Every diver remembers their certifying instructor. It’s a pivotal moment in the development of new divers. But being an instructor is both a joy and responsibility. The influence, attitude and skills the instructor bestows on his students often accompany them on their diving adventures for years to come. Thus, always improving and becoming a better scuba instructor is an absolute necessity no matter how long you’ve been teaching.
Becoming a great divemaster and becoming a great instructor largely overlap. Becoming an instructor, of course, requires additional dedication and skill, no matter which agency you choose. And, after passing your initial instructor training, you may choose to develop your experience and skill level. What are the observable qualities that make a good instructor? And how might you develop these skills?
The right attitude is the cornerstone attribute of any respected professional diver. Without the right attitude, the remaining qualities are almost inconsequential.
The right attitude means that behaving professionally is at the core of your conduct. You’re working in the best interests of the sport, your employer, and your customers. Being a full-time, working instructor is hard work, both physically and mentally. It should never appear that way to your customers, however. Whether you’re briefing the first dive of the day or cleaning equipment and filling tanks when the day is over, you’re still on duty until you’ve signed the last customer’s log book and they wave goodbye.
You’re a role model, both in the equipment you use and the attitude you display. Students will learn an enormous amount from subconscious observation and will usually adopt your attitudes.
Good instructors are always on time and prepared. You’re familiar with the course content and aware of the course’s performance requirements. The right attitude means working within the letter and intent of the teaching standards, applying sound judgement, and prioritizing safety. Many of the best instructors are transparent about their decision making. They will explain the rationale behind their decisions and show great patience with struggling students.
The right attitude also applies to interactions with your fellow professionals. Your relationship with your fellow instructors, boat captains, divemasters, boat crew, and dive shop staff should be grounded in honesty and integrity. The professionals you work with must trust you and respect the decisions you make. People should want to dive with you.
Finally, the best instructors are respectful during wildlife interactions. There should be no touching or harassing marine life. This is an attitude that the best instructors pass down to their students.
How to improve: Think of the instructors who have been key in your own diving development. What qualities did they have that made them stand out to you? Consider how you can adopt and nurture those qualities in yourself.
The instructor rating takes you beyond the teaching-assistant status of a divemaster. Not only must you demonstrate competence in the water and dive to demonstration quality, but you must also develop a clear means of communicating how students must perform essential skills, in the classroom, confined water and open water.
Additionally, being an instructor means honing your assessment, control criteria and coaching skills beyond that of a divemaster. The best instructors are proactive as opposed to reactive. They place themselves and their teaching staff in the optimal position to control the situation in the water while teaching, managing risks and anticipating potential problems and issues specific to the skill being taught, the environment, or the student. They have one eye on the overall dive operation, seamlessly promoting the business and ensuring that the trip’s activities stay on schedule with the supporting boat crew and fellow dive staff.
The best instructors are excellent communicators and able to break down more complex concepts into easily understandable ideas to students. Each learning point is backed up with a ‘value’ — an explanation of why each skill will be useful in its current application and, importantly, where it may be valuable in a continuing-education or dive-experience setting.
The best instructors also display other social skills that don’t come from a manual. Great instructors can read and assess their students, empathetically supporting those who may be struggling with particular skills or knowledge points. Great instructors respect that each individual’s capacity and speed of learning is subtly different. Ultimately, the best instructors can adapt and tailor their teaching to each student, whether dealing with an enthusiastic, physically fit and skilled divemaster candidate, or coaching a child or older person with physical challenges who is nervous about their first experience.
How to improve: A mastery of dive skills is a must as an instructor. In addition, hone your in-water control and safety skills by observing and team-teaching with experienced instructors. Notice how they communicate and organize skill assessments for safety and logistical reasons to help the class flow more fluidly. Nurture your empathy with students. Remember what it’s like to be in their shoes — or fins — and try to coach each student with empathy and respect.
An instructor must have a solid base of dive knowledge; that much we can take for granted. However, the best instructors should also be able to confidently explain key concepts, theory and skills from the courses that he or she teaches. Separating the great from the average is not just the breadth of their knowledge, but also their skill at clearly imparting that information to students and customers.
Their knowledge is also not limited to the narrow curriculum that they teach. They should have a broad knowledge of marine life, boat procedures and equipment maintenance, marketing, different types of diving and how the courses cross over with those from other agencies. Ideally, they will be multilingual as well.
The best instructors stay on top of current trends in teaching and have a broad range of experience, gathered in a range of environments. So, whether conducting a course on a tropical liveaboard in the Pacific, or a from the side of a cold, freshwater lake in Canada, the best instructors have the breadth of knowledge and experience to manage risks and structure the course accordingly.
Also, the best instructors don’t limit their interests. For example, while diving as a qualified technical diver may differ in technique and equipment to teaching an introductory open-water course, some of the diving foundations remain, such as carefully planning each dive. Increased knowledge and experience can only bolster your ability to communicate key foundational concepts to students.
How to improve: Keep your knowledge fresh. Pursue your interests — your enthusiasm will shine through in other areas of your teaching. Practice teaching in different environments and see each course as an opportunity to enhance your knowledge and experience.
Alongside the attitude, skills, and knowledge attributes of the best instructors are more general professional expectations. Diving professionally can sometimes be very physically demanding. The best professional divers see fitness as integral to their role, not as an optional extra. Make a balanced diet and regular cardiovascular exercise part of your normal routine so that you have sound fitness to deal with emergencies or any situation that may arise. Customers recognize that, even if subconsciously, and will always feel safer with someone who looks physically fit and able to do the job.
Similarly, the best instructors have reasonably modern and well-maintained dive equipment suitable. If their equipment is tatty, old, faded or in a poor repair it doesn’t say ‘experienced,’ it says ‘unprofessional.’ As with being a better divemaster, the best instructors have the right equipment for the job without intimidating the students they’re teaching.
How to improve: Keep yourself and your equipment in good physical condition to dive. Update your equipment regularly and stay appraised of new trends in diving equipment.
Becoming a better instructor is a never-ending process of improving attitude, knowledge and skills. Each time you’re with students is an opportunity to grow. Becoming a better instructor not only improves your career prospects, but also helps you produce the type of divers that you’d like to dive with. It’s an opportunity to have a positive impact on the lives of other people and the environment you’re working in.