In June 2013, I made my way to Utila, a small and lively island off the northern coast of Honduras in Central America. Forming a part of the expansive Meso American reef system, the second largest barrier reef in the world. This island belongs to the Bay Islands group and is the typical pirate getaway.
I had spent almost 2 years as a qualified instructor, and I had reached a crunch point in my career as a diver. There are plenty of instructors that never go on to do IDC staff instructor and have entirely successful careers. But I took a long look at myself and my future goals and aspirations, and as a young, career instructor, this was the next logical step.
I love teaching, and as a Staff Instructor, you can assist in the training of new instructors – teaching teachers! This was a new challenge, and the medium of diving could simply be seen as a way to gain this new perspective, I was to soon discover that the skills I learned here could be applied in many other areas of life too…
Utila is a small island, and I have heard it described as a kind of diving university. There are 12 dive centres which could be described as the ‘colleges’ as well as a plethora of bars and restaurants which as you can imagine are frequented by the ‘students’ of this buzzing college town.
I had pre-booked my course with Utila Dive Centre (UDC), a well established and a firm household name in professional dive training. All my initial contact and correspondence had been with Andy Philips there and how the guy manages to actually go diving in between sat at his computer I have no idea! All emails and queries were answered very quickly and with plenty of detail and relevant information.
Upon stepping off the ferry and onto the island, we were met by a minivan which was to take us to the accommodation to start. Although everything on the island is within walking distance and therefore this was slightly unnecessary, it did mean that as a weary traveller overloaded with luggage and no sense of direction, the path to relaxation was that much shorter.
The accommodation was provided by the Mango Inn, UDC’s own accommodation. Formed of adequately well equipped wooden buildings built into the bush and beneath a giant Mango tree – lending the name to the hostel. As on par with most places on the island – the accommodation was provided as part of the course with 4 nights free. For the majority of beginner divers, this is ample time to complete the course, but as I was about to start a 2-week course, I would later have to find something else. This, however, was no problem at all with the island geared to medium-term residents and apartments/rooms are available by week/month.
We then made our way to the actual dive centre which has a road (path) side shop front with a veranda but leading back tardis-like right out to the seafront with a long jetty and a large wooden structure at the end. Complete with benches and hammocks this is perfect for after dive, sunset beers and cocktails listening to the water lap at the edges and watching the eagle rays cruise the shallows at dusk. Their shadows beautifully cutting through the water.
The centre’s popularity is quickly apparent as it is thronging with people coming and going, some dry and some wet. However, the operation took on an appearance so much like many dive centres of organized chaos….everything seemed (and I later found it was indeed) well organized and everything ran like clockwork.
I had 2 days until my course started so I headed out for a couple of fun dives which were indeed good fun, and I met some great people. UDC is blessed with 5 boats of which 3 are running at a given time. This effectively means experienced divers are not hampered by sharing a boat with newbies, and visa versa too. Everyone gets the attention and environment they require to achieve their aims and goals.
As we were an experienced boat of 4 instructors, a Divemaster and a rescue diver, we headed north to the deeper side of the island where the reef shelf drops off sharply into the depths of the Caribbean. Although slightly more challenging diving (by Caribbean standards), divers are rewarded by decent wall dives, excellent visibility and great marine life.
By Monday, I was sat in the classroom with 10 intrepid instructor wannabees. In my mind, I was transported immediately to almost 2 years previously when I was in the same position – sitting in the classroom of Diving Leisure London and about to embark on the journey that would take me over the world and ultimately to this point now.
We did the obligatory standing up and introducing ourselves and telling the room about your life and what kind of diving you enjoy. My joke went down well where I explained I didn’t mind coral and fish, provided they didn’t get in the way of my un-obstructed viewing of the shipwreck.
I was quick to establish that being British meant no high fives or fist bumps, a simple firm handshake and a pat on the back were all that was required.
I had met Jhair 2 days previously doing some pre-IDC work to prepare me to assist and audit on a real live IDC. An energetic Venezuelan, Jhair is clearly passionate about 3 things. Diving, Music and Star Wars. All 3 were to become part of the next 2 weeks. Also, I met Alan, a friendly guy who was also from England who is the resident Staff Instructor (although in reality a Master Instructor). Highly experienced with many years in the industry, Alan also brings some classic British reservedness to the operation and has a very approachable professional manner.
An IDC staff instructor course basically entails sitting through an Instructor Development course again but from the standpoint of auditing it. I was to develop my skills actually assisting in the training of the new instructors.
As many of you will be aware (who are existing instructors) the course is split into 3 sections; Classroom, Pool and Open water.
Classroom work entailed teaching what it meant to be an instructor, not just in and out of water teaching, but paperwork, legal aspects, business and sales and more. This was an eye-opener to many who previously believed being an instructor was simply about education and being in the water in between laying in a hammock. Having people from all different backgrounds, this meant bringing everyone to a base level of knowledge. Those with a background in sales and retail become immediately obvious here, with dive instruction being a very customer focused role, those with such experience have a head start for sure.
We were also to do presentations where candidates were to publicly give a presentation to the class and speak about a given diving subject within a framework set by PADI. Although this initial framework may appear contrived and rigid, it actually serves as a perfect medium to test candidates on many areas of out of water teaching ability within a short time.
Everyone’s strength lays in different areas, but these presentations allowed us to see that our candidates possessed the ability to not only teach a piece of diving theory but could also relate it to equipment sales, dive travel and more. Plus the ability to compare it to non-diving circumstances is crucial when teaching first-time divers who potentially have no diving base from which to form knowledge. We also explained the importance of the use of physical props and aids to teach. All of which are essential teaching abilities regardless of the subject.
Jhair was brilliant, and together we always sat down after class once the candidates had left, and he asked me my opinions and sought to develop my ability as a teacher of teachers. We compared evaluation skills, and he told me what he was looking for in the instructor candidates and why.
Next was pool work. As an instructor, absolute fluency in pool teaching is a must as this is where new divers’ skills and confidence is formed. Candidates were evaluated on their abilities to verbally outline the way to perform a particular skill, followed by a demonstration of said skill. Also assessed was their level of class control, ability to correct simulated problems when ‘students’ performed the skill, not to mention the effective use of teaching assistants.
This was hard work but great fun for me. As evaluators, we were simply on snorkel gear which allowed us an un-hindered above and below water view to get the ‘big picture’ of the ‘class’ in progress. It was enriching to see how quickly the candidates developed from sometimes nervous, non-teachers to people who were able to control and position the class correctly, and speak with a confident manner that commanded attention but in a warm, friendly way.
I enjoyed learning to understand how every teacher is different and how the framework outlined on the slate in front of me was simply a guide, and not everyone would simply slot neatly into it. I took great relish in stealing teaching ideas and styles that I liked and also understanding that some techniques and methods that I used were not so good and from the 3rd person perspective, seeing them done by others has meant I have removed them from my teaching style.
Again, after each session, Jhair took a good amount of time to go over everything with me and was good at asking me to form my own opinions and develop my own assessments. By the end of the second or third sessions, the scores that we gave candidates were becoming similar to each others’ and I was beginning to spot very minor, well-hidden problems well.
Next up was everyone’s favourite – the open water ocean dives. Similar to pool work in that it was about developing the candidates in water ability but with a more intense and demanding slant. At 8m deep, there is little room for error with first-time students, and problems cannot simply be corrected by returning to the surface and having a chat about it.
This really tested the candidates (and myself), and we all had to be on the ball for hours underwater straight. Candidates needed to develop and hone their class control in a more demanding environment. But above all was the safety aspect. Any mistake or problems overlooked that could have directly affected the safety of a student would lead to an overall fail of that session. No pressure!
As a staff instructor, I had to really learn to see the big picture and think outside the box regarding all aspects of this session. I was learning to anticipate and evaluate problems before they happened. Sometimes as the instructor, you can develop a tunnel vision on the task immediately at hand. The ability for me to see an in-water training session from a 3rd person perspective was very eye-opening. Almost like stepping back and having the blinkers removed.
I then had 2 days free during which the candidates undertook their exam. Evaluated by an outside PADI representative, this would be the candidates chance to put together everything they have learned and show they had what it takes to become instructors. 2 days of pummeling both in and out of the water by PADI themselves.
I spent my days drinking fantastic coffee from the cafe next to the dive centre and laying in my hammock reading Shadow Divers, the real account of a few wreck divers who discovered a mysterious submarine off the coast of the North East united states. I was to later learn that Andy at UDC was about to go dive the Andria Doria himself. The famous Italian cruise liner that sank in the ’50s of the US and which featured heavily in this book.
The party after the instructor exam was mind-blowing and Jhair would show his DJ skills with an all-night dance party on a beautiful beach, excellent vibes were shared by all, and it was the perfect way to end the course.
I left with a new understanding of dive instruction and teaching in general. I am thrilled I did the course with such a good centre and would recommend to anyone.