The roads weren’t bad when I left home. There were only three inches of snow on Interstate 70 when I started out. The one drivable lane was moving along easily at 40 mph. No worries! But when my rear-wheel drive Toyota Supra reached the last couple of miles to Whitetail, the front wheels were riding more over the 10 inches of snow on the road than on the pavement. And the snow was still coming down hard. Why on earth was I doing this?
I wanted to become a ski instructor. After 20+ years of skiing and 5 years of helping lost souls find their way out of mogul fields, I was ready to learn how to teach “for real.” This was the “scheduled” weekend for the Instructor Training Clinic. After writing a check for a little more than the cost of two lift tickets, I was going to get two full days of skiing and two full days of training on how to teach other people how to ski.
Being a powder day, the 60 “wanna bees” were quickly broken into small groups and herded out to the slopes. I lucked into the strong skier group that was led by Tom Riford, who also happened to be an examiner for the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA). We were going to learn from one of the top 1% of ski instructors in America.
From the start, it was clear that we were going to have fun. Tom took it easy on the group because most of the “East coast” skiers in the group were struggling to adjust to over a foot of fresh powder. We talked about turn shape, speed control and making adjustments. This did not seem like training. I was having a blast. We played a little game of follow the leader. Sometimes we made it easy to follow, other times the leader was supposed to make it difficult. Whether you were leading or following, this was quite a challenge.
Unfortunately, the “Blizzard of ‘92” started blowing hard enough to shut the resort down and cancel the clinic for the weekend. Whitetail can’t run the lifts when the winds top out over 50 mph. During the lunch break the resort announced that if anyone wanted to get home, they had better leave right away. I just laughed - there was no way my Supra was going anywhere. After lunch, a few of us brave souls hiked up the mountain and got a few more runs in. Most of us spent the night on the floor in the day lodge. By the next morning, the wind had packed the three feet of fresh powder, but it was still a blessing to ski in. We hiked the mountain until the lifts were running again.
Late in the afternoon, the 12 foot drifts had been cleared off the roads and we were allowed to go home.
The next weekend, the clinic started over again. Although our group was composed of expert skiers, we worked a lot on improving our own skiing. At the same time, we also learned about the fundamentals of skiing, teaching techniques, ski safety and class handling. During our two days on the snow, we covered a lot of things without even realizing it. And we continued to have a lot of fun.
The Blizzard of ‘92 was in March, and this meant that we had to wait until the following November to continue our training. During an indoor training weekend, we studied the basic concepts of the PSIA American Teaching System. This system provides a framework for teaching skiers and really works. Two major components of this framework are the teaching model and the skiing model.
One of the pieces of the teaching model is the teaching “cycle.” Each lesson begins with an introduction, where the instructor establishes a rapport with the students. The following steps assess the students and determine the goals and objectives for the lesson. The instructor then presents information (which may include a demonstration). After the students practice what is being taught, the instructor checks for understanding. At the end of the lesson, the instructor provides a summary that reviews the original goals, what worked well for the group and what they can work on next. Sure, it’s just common sense. But it is amazing how difficult it is to stick to this simple concept when you are focusing on the hundreds of other things involved in teaching a ski lesson.
The second component of the PSIA American Teaching System is the skiing model, which describes skiing at all levels of abilities, including the fundamental skills of skiing: balancing, edging, rotation (steering), and pressure. The model also describes “common skills” or movements while implementing the fundamental skills that make skiing easier at all levels. For example, by gradually guiding a ski onto and off of its edge at all times throughout a turn, the turn becomes smoother and more efficient no matter whether it’s a wedge turn or a parallel turn.
The indoor training session also covered ski safety, policies, and procedures. It included a tour of the resort’s facilities. Did you know that ski instructors know the location of every bathroom and phone?
When the training ended on a Sunday afternoon, the people who had not yet participated in the “on snow” portion of the training headed home, waiting for December. The rest of us waited while all the clinic leaders left the room to huddle up. A tense hour later, “the list” was posted. On it were the names of the people who were invited back for further training. We had made it! But we weren’t quite instructors yet.
During the first two weeks of the season we continued our on-snow training whenever we could get to the mountain. We participated in many 2-hour clinics that focused on different aspects of teaching. We practiced teaching to each other. We also “shadowed” real classes to see how the experienced instructors taught. As we each gained confidence that we were ready, we sat down with the director for the “quiz.” The final step was writing another check for the deposit on the ski school jacket. We had to pay to teach!
That’s how I became a ski instructor. Since then I’ve enjoyed low pay, challenging work, long hours, some free skiing and many, many smiles. The job is all about helping people have more fun. It’s a real thrill to see people who are “getting it.” It is immensely satisfying to help solve peoples’ problems and to witness the enthusiasm of people who fall in love with the sport. As a side benefit, you also get to improve your own skiing. Being an instructor is not for everyone, but if you want to be the best that you can be and give a little back to the sport you love, it’s a great opportunity. If you want more information on becoming an instructor, call your local resort and ask them to send you information about their Instructor Training Course. Or, you can send questions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.