Posted by Matt Little on 10th Nov 2022

“Even while they teach, men learn.” - Seneca

I began instructing at an early age, teaching martial arts as a teenager. I’ve taught for the Army, for the police department, and for myself. I’ve trained recruits, SWAT cops, foreign soldiers, and green berets. I love teaching, because I love training. Student and teacher, trainer and trainee, coach and athlete. These roles are two sides of the same coin.

The best instructors act as coaches and guides, exploring performance improvement with their students rather than dictating from a position of authority. The worst simply regurgitate institutional dogma without context or focus on their own improvement rather than their students. The danger of sub-par instructors in this arena lies in the stakes involved. Improper tactics and techniques can literally cost lives. Even if the material being taught is tactically and technically sound, if the instructor is unable to teach them effectively enough for the student to perform them correctly then the training is still counterproductive at best.

Teaching is a skill independent from the skills being taught. It needs to be practiced and honed like any other craft in order to master it. Let’s explore the attributes and skills of a good instructor as well as common pitfalls to avoid.

Above all, a good instructor is a diligent and dedicated student. This is ongoing. There is never a moment when you “have arrived,” and can learn nothing more of your craft. Even if you were at the top of your game operationally, once you move on from that role you still need to train and learn in order to maintain relevancy. I’ve seen famous instructors who I respect immensely become rigid and dated in their teaching, as if they are frozen at whatever the state of the art was when they left their operational role.

A good instructor is a high performer. You don't have to necessarily outperform everyone you teach, but you have to possess a high enough skill level to show that you understand how to reach excellence through your own training. You also need to be able to demonstrate every task to standard that you want your students to perform. I’ve actually seen LE instructors be taught that they should never demo in front of their students. This is a horrible practice. Barring some sort of injury or testing scenario, you should demonstrate everything you want your students to do. A good instructor is also confident enough in their skills and accomplishments to avoid the pitfalls of ego. You have to be secure enough to make mistakes in front of your students without it derailing your instruction.

A good instructor has a high degree of relevant experience. Contrary to what many LE and military institutions would like to believe, a forty hour training course does not make anyone a subject matter expert. Would you study boxing under a coach who had never been in the ring? My personal litmus test for teaching a subject is simple. If I haven’t both trained hard enough at something to develop a high level of skill and also performed it operationally at a high level, I won’t teach it. This is why I don’t teach combat medicine or precision rile shooting. I’ve trained in both and done both operationally but not at a high enough level to feel like I should be teaching either. When there’s a need for instruction in these, I bring in someone I know personally to have enough relevant skill to teach them well.

A good instructor is a good coach. Although sometimes necessary in institutional settings for purely logistical reasons, standing in front of a group and barking out instruction without providing individualized feedback is hardly a recipe for creating excellence in your students. Just like the best coaches know what cues to give each of their athletes to help them understand how to improve, a good instructor can diagnose and correct their students individually, even in a group setting.

Teaching is difficult, and teaching well more difficult still. But it is also extremely rewarding. In my opinion, teaching is an essential element for reaching true mastery in any craft. You never understand a skill as well as you will when you have to teach another to perform it at a high level. Seek out opportunities to teach, and watch your abilities and understanding increase.