What makes a person a good ski instructor? Carol Bridgwater, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Montana, says there are 29 criteria, but they can be summarized as:
Having good technical knowledge and demonstration skills.
Having good communication skills, both verbally and in body language, and being a good listener as well as a good talker.
Having a genuine interest in teaching and a belief that everyone can learn and improve.
Bridgwater assembled her criteria after interviewing instructors and ski-school directors in various parts of the west, and put them together in what she calls the Bridgwater Evaluation Scale for Teaching (BEST). Using her scale, ski-school directors can rate all their instructors both in an absolute sense (outstanding, average or ineffective) and comparatively. She sees it as a management tool, not to help fire instructors low down on the list, but to identify areas of less competence and work on them.
But Bridgwater is not the only pedant interested in ski instruction. Mort Lund, a prolific writer with more than a dozen ski books and hundreds of ski articles to his credit, is teaching ski instructors to instruct at two eastern ski areas, Camelback in Pennsylvania and Stratton Mountain in Vermont.
Lund believes that technical competence is not nearly as important as communications skills in ski instruction. "A good skier is not necessarily a good instructor," he said. "A 'natural' athlete, who learned on a subconscious level, is probably not a good instructor. It is hard for him to spread it out, break it down and teach it. The best instructors are not top skiers. They have more empathy for those who don't ski well."
What does this mean for the average skier being assigned to a class? How can you determine whether the instructor you get is any good?
Ask for an instructor who has full PSIA certification. PSIA -- Professional Ski Instructors of America -- has a rigorous testing procedure that weights teaching ability, as well as skiing ability in certification. While neither Lund nor Bridgwater would say that PSIA certification is perfect, it does weed out true incompetents.
Second, you should expect a rapport with your instructor. Bridgwater cautions that the "personality kid" might cloak poor instructional skills behind a winning personality, but agrees that at least you'll have a good time. bAnd, according to Lund, a good time is what it is all about.
"You are on vacation. You are supposed to have a good time," Lund said. "If it's not a pleasureable experience, you're not learning." Lund feels that people can only absorb so much, but that their learning capability increases when they are in a pleasant situation.
Finally, Lund says, you should ski more and stand around less. "Generally a talking lesson is not a good lesson -- unless the student is talking as much as the instructor, asking questions and participating."
Participation is important, Lund said. "If the student doesn't participate, he is just having something done for him," he said.
So the best instructor is not the one with the deepest tan or whitest teeth and, it is not the one who does reuel christies while waiting for ski school classes to start. The best instructor is the one who involves you, who makes you have a good time and who -- in the end -- helps you become a better skier.