How many dive courses have you regretted taking? How many did you pay for, do the homework, get excited about, wrestle yourself into a rubber suit to jump into cold water for an entire weekend… just to leave at the end of the class thinking, “What the hell just happened? I didn’t learn anything at all?” How many instructors did you find yourself thinking, about 1/2 way through your time together, “This motherfucker doesn’t know their ass from a hole in the fabric of reality.” Or, almost worse, did you find yourself thinking months or a year or years later, “Considering how incompetent that instructor was, it’s kind of a miracle I survived the class… much less the diving I did afterwards?” There are a couple of agencies everyone loves to harp on for churning out unqualified instructors. That is not exactly what I’m thinking or talking about, because it’s more nuanced than that. Yes, some agencies could be considered at fault for writing standards that can be squinted at and read in a way that gets applied far too liberally. But the shops may be just as much at fault for thinking that doing so is a good idea, for whatever the reason, when they could just as well set their own higher standards.
Course Directors may be at fault for not standing up to the shop management and saying, “You may be following standards, but you are not following the spirit of the standards." Instructors under those Course Directors are in a sketchy position. They can only really take their leadership from the CDs and the shop management; especially newer instructors who don’t know any better. It’s all well and good to tell someone some pablum like, “Listen to your heart and don’t do the wrong thing,” but when they’re told that their employment is contingent on following the directions of “how we’ve always done it,” then what more can practically be expected of them? No, inevitably the full scope of responsibility falls on us all as a community. The community that we create and cultivate and of which we steer the evolution. I’m thinking about the crummy dive classes I’ve taken and the crummy instructors I’ve ever had or seen. That I continue to see - albeit much less frequently these days, given I’m in a part of the world that is infested with some of the best instructors on the planet. And it’s that last part that I’m thinking about the most in this context. When I was first learning to dive I was living in Alexandria, VA, about 3 hours from any ocean and more like 5 hours from any ocean worth diving. 10 hours from cave country. And, obviously, a flight from anything tropical. There were technical instructors in the area. A couple of them pretty damned good. But most of them… They had day jobs. They didn’t teach very often, only even really able to dive on a weekend here or there, or when they could get time off work. They dove for fun, even mostly taught for fun - and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. Provided one understands that in taking a class from a person like this you’re not going to get the same sort of education as you might from someone who teaches this or that full-time. This isn’t to say you’re unable to get a world-class education from an instructor like that, just that the probability is on the lower end of the spectrum. Nor is it to say you are guaranteed to get a world-class education from someone who teaches full-time in a resort destination. Some of the worst classes I’ve ever seen conducted are by full-time instructors (or instructor trainers or course directors). People who are set in their ways, or people who have never been exposed to any variety, or people who just plain don’t know better because they’ve never been shown a different way themselves. We, as a community, allow both of those sorts of people to thrive and, unfortunately, define our little world in so very many ways:
the dabblers who would probably make excellent mentors, but probably shouldn’t be teaching
the island dive gods who spout facepalm-level nonsense to armies of fresh-faced divers every year
The pitfalls of each of these groups manifests in a similar outcome: a student, who couldn’t possibly know any better, waddling out into the world with a warmly-printed c-card, repeating the same mistakes they’ve been shown (or not shown how to correct).
Picking an instructor is hard. Finding someone you feel is qualified to teach you to the level you’re pursuing, someone with whom you click, someone with mete experience both in diving and in teaching, a congruous background and philosophy. Trying to find just the right person can be tricky, especially when you’re not quite sure of even the right questions to be asking. But one thing is for certain: unless you are very, very, very lucky, it’s unlikely that the very first available instructor at your local dive shop is going to be exactly the right fit for you. And that’s the crux of what I’m thinking about this morning. There are so goddamn many instructors in the world. The question is, are there too many? Or too few? Or are standards just too damned low? Or is it all chugging along just fine and I’m being an alarmist? I look around my now-hometown. And what I see is a pool of some incredibly talented instructors. However, as you go further and further “up” the educational flowchart, into more advanced levels of diving, that pool grows (predictably) smaller and smaller. Until, when you reach the most advanced levels of the sport, there is only a spare handful of instructors. Among those, only a sparer handful of people who are active, or are practiced in one thing or another, or who one or another person might get along, or (in all honesty) with whom you might want to work. But among all those factors, you could blindfold yourself and throw a dart at a printout of the names of all the cave instructors in this area and almost certainly wind up with someone who is going to teach a more comprehensive cave class than someone who lives in a small town in a mountain state or country somewhere who only gets to cave dive once or twice a year themselves. (With full apologies to cave instructors who don’t get to teach or cave dive as much as they’d wish they could… but in your heart, you know it’s true, too. This is the reason I waited until moving to north Florida before pursuing cave instructorship myself.) Shaped by this reality, the question for the dive community as a whole might be: How far are you willing to travel? When you want to take, say, a class in fish ID… are you going to take it at your local shop where it’s all taught via slide-show? Or are you going to find an instructor who lives and works near a vibrant reef system who has a passion for marine biology with whom you can dive and observe real fish behaviours? A class in planned, staged decompression… gonna take it with the shop you’ve always been going to because you like the coffee, with the first available instructor that weekend, to do all hypothetical deco at the quarry because you really want the card for some trip you have coming up and there’s a class available this month? Or are you going to find someone who routinely wastes time on deco hangs and is well-regarded throughout the entire community as someone with their shit together as a diver and instructor; and though they don’t have availability for 14 months, you really want the knowledge and skills you’re sure they can provide? I don’t know if there are too many crummy instructors out there or if there are too few great ones. Perhaps some combination? What I do strongly suspect is that a lack of patience nurtured by our era of instant-gratification along with a scuba tradition of “pay the money, get the card” has led us all to a place where our options seem almost limitless. Plus: the internet, the thing that was supposed to bring the whole world together has... well.......... not. It has given absolutely everyone who is loud enough "credibility." Which ins’t a terribly good thing. Nor am I suggesting that it would be a glorious thing if there was some illuminated synod of 12 who are the gatekeepers of all things holy in any aspect of diving. I know full-well how big a pain in the ass it is to want to learn something and find that there’s only one person within a thousand miles who teaches it. Especially as I was working towards advanced instructor levels, finding someone… fucking anyone… anywhere remotely near me or could travel to a shared destination, who could teach it, whose ideas I valued, who had the time, and all the other array of ways the stars had to align… holy hell was some of that a chore.
I don't know which is better or worse: a big pool of questionable talent you have to gold pan through for the gems... or if it had been more tightly restricted all along and that only the best of the best are allowed a mantle? In the former you've got choice, with the perils of the wrong choice. In the later you've got assurances, with the edict of compliance. Could be that they're both right and they're both wrong - always a cost. In the end, our little game is one where travel is probably a given. If you’re going to travel anyway, why not make the opportunity to work with someone you’ve hunted down, who you seem to get along with and share common thinking about your goals, who is going to provide you with the best possible education to that end? Instead of pointing at a room full of dive instructors and saying, “YOU! With the shoes and the t-shirt. You’ll do!”
Diving really is just a frivolous bit of fun, and taking it too seriously is a good way to declare yourself a complete asshat to all the world (like I do every morning of every day). But it is still strapping life-support equipment to oneself and traveling into a hostile, alien environment. There are ways it does need to be respected as serious. And even then, being a bit circumspect about your choice of instructor isn’t a bad thing. None of us, as instructors, know everything, no matter how much we might posture. Remember… every single one of us was a flailing fuckwit who couldn’t figure out how to clear our mask in the pool one day in the dear, dim past, too.