I didn’t know it at the time, but my first job as a teacher was perhaps the best learning experience a future educator could hope for. Fresh out of college, I was hired as a ski instructor, and at the time, I knew very little about skiing and even less about teaching. I was hired on sight. The interview literally went this deep: The ski school director perused my resume for a moment, stopped, and looked up at me, asking, “You went to college?” “Just graduated in May,” I told him. “You’re hired,” he said, and when I asked the director whether he wanted to see me ski, he said: “If you can’t ski, I got a room full of ski instructors who can change that in short order.” Fair enough, I thought at the time.
I actually could ski a bit, or at least negotiate the mountain well enough to stand up and give a ski lesson. The standing up and skiing part wasn’t the problem. The teaching was. But teaching skiing, unlike teaching in the classroom, gives a teacher instantaneous feedback. When half your students are literally falling on their faces in your class, it’s clear to everyone alike—instructor, students, management, onlookers—literally anyone with eyes can see you’re doing a poor job. And when you repeatedly bowl your beginner skiers into the side wall of the rental center, well let’s say there’s no room for delusion there—instant feedback.
What makes a good ski instructor? Primarily, the same thing that makes a good instructor in the classroom, or really, any other setting. The ability to elicit consistent incremental growth. Small gradual steps from performing beginner level skills at a beginner level, to greater proficiency in those beginner level skills, to eventual mastery of them. The same goes for intermediate skills and expert level skills. By the time I’d mastered my craft as an instructor, I could see a new student make a turn to the left and a turn to the right and know, roughly, what my students could and couldn’t do and design a lesson that would stretch their current skills.
On the slopes, I wouldn’t have dared to direct an intermediate ski lesson down a double-black diamond trail, and even if I had, none of my students would have followed. Physics, fear, and customer service always dictated an ordered progression. Modest, incremental growth. No black diamonds for beginners, no moguls for intermediates. Assignment design on the slopes necessitated this much always: What can this skier reasonably do now? What can we, in the time we have together, reasonably do to expand their ability just enough so that they’ve both stretched their skillset and comprehend that growth so they can repeat it?
This is one of the most difficult challenges for an instructor in the classroom. Take a look at your room full of sophomores. How well do they research? Are they going to fall flat on their faces writing the latest paper you’ve assigned because they don’t know their way around a keyword search or an academic journal? And if that’s the case, how would you know it? Or maybe researching isn’t the problem at all. Maybe no one ever taught them how to form an argument. It could be any number of absent invisible skills that you have to find ways to unearth. Unfortunately, it’s never going to be quite as easy as a turn to the left and a turn to the right in a college classroom, but knowing what our students are and aren’t capable of is a critical component to providing our students an environment where they can both challenge and expand their skills. It can be very tempting to aim high and hope, and then wonder why our students didn’t fare so well. After all, the only bruises are to egos, and nobody needs to repaint the walls of the rental center in the aftermath of a season’s failures.
Unlike a college student, who’s had years of education just to get into the classroom, a healthy, moderately athletic non-skier with decent balance can become a beginner skier in a matter of a few hours. But that same skier then takes years of skiing and practice to truly become an expert. In the interim, hundreds of moments of growth in their ability and understanding of the process need to happen. As a ski instructor, being the catalyst for those moments was what I lived for—whether it meant seeing someone successfully get off the chairlift for the first time, guiding them through their first smooth turns on intermediate terrain, or witnessing the look on a skier’s face when they carved a turn for the first time—those moments were what I taught for. Still are.
Teaching skiing turned out to be the perfect model for me as a teacher in the classroom. When faced with my first college classroom, I already knew better than to bowl my freshmen off the side of the rental center. And I also appreciated the importance of those modest improvements. Hard to see though they may be, they mean so much to our students. Sharing in and being a part of a student’s day-to-day growth, whether it’s the improvement in basic researching skills, their ability to frame a problem appropriately, or a single elegant sentence in a term-paper. These things are very hard to appreciate if you’re thinking about the ultimate destination—the ideal—the expert skier or scholar.
Most ski instructors look around them and see bad skiers on every side, and they look above them and see a big mountain, largely because that’s mostly what’s there—that’s what’s self-evident. But there are also a handful of great skiers on every mountain, as much as there are a few future great skiers in most every lift line. Today’s great skiers are great skiers, though, because somebody taught them just what they needed to know at the perfect time in their development. Neither party probably appreciated the significance of that small lesson at the time. Growth is tough to see.
Effective assignment design, both on snow and in the classroom, begins with these moments of modest, incremental growth as the objective. Our students’ ultimate objectives beyond that, just as on the mountain, are theirs to bring about.