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Grilling Instructors (for answers, not lunch)

We don’t get much walk-in business. Much of the reason we like where we are is that our little sanctuary truly is away from it all. The road back here can be tricky to find. Then there’s a security gate, then a couple of winding jungle roads. And, finally, you come to a great, big, front gate in our compound wall. So it ain’t like people are just going to be wandering by and duck in to inquire about a scuba class. Nor is it a common diver behaviour to land in a destination location and only THEN hunt around for a dive operation that can accommodate them.

So it was an infrequent experience last week when a diver stopped in to inquire about a Full Cave class. Reckon it wasn’t truly walk-in. They had asked about coming by the day before, making a loose appointment, but it was as close to walk-in as we’ve ever gotten on rare occasion.

By far the most delightful thing about the visit, however, was not the unusual scheduling, but rather the nature. The diver had come to interview me as a potential instructor. They had recently finished an Intro to Cave course and done a little bit of diving. For whatever variety of personal reasons, they decided that as they continued their training they’d prefer to work with a different instructor. So they were on the hunt, so to speak, and figured that since there was still some proximity to XOC-Ha, might as well stop in and see what sort of vibe I gave off. I suppose we all did that, to a degree, early in our dive careers. When you’re first looking to get Open Water certified you don’t really know shit. You can read Yelp or TripAdvisor or Google reviews or whatever, but frequently you’re just going to wind up at the closest shop (sometimes the only shop) in your area or wind up getting certified with whomever the resort works with. But as you start to learn a little more you grow a little more discerning. You figure out what sorts of things happen in a shop that throw up red flags, or you find the instructors or the boats or resorts or whatever that you synch with best. Then there are those dingalings among us who decide we would like to participate in some facet of tech diving. And suddenly, given the more demanding environment and more requisite team dynamics most prefer to be even more discerning. What’s more: from every angle at the tech level the world gets much smaller. The pool of potential instructors for certain levels can get very small indeed. So how to decide? When you (presumably) know a bunch about diving, but you don’t yet know a bunch about this or that level of diving - which is why you want to take the class, to learn about this or that. But who or where to go? Especially when, at certain levels, travel will almost definitely be needed. It’s all well and good to go to some “famous” instructor. They earned their fame, right, so they must be good! Or you can read all the social media posts in the world and try to decide who’s name gets recommended the most. Or who posts the most. Or seems to be teaching the most classes. You’ve certainly got friends and dive buddies to ask, and chances are that they’ll be able to tell you both stories of great instructors they’ve had and some not-so-great instructors. And you can start working on your decision from there. There’s a flaw to each of these remote approaches, though. They’re all dependent on someone else’s experience. Which is why I always like it when potential students reach out to interview me as an instructor. It demonstrates a certain level of self-agency that I feel is necessary at more advanced levels of the sport. I’ve got my own little list of questions I always ask prospective students and ensure that there’s a conversation about their level of experience, what they’re looking to achieve and why, what sort of equipment they’re using, etc. Before I commit to teaching a student I want to make sure ahead of time that they are in a good position to succeed in the class they’re pursuing. But I am comfortable waiving modesty in saying that, considering I’ve been doing this for the bulk of my adult life and have had the luxury of stealing techniques from some amazing instructors, I can usually figure out a way to communicate effectively with students and get them on a good path. I am, however, very much still me. Which is to say, I’ve got my own values and philosophies and techniques and ways of approaching problem-solving… ways of approaching diving in general. And my way is not always going to be the way for everyone. I curse a lot, which some people may find distracting. I go off on weird, rollercoaster tangents about geology that can last for ages (and I frequently forget where the hell I was going with something, so the story peters out without a moral). I get very fussy about certain things, but can be very forgiving of others; where another diver might think the things I’m getting fussy over are trivial and the the things I shrug about are critical. So for all the fact that I can probably be an effective instructor for a pretty wide variety of students, it’s awfully nice to occasionally have folks take the time to try to confirm beforehand that I am going to be the right person for them. You ever do that? Actually interview an instructor, or even a couple instructors, to test for fit? Even if it’s an informal conversation beforehand to try to see if you click? I've done it over the phone, in person sitting out in the classroom, over Zoom... and each time I think, "Now this is truly dope." A couple of questions to consider:

  • Why/How/When did you become an instructor?

  • What do you value most as an instructor?

  • How frequently do you teach at this level?

  • How frequently do you dive at and (more importantly) above this level?

  • What standards and/or agency do you subscribe to and why?

  • What do you expect from your students to pass a course?

  • Is a course pass/fail or how would I work towards a pass if I needed more time?

  • How is the overall class structured and what would a normal day look like?

  • How strict are you about gear configuration?

  • How familiar are you with my existing gear configuration?

I could probably go on like that for a while, but I should hope you’re getting the idea. (If, for whatever reason, you’d like a longer list of possible questions to ask a potential instructor PM me and I’d be happy to help.) It’s not exactly a job interview… but it sorta is. You’re looking to hire someone to provide you a professional service. What’s more, that service is something that is training you to keep yourself and your buddies alive in some of the most challenging environments on the planet. And you’re going to be spending a LOT of time with this person that you hire. So not only should this person be prepared to answer these, or any other such, questions you pose, they should be able to give professional, well-reasoned answers that fit with your priorities and your sensibilities. What’s their tone and delivery? Do they seem uncertain or might they be pompous? Do they shit talk every other instructor in the world or do they speak highly of colleagues? Are they ultra-orthodox or do they come off as indecisive? And, of course, none of these possibilities are likely to be black-and-white. Nor are they right-and-wrong. There are instructors who work with strictly prescribed lesson plans, performance standards, techniques, schedules and so on. There are instructors who come at things with a much more loosey-goosey, “that’ll do” attitude. The vast majority of instructors move around in the middle of that spectrum. As are the vast majority of divers. This is not to say that any instructor (nor diver) anywhere along that spectrum is outright wrong in their approach. Provided each dive is fun and unequivocally safe both through training and beyond there isn’t a “wrong answer.” The trick is to make sure that the presentation and the reception are matched: right instructor for student and vice-versa. An experienced instructor can frequently modify their style to match a student, but to make sure that student and instructor are right for each other beforehand is the sort of thing that can tip the balance on what may have been a good class to being a great class. I don’t know if the diver from last week will be back. I hope so. I enjoyed our conversation and the fact that they’d come to ask a bunch of questions made me feel right away like this was someone I’d enjoy working with. I suppose we’ll see. I was relieved they’d asked about availability in November (where we’ve only got one week free, so it’ll depend on their schedule, too). Relieved because Nelly and I have had the last few weeks off and we’ve been enjoying it. I was afraid they were going to ask, “Can we start tomorrow?” Because technically I suppose I could have… but it would have spoiled the seeming preparedness of going through the bother of interviewing an instructor with a tone of flightiness. Also, because we’ve still got a little bit of time off before our schedule is almost completely packed until March. And I was looking forward to a few more days of fun diving, and tramping around Mexico, and home/guest house improvement projects, and sleeping late, and staying up late watching movies, and generally being on vacation in the paradise of our own making. Because, for anyone considering me as an instructor, one question I can answer about something you should know about me: when it comes down to it all… I am really, really lazy. And would rather float around, expending zero effort whatsoever, looking at cool patterns in the rock than anything else.

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