Answering the call: The Ski School Needs You
By G.D. Maxwell
Those who can do. Those who can’t teach.
I have to admit, I’ve never entirely understood the sentiment behind that well-worn chestnut of folk wisdom. I think it harkens back to the days when teachers were underpaid servants and the only measure of a man’s true worth was the size of his pay packet, the expanse of his land holdings and the digits in his bank account. The 1980’s, Era of Greed and dribble-down economics and fabulous Yuppie excesses. I think I was teaching at the time. Ah well...
But my general experience has been to the contrary. Most of the bright people who ever took the time to teach me something useful — particularly as it related to sliding down snow-covered slopes — not only could practice what they taught, but they didn’t really need the practice. They were just plain good.
Unfortunately, there was one exception. The first person who ever tried to teach me to ski was, I suspect, actually a cafeteria worker on a smoke break who unexpectedly found himself surrounded by lost souls struggling with ski gear and sharing a group hallucination that he was a ski instructor. Finding himself trapped in a reality he couldn’t control, he went along for the ride and spent the better part of two hours imparting to us all he knew about the sport. All he seemed to know was how to step into bindings and stop forward progress by falling to the ground and praying you could get back up. Come to think of it, the food at that mountain wasn’t too good either.
Having taken any number of courses on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains in the last seven seasons, I can’t imagine that first instructor ever wearing one of the ski school’s yellow and blue uniforms. In keeping with the growth enjoyed by the resort over the past couple of seasons, the school at Whistler-Blackcomb has become one of the biggest in North America. "We’ll have 1,500 teaching staff and another 150 sales staff for the 99/2000 season," Perry Schmunk, the ski school’s director told me. "Our lesson volume was up 28 per cent year over year last season. That was coming off an increase of 34 per cent the year before that."
One of the problems with being the number one ski resort in North America is meeting peak period demand. Like lift lines, restaurants and rental shops, the ski school has been stretched beyond its limits at times. During Christmas, Presidents’ Week and spring break, finding enough instructors to satisfy the hordes of people searching for that most precious of ski school gifts — lift line priority — has been nearly impossible. To meet that demand, they tried a new tack this year: tap into the local market to reach people who might have taught in the past or people who never gave it much thought because they didn’t want to be full-time ski instructors.
Perry’s seen the problem get worse in the nine years he’s been with the mountains. He was director of the school at Blackcomb and took the reins of the combined schools three years ago after the merger. He’s convinced the answer lies at least partly within the community. "We realized there are people in the community who definitely fit the profile we want. We wanted to talk to them because we’re of the belief the ski school experience has changed quite a bit from 10 or 15 years ago. It’s not the technical lesson a lot of people think of from the past. It’s high on the service end of things, high on the extra touch things like what restaurants are great, what runs to ski and when — issues locals already have a handle on."
And so it was, after a tortuous autumn at Meadow Park, I was in between stories and in between seasons, when an ad in the paper caught my eye. The Ski School Needs You! Who me? Yes, You! Promising flexible hours, easy schedules, no stretch pants and the hint of a promise of free beer, ski school was hosting an open house evening for wannabe instructors. What started out as an exercise in journalistic curiosity — did I mention free beer? — somehow became a Quest for the Improbable. If Zippy could get buff, Zippy could learn to teach. Or could he?
As soon as I arrived at the Open House, my story premise was shot to hell. A quick look at the sprinkling of grey heads around the room put to rest any idea I had about using the angle of the Oldest New Ski Instructor on the Mountain to get this story published. Sure, there were plenty of 19 year olds with fuzz on their cheeks and recently-retired fake ID’s they kept in their wallets for nostalgia, but there were at least a couple of people, out of the 150 or so in the room, who were probably going to pay for the hiring clinic out of their Canada Pension cheques. But I’d already pitched the story idea to Perry and it was too late to back out now. Besides, I’d already finished the free beer and this whole ski school thing had become more of a personal challenge than just another story.
And that’s how, on a damp Monday at the end of November, I found myself milling around with 50 or so other people on the patio of the GLC while Andrew Christiansen, the Level I Co-ordinator for the Canadian Ski Instructors’ Alliance, wondered why someone wasn’t there to open the doors and pump coffee into all of us. I didn’t want to tell him things like this always happened when I was involved in some endeavour that usually went off without a hitch. In due course, we were all inside, getting briefed on the week’s schedule and parcelled out to seven instructors charged with teaching us the intricacies of teaching the intricacies of skiing to people who had no idea how hard it was because it always looks so easy in the movies.
The level I CSIA module is designed teach people how to develop skier abilities from beginner to intermediate. It’s the entry-level ticket to the glories of being a ski instructor. If you’ve got it, you can teach in the kids’ programs and in the adult beginner levels; at least around here. I suspect there are hills where you can teach just about anything you can handle if you’ve got a level I ticket, but at Whistler-Blackcomb, teaching duties for anything more challenging than sliding around the Olympic area are handled by levels II, III and IV instructors. The three hiring clinics just completed by the mountains combined basic level I training with the Young Skiers’ Program module designed provide additional insights into teaching unco-ordinated, unruly, cute little chil’en to ski.
Riding the gondola up through Monday’s drizzle and cloud, I wasn’t thinking much about what the course was designed to do or what exactly Perry meant when he said, "If you’re a strong intermediate skier, you should be able to successfully complete this course." What I was thinking about was whether I’d made a terrible mistake and simply signed on for another week of personal humiliation.
Leslie Morgan was reassuring from the start. Leslie’s been a ski school instructor longer than I’ve been a skier. An instructor/guide with Yes Tours, a level IV teacher, stints with Ski Esprit, and a level I examiner for a number of years, Leslie had seven of us in her charge. She was upbeat and sunny despite both the weather, a cold she couldn’t seem to shake, and the dubious task of teaching me something and suffering the knowledge I was going to write about the whole experience.
The rest of the group was diverse enough to almost define the Whistler experience. Tara, Krista and Tracy were all in their 20s, all employed by the mountain in either Kid’s Kamp or Scamps, all high-energy and all in need of their level I to become full-fledged kids’ teachers. Paul had perfect credentials for entry into the world of overeducated/underpaid ski bums: a metallurgical engineer by education and profession, he found a distinct lack of style to fit his life in the small, mining company towns where he’d been employed in his other life. Harry was a retired entrepreneur who’d owned a piano and organ store, had a hand in construction projects and beat it back down the highway after Friday’s closing meeting to catch his wife singing opera. Pascal’s been a local since before being a local was important and had as bad a memory as I did when it came to bringing the flask of brandy we kept talking about sharing. I didn’t get a sense the other groups were quite as eclectic, but there were easily enough characters among the 50 of us to script a Tennessee Williams’ play.
When we hit the snow, Leslie began teaching in earnest. CSIA, in its 60 years of existence, has honed the pedagogy of basic ski instruction down to five sets of skills: Stance and Balance; Pivoting; Edging; Pressure Control; Timing and Co-ordination. We spent the day taking each, in turn, and in incremental steps, reducing them to their basic components. It didn’t take long to begin to gestalt the empty spaces and see how these tiny bits of mechanics and kinesthetics would eventually come together into a perfect parallel turn.
If I were to design an instructor perfectly suited to teaching me — heaven forbid — the fundamentals of steering skis through a parallel turn, that person would pretty much embody Leslie’s gifts. I’m sorry I never ran into her or anyone exactly like her when I was struggling with figuring out the physics of skiing. Some people learn by watching, some by being led, others by metaphor and example. I learn by deconstructing, reverse engineering. If I can understand the component parts of a task or concept, I can generally grasp what has to be done to stitch them together in the sequence required. In painstaking, methodical detail, Leslie taught the first two days of the course. It was possible to not be able to do what she wanted but it was impossible not to understand what she wanted.
Like reverting to childhood, we all struggled through the lessons we may never have adequately learned about unweighting, pivoting our skis, inclination, counter-rotation, angulation and pressure. Through endless exercises we swooped and stooped and snowplowed and serpentined our way down Whistler Mountain’s intermediate runs, doing hundreds of knee bends in the process and turning thigh muscles into aching, knotted masses. It probably didn’t help that these were my first days on the mountain this season and it certainly didn’t help when Pascal and I ducked the ropes at day’s end and skied the ungroomed glop down to Olympic Station. But for two days, Leslie worked us like a benevolent drill sergeant and patiently tweaked each of us, driving us relentlessly closer to the form CSIA demands.
The proof of her efforts came on the third morning. We were finished with the phase of the week’s training where we worked on our parallel form and it was time to be tested. We had to demonstrate to our instructors, like we’d have to demonstrate to pupils, a basic parallel turn.
I’d spent the last two days struggling with my personal challenges. Somehow, after years of having instructors tell me I was too far back on my skis, I’d managed to over-compensate and now I was too far forward. I’ve decided it was Chris Kent who finally scared me off the tails of my skis when he was trying to teach me to carve turns around gates and stop running into lift towers, no mean feat. And, I had a tendency to rush the finish of my turns, probably the result of too much time on pitches incompatible with leisurely turns.
Three groups of us gathered at the top of Jolly Green Giant to wait our turns. The wind was strong and the snow perfect. Elsewhere on the mountain it was a powder morning and it pained me highly to be waiting on the side of a groomed run trying to decide which of my faults I’d concentrate on for 10 turns, given I can only hold one thought in my head and turn both skis at the same time. Don’t rush the finish I decided, just as they called my name to go first. I think it was a conspiracy.
I wish I could say I remembered anything about the run other than "Don’t rush the finish," but I don’t. It was over, recorded, in the books before I really had a chance to think about it. Watching the other 20 or so who followed, I watched their form, mentally noted their shortcomings and wondered when this annoying little habit had somehow slipped into my consciousness. "Oh God, I’m becoming a twink," I silently thought to myself, twink being a term of endearment as any Ski Patroller will tell you.
With varying degrees of self-reproachment, we reformed into what had become our support groups and skied off to accomplish the day’s tasks. These included getting acquainted with a new instructor. Eric Earle had tag-teamed groups with Leslie and he would lead us through the next two days. These were going to encompass the nuts and bolts of actually conducting a beginner’s ski school lesson.
If Leslie was the perfect person to lead us through the finer points of a ski turn, Eric was every bit her equal when it came to explaining the qualities that go into an enthusiastic, non-threatening, ego-boosting, Intro to Slidin’ lesson. Still well on the shy side of 30, Eric’s been teaching almost since he strapped on skis 11 years ago. He’s an ambassador for the sport, imbued with almost limitless passion for everything ski school. When asked what he prefers to teach, he won’t be pinned down and leaves you with the impression his favourite lesson is the one he’s teaching in the here and now. His spirit is infectious.
For almost two more days, we drilled through all aspects of a good first ski lesson. From walking on snow in foreign feeling footwear to the ins and outs of bindings to finding the trick to balancing in a world where the laws of gravity have been temporarily suspended to a simple explanation for why skis turn, Eric laid it out in bite-size chunks. We learned seven ways to describe snowplowing to kids without ever saying the word snowplow. We learned how to get adults from paralyzed with fear to overcome with joy. What seemed so normal to all of us became, if only for a while, new again and we caught a glimpse of what most of us had forgotten over the years: what it must be like to step into a pair of skis for the first time.
It all came to a head on Friday when, back with Leslie, in pairs or alone, we led our groups through a 20 minute mini-lesson, focusing on one of the points Eric had drilled into us in the previous days. Methodically, we devised ways to introduce, demonstrate, practice and evaluate the new skill with our "class". It was probably a sobering experience for many, the first time they’d actually understood the difference between knowing and teaching and the added insight needed to teach even something many consider second nature. But like our ski-off, we had to demonstrate we could lead a class as well as make a turn.
The week ended in a room at the Delta. There was a palpable anxiety as we waited outside while the instructors decided our fate. Not too many of us felt confident enough to consider the outcome a sure thing. Whether you pass or fail really doesn’t have much to do with whether you consider yourself a good skier. It has everything to do with whether or not you can ski like the CSIA thinks you should ski and whether you show promise of being able to teach that to others. Out of the 50 people in the room, 14 had enough problems with one or the other of those skills to need some more work. The numbers from the week before were almost identical. Not quite the 90 per cent pass rate the course normally enjoys.
But at the end of the day, the three hiring clinics conducted by ski school during the last two weeks of November and the first of this month, had the desired effect. "We put 122 people through the three clinics," Andrew Christiansen said. "Fifty in each of the five day clinics and another 22 on the two weekend course. Just about everyone who took the clinic and wanted to join ski school has been placed. Even the ones who were unsuccessful on the course will be working as teaching assistants in kids’ groups while they work on their certification."
By at least one measure, the ski school met its goal. As of last week, the adult and children’s ski schools have filled all of their teaching spots. Has the push to enlist locals who would be willing to teach on a casual basis during the crunch periods been successful? Well, I guess we’ll have to wait another couple of days to discover the answer to that question. Either way, recruitment at the school is an ongoing business. Level I courses are offered throughout the season and another hiring clinic will be held in March to buttress the numbers of instructors for the late season when attrition dwindles the supply of available teachers.
Oh yeah, did Zippy learn to teach and pass the course. In some ways it doesn’t really matter. I found the course was as near a perfect way to start the season as I could imagine. I’m sure without the intensive instruction I’d have spent the better part of this year still trying to get forward on my skis. And let’s face it, who in their right mind would put their kid in my care? But if those who can do and those who can’t teach, I guess maybe I can’t anymore.