I remember the first military class I was ever called on to teach. Days before, my stomach was sick. I barely slept. It wasn’t the actual class that scared me because I knew the subject, it was public speaking and being judged by my peers. I was teaching individual movement techniques on the “methods of instruction course.” This course was specifically designed to instruct you how to teach, and it was the first block of instruction I received after being selected to serve in the Army Ranger Wing—a tier-one counterterrorist unit in the Irish Army. Since then, I've taught hundreds, maybe thousands of classes all over the world. I've taught classes in a foreign language. Also, I've taught classes to poorly educated militia fighters in Afghanistan using two different interpreters, one in Pashto and one in Dari. I've taught leadership classes to Officers in the Oman SAS; and believe it or not, I still get nervous. I believe the key to good instruction is preparation and choosing the right forum.
When I was hired as an instructor for the Special Forces Sniper Course, I immediately recognized a culture I didn't agree with or support. SFSC is a nine-week sniper course set up to train snipers for US Army Green Berets, Army Rangers, and Delta Force. One of the “gates” the student would regularly fail was the field shoot--a shooting event designed to test the sniper’s and spotter’s ability to engage multiple targets at unknown distances under a tight timeline. At the time, it was not uncommon for 15 or more students to fail the field shoot. Every new instructor must shadow a course by sitting in every class, so they can catch up and get on the same sheet of music as every other instructor. As we prepared for the first field shoot, I witnessed several instructors writing a number on the board. When I asked what the number meant, I was told it was a lottery—each instructor wrote a number on the board and put $10 in the hat, the instructor that guessed correctly how many students would fail the field shoot won the money. I was shocked by this and didn't understand. Now, I understand it was the culture at that time.
When I took over as the Non-commissioned Officer in charge (NCOIC), I tried and succeeded in changing that culture. I firmly believe that instructors should have pride of ownership in their students—if a student fails, it’s a reflection on the instructor’s ability to teach. This was controversial. I was told that some students were not meant to be snipers no matter how much training they receive. This can be true, but it's the exception, not the rule. I booked all ranges throughout the weekends, so if you had a student struggling, that instructor would come in on the weekend and spend time on the range with one-on-one instruction. I would also be there every time; I believe it’s easy to throw direction out if you’re not the one executing. This is not lowering standards. It’s raising the level of instruction. When possible, we employed isolation training—if a student was having a problem with finding a final firing position (FFP) during a stalking event, we didn’t practice the whole movement. Instead, we isolated the movement into the FFP and did it multiple times. It was the instructor’s job to get the students to a level of proficiency to pass. We were involved in two wars and needed snipers in the field.
The cultural change took only two classes to become the new norm; and as new instructors started, it became normal to go the extra mile to ensure students passed.