Instruction on instructing

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Instruction on Instructing
Capt. Frank reviewing some marlinspike seamanship with a class
Capt. Frank reviewing some marlinspike seamanship with a class

Through a variety of circumstances, most of them really bad, in 2008 I became a licensed USCG Captain and ultimately started a sailing school, the Outer Banks Sailing Academy. I became an ASA instructor that same year (for more on how that all happened look for the upcoming article “How to Turn Riches to Rags and Wind Up Smiling”). I had no formal training as an educator but I knew how to explain things and had great boat handling skills.

Is being an instructor a good fit?

My point is that being an ASA instructor does not require “formal training as an instructor”, and the path that leads us there is often random and not planned. This article is about what it takes to be a good instructor.

Whether you decide to make being a sailing instructor a full-time career (it’s a great way to insure that you stay poor) or a part-time job, the requirements and responsibilities remain the same.

3 attributes of a good ASA instructor

Safety

First and foremost a good instructor has to be safe. Safety comes into play in many forms on the water, but by far the most important aspect of safety is in regards to the students.

A good instructor has to have the ability to recover the boat from any situation that their students have gotten into. At ANY time, no matter what! Keep in mind that most ASA101 (Basic Keel Boat) students have never been on a sailboat before.

New sailing students often find themselves with their heads swimming in a new language, trying to make heads or tails of the lines everywhere, and with the sensation that the damn boat is going to flip over at any minute. They are intimidated and their first reaction to anything unexpected will be to panic or freeze. That can and does happen at the most inopportune times.

The instructor has to anticipate this and be able to react with no hesitation and calmly to correct the situation. NOW!! Failing to do so may result in injury to the students and quite possibly the instructor, damage to equipment (maybe ending the day), and the student may step off the boat at the end of the day possessing a fear that they are never able to over-come. After the recovery the instructor should stop the boat, discuss what happened, why, and how to avoid the situation in the future.

Safety is the cornerstone of the ASA. It’s curriculum and techniques are all based on it. It is critical for ASA instructors to teach the “ASA way” of doing things. These methods may be very different than what they learned when they started sailing. I’m not saying there is only one way of doing things (although many times there is only one RIGHT way) but I am saying that there is only one ASA way and if you are striving to be an ASA instructor than deviation from that “ASA way” is wrong.

If the ASA teaches a method, such as the figure-eight crew overboard recovery method, than you have an obligation to master that method and teach it. These methods are proven techniques that work EVERY time. They insure the student’s success, safety, and the longevity of the equipment. The new instructor often thinks he/she has a better way. Chances are, no, they don’t and if they do there are channels they can follow to discuss it with the ASA. The mantra has to be “ASA Way All the Way”.

A second reason for the uniformity of technique is that it ensures that what the student has learned, no matter where they may have attended classes, will be relevant, familiar and apply to all their future classes.

It is this uniformity that becomes the stumbling block to many aspiring and existing instructors. Many new and veteran instructors revert to their old ways that, while maybe safe, don’t lead their students down that road of uniformity. They do their students a disservice.

Knowledge

The second criterion necessary to be a good instructor is sailing knowledge. An instructor has to know what they are talking about. No, they don’t have to be a walking encyclopedia (I guess today it would be a Wikipedia) but yes, they do need to understand thoroughly each topic they are going to teach. They can’t dazzle with BS here.

You need to be at home on the water and in the classroom
You need to be at home on the water and in the classroom

Students look to their instructors for expert information, advice, and guidance. The instructor has to be able to give it. If a discussion about sailing windward is going to take place then the instructor had better be able to explain how we do it and why it works. I’m not suggesting the instructor delve into a detailed lesson in physics or aero and hydrodynamics, but students do need to have an understanding of how and why we are able to sail windward. How else will they be able to understand why being in the “no sail” zone or having sails not trimmed properly is detrimental to sailing performance.

Teaching ability

The last of the big requirements involves teaching methods. An instructor needs to be able to recognize how their students learn. In addition, after obtaining that recognition they need to shape their lesson to meet that learning style.

The instructor needs to be able to relay, both in the classroom as well as on the water, the point of their topic clearly, concisely, and keep student’s interest up while doing it. There are books on how to teach and they have significant value. While teaching methods can be learned some candidates just seem to have a gift. Good for them.

Professionalism is key

Instructors need to be neat, present themselves professionally, organized, speak publicly reasonable well, keep good records, and be punctual. While these traits might not be in the foreground, without them the teaching career will be short lived. All of these traits never seem to make it to the top of the list, but all of them are critical. First impressions are nearly impossible to change. Instructors need to show up on the dock, dressed neatly, on time, full of enthusiasm, and well prepared. Anything else indicates to their students that what they are about to attempt to accomplish isn’t really important.

“Hey, we didn’t really have to read all that stuff before we got here.” Or, “Hell yes we can party tonight, class won’t start till we get there anyhow! Check it out, the instructor doesn’t care enough about it show up on time. He must hate this job. Why’d we pick this school anyhow Bubba?”

This conversation is bound to pop-up on the docks of school’s that aren’t clear in their standard operating procedure and have instructors that don’t take their profession seriously. But seriously, should a professional really need their employer to tell about them this stuff. Apparently so, many new instructors get confused in the difference between teaching a lifestyle and living it. It takes professionals to teach people how to live slow and sail fast!   That takes the traits listed above!

Most of all an instructor needs to be passionate about what they do. If they have that, it will shine through clearly and if they don’t, well, that will shine through as well.

To sum it up, teaching is rewarding, challenging, and most of the time fun. It doesn’t pay well but the view from the office is fantastic. I have met some of the most interesting people in my life while instructing. All the coolest, most beautiful places I’ve ever seen have been in the cockpit of a boat teaching a class. Need I say more?

Contact me for a schedule of upcoming ASA Instructor Clinics to be held at Sailing Florida Charters at the Beautiful Vinoy Renascence Marina in sunny St. Petersburg, Florida

Till next time, when I see you On the Water…With Captain Frank