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Eenie, Meanie, Miney...

How do you pick an instructor when you don’t know shit? At any level of diving? You need an instructor because you don’t know shit… but you want to. You’re hiring someone who knows something you want to know and you want them to teach it to you. But what do they know? How much of it can they teach you? How much of it do you actually want to know? And I ask that last question from two different angles: that is, do you want to know only a very little bit of it or all of it… and also, would someone else looking on with a wider perspective suggest it would be better for you to know it or ignore it. **** WIGGLY FOCUS TO INDICATE A FLASHBACK **** I walked up the stairs unsure of what I was going to find. The large red and white flag painted 10 feet tall on the wall outside had, I was certain, something to do with scuba diving. Or possibly lifeguarding? I wasn’t 100% sure of which, but I figured that if it was the later they would have the wherewithal to direct me to the former; after all, I reasoned, I couldn’t be the only person to ever make such a rookie mistake. Rookie I was. Less than rookie. Probie, I suppose. I wasn’t yet even a certified diver. Which is why I was relieved to find that that red flag with the white, diagonal stripe WAS, indeed, a dive flag. Because I wanted to learn how to dive and didn’t know where to go or how to get started. I’d tried it a couple of times on the Discover Scuba Diving (or DSD program that I later wet on to teach hundreds of over the years). Getting hit in the face for the first time with the smell of old rental wetsuits and new fins, a miasma of stale funk, mildew, and that artificial sweetness of brand-new, injection moulded plastics, all of this in Suburban Virginia instead of a tropical island… I could tell at once that this was going to be a different experience. I didn’t know shit. Had no idea how very much the trajectory of my entire life was already changing. I am, perhaps, an odd case. I am, in point of fact, a very odd case in very many ways. But in this way in particular - that I should have eventually left a fairly successful life and career to run away and join the circus - I’ve made some weird choices. Not every diver has done what I’ve done, uprooting and moving to a different country to dive all the time. But every diver has had some measure of that change in trajectory when they’ve shifted from non-diver to diver. They started planning their holidays around diving, they started spending weird amounts of money on esoteric, single-function equipment, they started breaking into houses and stealing TVs to pay for their habit… well, as I said, we all may have experienced it differently. But every diver has looked back on at least one instructor or class with regret. Having learned too little or things that were later proven inefficient or outright wrong, or having simply not clicked with the instructor, or whatever. And we all want to avoid those experiences obviously. There must be a way, right? There are articles upon articles written about how to interview a prospective instructor. How to do your homework properly. Obviously when I was standing at the bottom of that staircase, hoping it was a dive shop, I didn’t walk in armed with a list of questions for the instructor. Let’s leave aside the open water instruction practice of the instructor just as often as not being assigned willy-nilly depending on who is available. This leading to students only first meeting their instructor on the first night of class. So unless one is working with a very small operation, you’re unlikely to meet your OW instructor beforehand and get to interview them about their techniques, style, or philosophy. This holds true through much of the recreational level. It’s only really at the technical level do you start to find those articles or blog posts TikToks or whateverthefuck it is kids are doing these days suggesting you interview your instructor beforehand. So no prospect Open Water diver is going to ask, “What is your pass/fail rate?” Though that is a good question for people, having heard from someone, hopefully, “You should interview potential instructors and several of them before choosing from whom you would like to learn.” There are lots of them and, as I said, lots of articles and lists of them, compiled in attempt at guidance to those divers who have reached an advanced enough level to be exposed to such a suggestion and looking to advance further. That’s what this article was going to be. Was, I thought, destined to be. I’ve seen so many of them written over the years I thought I’d have something to add. Or a way to curate all the marvellous and astute suggestions I’ve seen and even had the opportunity to follow and benefit from over the years. I thought I could distill them into something with my own stamp on it. I’ve got this AppleNote of writing ideas. When I’m staring off into space, waiting for a buddy to gear up, or at the supermarket waiting for Nelly to finish deciding which kind of jam to get this week… and an idea for a blog topic pops into my head, I jot it down for later. It’s a rotating list and eventually old ideas that I’ve not gotten to yet make it to the top as articles get written and stricken from the list. The single oldest topic… been sitting there for YEARS now. “How do you pick an instructor when you don’t know shit?” In no particular order: What’s your pass/fail rate? What do you stress most as an instructor? Describe a typical training day. Are there ways in which you differ in your instruction from the local norm and why? Who are your influences as a diver? As an instructor? Who did you learn from as a diver? As an instructor? Are there other instructors in the area with whom you would recommend an interview? What was your scariest dive moment as a diver? As an instructor? What agency/agencies do you teach through and why? How often do you dive at ___________ level? When was the last time you dove at your absolute highest level of training? How did the dive go? What are ways in which you compromise in your diving or instruction? Are there equipment or skills requirements you demand beyond standards? What other interests do you have beyond diving? These were all questions I’ve either seen suggested to be asked, asked myself, been asked, or heard asked or discussed. There are more; lots and lots and lots more, far too many to be interesting in a blog post. And they are all incredibly informative, telling, and can lead to all sorts of interesting and informative side discussions. Yet that “when you don’t know shit” line has been taunting me all this time as I’ve thought I’d make a list and fancy it up with some words or anecdotes or something. Eventually. But I’d been scared away from the topic all this time. Because it’s a big fucking topic. Really big. And really hard to address. Because, it occurred to me earlier this week as a potential student had called me to interview me as a potential instructor, what I’m really trying to write about is interpersonal chemistry. Which is something that poets, philosophers, playwrights, novelists, and random madmen have been scribbling about since the first monkey figured out it could draw a picture in the mud with a stick. As I was chatting with the person who was curious about progressing with their own dive career… as the conversation flowed and wended its way around ourselves and our stories… there was a chemistry there. A sense that the two of us would get along and that my instructional values and style would almost certainly click with this diver’s goals and style of learning. And THAT, right there, it dawned on me, is really the most important thing. There’s a certain measure of “like attracted to like” when looking for an instructor. Some people do best when there are strict, unassailable procedures for everything: those folks are going to gravitate towards certain instructors or shops. Other folks do better when they put their own personal imprimatur on absolutely every single thing they do in life: they are unlikely to be found wearing a GUE t-shirt. Some people learn well academically - some by doing. Some folks really enjoy lots of tinkery, fussy gear while others just want something standard that will work. Some like rigid diving teams while others prefer “same ocean” diving. What I found myself thinking, while I was being interviewed this week, is that the way the conversation was going was not as an interview, but as a conversation. We were already learning who one another were and whether or not the hours and hours and hours spent in one another’s company as I tried to force-feed this person metric tons of information and protocols… was that going to be an endurance trial? Or was it going to be a bit of a fun vacation week? When you’re looking to spend a ton of money and time to try to grow as a diver… that’s some important shit right there. If you’ve been reading what I write there’s a pretty good chance you know exactly who and what I am. I’m a fringe leftist, anarchist, punk rock hippie with a penchant for cursing in florid, frequently obsolete, language who is dangerously likely to start yawping at you about turn of the 18th century French painting to make a point about breathing gas planning and management but completely forget what point I was trying to make right 20 minutes later about the time I get to early neoclassicism. If, for whatever reason, any part of that is something a person wants to avoid, I am probably not the instructor from whom they are going to learn most efficiently and enjoyably. We have had, however, a great many folks come through our gates who seem to think that’s perfectly normal because they keep coming back. Which is weird. But there we are. There are a number of amazing operations in the area and I am friendly with a whole lot of them. Able to identify that there would probably be a spark, I can and have told students and guests that they should take classes from this or that instructor or shop because they, personally, would benefit from and enjoy learning from this or that friend or colleague. Like attracts like. But it ain’t enough to take my word for it. Or one’s dive buddy. Or the wisdom around your local dive shop where EVERYONE knows that XXX is the best instructor in the world. Certainly can’t blindly trust anything on the goddamn internet where, with only a few keystrokes, you can almost definitely find ironclad proof that Elvis, Hitler, Jimmy Hoffa, and a talking Malinois all meet for a bridge game at an bunker, 600 feet underground and designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, at the South Pole every Thursday. Talk to the person you’re thinking of learning from. Call. Video chat. PM. Email a bunch. Whatever. Ask questions. The questions matter, obviously, and please feel free to use some of the above or even ask me for a list of more. No, I don’t have one at the ready, that was supposed to be this article. But almost as soon as I started typing the seeds of a thought which had sprouted as I was chatting the other day started to flourish. That’s when I realised that there isn’t really a formula to picking an instructor. All you can do is your best to take steps to seek out someone who is going to be good for you. With, it should be noted, the full understanding and acceptance that sometimes you’re going go be stuck thinking, “I really wish I’d learned differently.”

Chances are pretty good you’ve already got an experience or two like that. A regret of a class or an instructor. Possibly because that instructor was a total fuck-up — of course that exists in the world. Likelier because you and the instructor just didn’t communicate super-well (which mostly falls on the instructor to modify their own technique to match you, but newer instructors may not have the toolbag to do so yet, which is not always a shortcoming and can even be a strength… but that’s another whole topic). Likeliest: negative past experiences come from not having known how to find the right instructor for you because you don’t know the questions to ask because you’re looking for a class to train you enough to know how to ask the right questions. It’s a horrible catch-22. One to which every single diver has fallen prey. Usually many times or over long periods of time. And just, I think, a normal process. So I wanted to write an article about how to pick an instructor. And what I’ve come up with is just this: “Take the time to interview them with as many good questions as you can find or think of. Sometimes you’re still going to wind up thinking, ‘What the fuck with this nitwit?’ either during class or even years later. What are you going to do?” Other than just try to learn what you can from those times, too. Sorry. But now, at least, I can finally take it off my list.


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