recent class we had a scary incident.

A student got hot brass down his shirt and did the “hot-brass dance”. Unfortunately, in this version of the dance he turned 360º and muzzled everyone on the range.

Some of you aren’t going to like how I chose to handle the incident.

Thankfully one of my assistants was right on top of him, physically restraining him to stop and control the student – and his muzzle. It looked a little harsh when it happened, but it was the right response. Sorry you’re getting burned, but muzzling everyone cannot happen. Get that under control, then we can deal with the hot brass.

Yes, it sucked this happened in class. No, I’m not happy it happened on my watch. It was a scary moment for sure.

At the end of every class, we go around to each student and ask them to tell us one thing they learned. When I got to this particular student, I forgot his exact words but it was something to the effect of “no one likes having a muzzle pointed at them!”. We all had a bit of a chuckle (stressful situations can bring out odd humor), but everyone also realized the seriousness and gravity of what happened – most of all, the one student.

My response to the student was straight from Dale Carnegie:

“And I know you won’t do that again.”

And I firmly believe that. He is a young man, and I am certain this incident is going to be a bright and vivid memory in his mind for the rest of his life. He was shocked, embarrassed, apologetic, and completely fathomed the gravity of his actions.

If you haven’t read Dale Carnegie’s book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, you should. What I did came right out of chapter one. This website summarized a story in that chapter:

Dale Carnegie knew that any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain—and most fools do—but it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.

Carnegie liked to tell the story of Bob Hoover, who was a famous test pilot and frequent performer at air shows. Hooper was returning to his home in Los Angeles from an air show in San Diego. Suddenly, both engines stopped in mid-flight on the aircraft that Hoover was flying. Using his skills and some deft maneuvering, he managed to land the plane, but it was badly damaged. Thankfully, neither Hoover nor the two passengers that were flying with him were hurt.

Hoover’s first act after the emergency landing was to inspect the airplane’s fuel. Just as he suspected, the WWII propeller plane he had been flying had been fueled with jet fuel rather than gasoline.

Upon returning to the airport, he asked to see the mechanic who had serviced his airplane. The young man was sick with the agony of his mistake. Tears streamed down his face as Hoover approached. He had just caused the loss of a very expensive plane and could have caused the loss of three lives as well.

No one would’ve blamed Hoover for ripping into the mechanic for his carelessness. But Hoover didn’t scold the mechanic; he didn’t even criticize him. Instead, he put his big arm around the man’s shoulder and said, “To show you I’m sure that you’ll never do this again, I want you to service my F-51 tomorrow.”

Next time you’re prone to condemning someone, try to understand him or her instead. Try to figure out why the person did what he or she did. That’s a lot more profitable and intriguing than criticism; and it breeds sympathy, tolerance, and kindness. Remember…”To know all is to forgive all.”

I could have yelled at this young man, scolding him in front of everyone. I could have expelled him from class, or maybe allow him to continue to participate but with a fake/plastic gun.

I didn’t because it was not an act of malice. He had shown a solid aptitude and willingness to learn all day, and had progressed well. The dance was a horrible mistake.

What good would have come from criticizing, condemning, or complaining about his behavior? This is a beginner/intermediate-level class, where people admittedly don’t know and are coming precisely to learn and become better. We can not expect them to be “perfect” by the very definition of the class. And yes, that sometimes (tho thankfully rarely) means the classes have a high pucker-factor; you do all you can to mitigate it but you simply cannot eliminate it. I didn’t condone his behavior; I wanted to respond in a manner where he and the other students in class would take home the proper lessons and remember those for a lifetime – because if I handled it like an asshole, that’s all they would remember.

Claude Werner often speaks that instructors would gain a lot more spending a weekend in a Dale Carnegie course than another shooting class. I’ll say it in my best Morgan Freeman: “He’s right, you know”.

20 thoughts on “In teaching, don’t criticize, condemn, or complain

  1. Great post, and while I’ve not had this happen (yet) it is something I bring up repeatedly before we go out to the range and again when everyone is on the line.
    Glad no one was hurt and the lesson made an impression.

    • We try as much as possible to mitigate such things, but humans are gonna human and we just can’t eliminate everything.

      So yes, I’m at least thankful to find the opportunity in such events, where we can make something better come from it (and I do believe everyone in the class learned important lessons).

  2. Most instructors (of all types) I know would have brought up the Teachable Moment concept. I was surprised you waited until the end for the lesson part. I, and others, would have stopped then to discuss (not scold, etc) but discuss with everyone how to not do that bad thing, while it’s still fresh in everyone’s mind.

    • Oh yes, teachable moments happen and we do take advantage of them. This? To me it wouldn’t have been right — the emotions were too high. Move past them, let the emotions disipate, THEN talk about it. Believe me – by the end of class, no one had forgotten it had happened.

      • Spot on! “. . . Let the emotions disipate. . .” is exactly right. Don’t let the event throw you off schedule -anything but! As a survivor of teaching many college chemistry labs (think “fire” “explosion”) in my 35+ years as a college science professor, I can attest that unfortunate incidents are best discussed in coolness of a post mortem at the end of the lesson. By then, you’ll have all the right words ready, and -believe me- the class will be primed to hear what you are going to say. It is a time to show what I think of as a “guiding compassion and sympathy.” Think back to the last time you acted like a bone-head but were treated with kindness. You’ll then know what to say, and how to say it. Yes, a teachable moment, but also a moment for true leadership. Make it about future positive behaviors, not about a past, negative incident.

  3. I guess I’m a weirdo, but I like it when brass goes down my shirt.

    Agreed on all points. I do this routinely with my labs, vendors and clinical subordinates. It does result in crying and hurt feelings sometimes, but, it teaches life lessons that aren’t ever forgotten.

    • Pistol brass I could see. But if you like rifle brass going down your shirt, you’re crazy. 😉

      Crying and hurt feelings aren’t necessarily a bad thing. We shouldn’t be jerks, we shouldn’t be mean — the teaching and lessons have to come from love and ultimately wanting the best for those we’re teaching. Sometimes in the short-term it’s gonna hurt, but with the hope that in the long term it’s going to benefit. I mean, that’s a big thing we have to do as parents too, y’know?

  4. I personally have seen the way Hsoi and the staff at KR teach. After my first class with them waaaay back in 2012 or 2013 (dang getting old sucks, I cannot remember the year) I commented in a forum post at how professional and gentle (but firm) the instructors there were regarding mistakes and safety issues.

    Not to say the instructors were lax. They weren’t. But instead they were imparting wisdom instead of standing there calling you unrepeatable names. That is something that stood out in my mind. And something that has endeared them to me.

  5. Great response. More and more I see the gun community as it’s own worst enemy. The things we currently pass off as “education” would be totally unacceptable in most other adult environments.

    The biggest obstacle we face is making firearms ownership (and safety) more mainstream. Alienating, hazing, or shaming students is ultimately counterproductive to our cause.

    • Goes back to Claude’s comments. It’s great we learn how to shoot better, but what are we doing to become better instructors?

      It’s something I’ve long appreciated about how Karl runs KR Training — it’s training “for the rest of us”.

  6. The “hot brass concept” is something I cover with students before every training session.I feel like I want that idea front & center in their minds,,, in case. One day the “in case” unfolded right before my eyes. It was great to see the student pause, and then lay the gun down, muzzle downrange, BEFORE he did the dance. It was sort of a pleasure to see my words in action.
    I don’t care what level a person shoots at, advanced or beginner,,, safety is a skill to be learned and worked at just like any other.

  7. That was an excellent post. I’ve ‘learned’ that way (being yelled at) in my previous careers. However, I learned the most when the instructor handled it the way you described.
    It would be really nice to have a lot more instructors out there like you.

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