How to select a good instructor
The time has come to take the next step in your scuba diving adventure by venturing into the dark arts of tech diving. This unknown world is exciting and full of mystery so how can you find the right person to illuminate these murky depths for you? It may come as no surprise that just like recreation diving the quality of tech instructors can vary considerably from one to the next. If you are in the position where you want to invest your time, money and effort into developing yourself to become the best you can be, how can you be sure you find the right instructor?
Normally people will ask the advice of others. Divers in their own local circle, or strangers online can refer instructors they deem to be ‘good.’ But just because an instructor is good for one person, doesn’t mean their personality or teaching style will mesh with your needs. In some circles, a good instructor could be one who is an ‘easy pass,’ and is lax on training standards. If an easy pass is what you are looking for, then you can stop reading now. However, if you’d like to learn the material, and graduate the class as a competent diver at the level you are training at, you need to select someone capable, who knows the syllabus, and is able to teach it to you in a way so you retain it.
How do you find this person? In short, you look for them like you’d look for any other professional – with research. Here are a few tips and tricks on how to best accomplish this task, and find an instructor who knows what they are doing. This is important as you’re about to put your life, quite literally, in their hands. What you learn, and how you move forward with your diving career rests on the material they convey to you.
If you’re still reading, then likely you are looking for a quality instructor, and therefore are willing to expand your search beyond your local diving area. It goes without saying, that when you remove the geographic constraints from your search, you’ll have a much larger pool of instructors to draw from. We may then assume you are either willing to travel somewhere, or arrange for an instructor to travel to you.
Remember one very important thing - you are hiring this instructor to provide a service to you. In any walk of life, someone you hire would undergo some sort of vetting process. The following are some tips and guidance about how to best to conduct your instructor hiring process.
Establish your Own Goals
Before looking at what instructional options you may have, I find it is good practice to first look at yourself and try to establish what it is you want from your tech journey.
A good question to start with is simply, “Why do I want to get tech certified?”
Your answer may be something like a desire to reach into deep cave exploration or explore deep shipwrecks. It may be because you are interested in the meticulous planning of a dive and then successfully conducting it. Whatever the answer, it will make sense if you can find an instructor whose interests and skill sets align with your own goals.
How far will you go to get the training you want? This might be a tough question depending on your budget and available time but in a perfect world it would be nice to plan your training schedule without geographical constraints. It may be the case that there is an exceptional tech instructor in your near vicinity or the training that is offered in your region is appealing because of aspects like training in a specific dive environment.
I’ve spoken to many cold-water divers who are reluctant to train in a warm water environment, as it’s not the environment they normally dive in. There’s no doubt that cold, limited-vis water is vastly more difficult to dive in, but is it the best to train in when learning a new diving skill set?
Almost all of my tech students are intelligent people and competent divers. However when first learning the rebreather for example, I’ve seen students become so task-loaded, they sometimes overlook basic things, like what their dive computer is telling them.
Task overloading is a real problem for some divers. This is why new pilots do not begin their flying careers operating complex jet aircraft. They begin on simple aircraft and after mastering these, work their way through a series of increasingly larger and more complex aircraft over a period of time.
Diving should be no exception to this idea. Any tough skill is best learned in an easy environment, that increases in difficulty, gradually as the student masters their craft. With rebreather training in particular, the basics might just be best learned in the warm clear waters before you add the drysuit, thick gloves and limited vis.
Your next step should be to begin research on each instructor on your list.
Google them to see what you can find. It may turn out the instructor in question has received some accolades for their accomplishments in diving or teaching. You may also find out they have a horrible professional reputation.
Check their standing with training agencies. If you’ve received their name from somewhere other than a training website, be sure to check the training agency’s website to see their instructor status. Some instructors are no longer in teaching status. Others get suspended or expelled from the agencies they represent. Most, if not all training agencies will have a list of suspended and expelled members on their website. In most cases, disciplinary action was the result of an instructor failing to comply with training standards. Personality conflicts between the instructor and agency may exacerbate these incidents. In some cases, the instructor was grossly negligent, and their action or inaction resulted in the injury or death of a student.
References are good if possible and these can be gathered in person from people within your dive network, friends of friends or even from online chat forums like Scubaboard. My advice on this subject however is to avoid blindly following someone’s recommendation as just because one person feels they had the benefit of exceptional training with an instructor, it may not end up being the case in reality.
Check social media. How do they look underwater? See if you can find them on social media, or ask them for photos or videos of themselves. Good instructors will look clean and streamlined underwater. Their hoses will be properly routed, with no big loops to get snagged. They will not have things dangling from them. And most importantly, their stage/deco/bailout bottles will be properly rigged.
This is particularly true of sidemount instructors. Those who know what they are doing will look razor sharp, elegant, and streamlined. They glide through the water effortlessly. They will be proud of this and show it off. Poor instructors will appear sloppy, with tanks out of trim or flopping around. They will have ‘danglies’ and other entrapments hanging from odd angles. These are the ones you need to avoid.
There are stories from students who have paid for, and completed training with an instructor who is no longer qualified to issue certifications, and their students could have saved themselves lots of hassle by checking first.
Remember we said earlier you are hiring this person to work for you. They need to go through a job interview. A good instructor, even ones that have a pseudo-fame will always make time to speak to you.
Ask the following:
Do they stay current? A good instructor never stops learning. There is nothing worse than hearing an instructor preach information, or demonstrate technique that is horribly out of date or disproven. New methods are devised, decompression science is constantly evolving. Does your instructor stay current? How? Do they attend conferences? Subscribe to periodicals?
How often do they teach? Teaching, like any other skill is one that needs to be refined, and is perishable. The first rebreather class I taught was less than optimal, which is why here at Divetech, we start new technical instructors out by having them teach other staff members. The more one teaches, the better they become at it.
How long have they been diving or teaching? There’s no doubt that some exceptional and intelligent divers can become good instructors with only a few years of diving experience. There are instructors with many years of experience that are horrible. The correlation between experience and level of instruction isn’t concrete, but there is something to be said for having experience. Experience over time teaches you real world lessons in failures and human behaviors. There’s no substitute for a lesson taught by a close call to bring home the practicality of muscle memory, as well as tips and tricks learned over the years.
What do the instructors class schedules and sizes look like. Are you able to get training when you want, or do you have to wait until the instructor finds enough students to make the class happen? Is the wait acceptable? Class sizes are important too, as the bigger the class the more diluted the focus is on your own personal development. I feel that two students are the ideal number for a class.
Does their personality mesh with yours? Are they funny, stoic? A jerk? Do you like them and can you relate to them? You’ll learn a lot more from an instructor that you get along with. You don’t need to take them home to meet the family, but a good rapport is key.
What else do (did) they do besides diving? In my experience, the best dive instructors are the ones for whom diving is a second career. These are the ones where diving is a true passion, and often know the most.
What motivates them to teach tech diving and to dive for their own pleasure? Where is their passion in the sport and what fuels this? A question like this will help you avoid investing in someone who was very good once upon a time but has since let their flame burn out.
Are their policies fair? What are their cancellation policies? What about if you need more time to complete the class? Instructors and dive shops need to make a living and as such need to have policies to protect their time, but these policies should also be fair and amicable to both parties.
Decide From a Shortlist
Once you have managed to structure a plan based on potential locations, have researched a bunch of potential instructors and then reached out to them to interview them you should have enough information to compile a shortlist.
When making this list, don’t worry about the training agency the instructor teaches for. The agency is far less important than the quality of the instructor, and many instructors teach for more than one agency anyway.
Cancel out anyone who you don’t think you will be able to work with or who appears to be focussed on areas that are not in line with your own goals.
Hopefully the suggested criteria above will help you compile a shortlist of instructors that you can now make a choice from.
Dive Into It
Tech diving is a fascinating subject and an incredibly fun and rewarding activity. Something I like about this sport is that there is always something else to work on, explore, master, experience or learn. Instructors are a huge asset to this adventure not just from within the confines of a course structure but moving forward as mentors and coaches too.
Having said that, the professional that you decide to invest in is not a magician and can only do as much as they can in order to assist you with your learning. There is considerable effort required on your part too in order to be the kind of person that personifies tech diving. If you understand this and put the work in to be the best you can be then you should progress to becoming a safe and competent tech diver.
Good luck in your journey and happy learning!