How can I become a better snowsports instructor?

Following on from Lesley’s first blog; Researching snowsports instruction; What’s it all about? Lesley’s second blog draws from research findings in the education sector and offers guideposts for snowsports instructors looking to improve their teaching skills.

Written by Lesley Page, BASI Trainer and National Education Team Member

How do I improve my teaching skills?

Is this a question that you, as a snowsports instructor, think about? I have certainly thought about it throughout my career.  Especially when confronted by uncomfortable situations that make me question everything I know as a snowsports teacher!  For example, when a lesson hasn’t ‘gone well’, or when I’ve received bad feedback, or when a colleague has talked about something that I don’t understand.  One of the reasons I engaged with further studies in education was to try to help me become a better teacher.

I have always found it easier to think about how to improve my technical skiing skills rather than my teaching skills. Even though it is hard to develop as a skilful sports person, the road to success seems clear and logical. You practice, get feedback from an expert coach, you practice again, you make changes, you check in with an expert coach and so the improvement cycle continues. However, the pathway to becoming a better snowsports instructor seems less like a clear, lamplit roadway and more like a thousand dirt tracks diverging through a murky forest.

Searching for inspiration and ideas from the education sector.

In order to get some answers, I started to explore how school teachers develop their teaching. What I found was somewhat reassuring but also slightly disheartening. The reassuring thing is that the question “how can we develop better teachers?” is a question that is continually asked within educational research. There is a vast amount of scientifically sound research that aims to examine aspects of this question. I found it reassuring that I was not alone in being fascinated by how teachers develop. However, the rather off-putting thing is that after A LOT of reading, I realise, there is no easy answer to my question. No one has made the murky forest into a nice, neat, lamplit road.

This is part of what my research aims to discover: how snowsport instructors develop through ‘doing the job’. But even after I have finished this research I will only have made a slight clearing in the wood (to stick with the metaphor!). I wish there were easy answers but human development is full of complexity. However, there is some good news…

I can succinctly summarise current research into teachers’ professional development and provide some helpful guideposts regarding “how to become a better snowsports instructor”. These guideposts are based on the huge body of research that has been developed within education over the last few decades.

Recurring themes from education

1) Engage with further training.

Training is always valuable. You might find an online course about biomechanics that will help develop your understanding of snowboarding technique. Or you might become a swimming instructor and be able to use some of the teaching techniques to help you teach snowsports. You might decide to read a book about emotional intelligence and find that some of the ideas help you develop the way you interact with clients.

BASI’s continuous professional development (CPD) modules are a great opportunity to keep learning about your profession and develop your snowsports teaching knowledge and skills.

2) Learn from your community

Research has shown that learning from your peers and colleagues can be a very powerful tool for development. Try to create a network of people that you feel you can share your teaching experiences with. Discuss your thoughts and ideas with colleagues.  In return, you can listen to their ideas and their ‘instructing’ stories. Listening, thinking and discussing can help to change habits and develop new teaching practices.

3) Find a mentor

A mentor is just a fancy word for someone who you admire and trust. They usually have more experience than you and so can act as a guide for your own teaching practice. When I was going through the BASI system I had a couple of mentors. These were not people that I ‘chose’ as mentors. They were just more experienced instructors with whom I developed natural friendships.  I learnt from watching them and asking questions. They gave me advice and guidance. If you do not have anyone like that in your teaching world, start by asking to shadow instructors who you like and with whom you have a rapport.

4) Plan and practise being  adaptable

Research has shown that good teachers are able to adapt their practice to suit the aims of the lesson and the learners in front of them. These teachers continue to learn from their teaching practice because they rarely get ‘stuck in a rut’. They reflect on their practice and think of ways to solve problems within their classroom environment. If you feel like your teaching has become routine and habitual you could try something different. This may lead to a new way of explaining something, or a new way of understanding a concept, this will inevitably develop your skills as a teacher.

These four points are not an exhaustive list of how to develop as a snowsports instructor. They are the key recurring themes that emerge within teacher development research. They are guideposts that might help you to start exploring your teaching practice. As with your skiing/riding performance, you will never feel like you are ‘awesome’ or that you have ‘made it’. Learning is always a process of ‘becoming’; one day you might spin the best 360 you’ve ever performed and feel elated – then next day you may feel disillusioned at not being able to do a 540.

Similarly, your client might tell you that you gave them the best lesson they ever had, but the next day you might be stuck in a cycle of frustration with that very same client. Ask any professional athlete or successful coach and you will start to see that ‘becoming’, but never ‘being’ the best, is the heart-breaking and rewarding paradox that is performance and learning. My next blog will explore this paradox in a bit more detail and talk about how instructors can manage this paradox.