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Starting Out

Choosing a Guru—How to Tell a Good Teacher from the Other Kind

Photo by Michael Starman

By Farwell Forrest
River Photo

Don't let anyone tell you that you can't learn to paddle on your own. Given the right conditions—minimal fitness, modest smarts, reasonable patience, and sound judgement—you can. Tamia and I both did, mostly, and we manage just fine, thanks. So do tens of thousands of other "self-taught" paddlers.

OK. It can be done. But that doesn't mean it's the best way. A good teacher can make learning much easier, and much safer, too. Children should never be left to learn on their own, of course, and most adults will also benefit from competent instruction.

"Good teacher." "Competent instruction." That's the rub, isn't it? How can a beginner distinguish between good teachers and the other kind? And how can a novice paddler judge the competence of a stranger? Important questions, both of them—and like most important questions, they aren't easy to answer. There are almost as many kinds of good teachers as there are beginning paddlers. In the end, choosing a paddling guru's a little like choosing a doctor, or a plumber. It's largely a matter of common sense (that rarest of virtues!), personal chemistry, and informed intuition.

Perhaps it's easier to approach the problem the other way round. It's hard to define what makes a good teacher good, but it's not too difficult to see what makes bad teachers bad. Let's take a look at some of the danger signs.

A bad teacher is impatient. Does your would-be guru spend more time looking at his (or her) watch than at your J-stroke? Is keeping to his schedule more important to him than making sure that you've learned the day's lesson? Are your questions—even your "stupid" questions—answered sketchily, ridiculed, or ignored? Then go elsewhere.

A bad teacher is boastful. Does your guru introduce himself by telling you about all the races he's won, the rivers he's paddled, and the Very Important Paddlers he's known? Does he "forget" to ask you about your experience and interests until you're on the water? This is not a good sign. A teacher's résumé is important, to be sure, but you're looking for a teacher, not hiring a stunt man. An expert's best résumé is his paddling. Is your guru relaxed and confident on the water? Can he make his boat go where he wants it to go under almost all conditions? Is his gear well-maintained? Is he cautious in situations where caution is warranted? With a little effort and attention to detail, even a novice can sniff out incompetence. You don't need to be a cabinet-maker to know when a chair is wobbly, after all.

A bad teacher is a know-it-all. No one can know everything there is to know about anything, and there are almost always several different, but equally valid, approaches to any problem. While it's important that a teacher be able to answer the majority of a beginner's questions without hesitation, a bad teacher will have an answer for every question, and he'll have it right on the tip of his tongue. He'll also be quick to condemn those who don't do things his way. On the other hand, a teacher who tells you "I don't know" and then adds "But I'll find out" is worth a second look.

A bad teacher can't make himself understood. Competence is important, but a teacher must also be able to communicate his knowledge to his students, both verbally and by example. If he can't, he's not a teacher. This doesn't mean that only English Lit grads and Olympic athletes need apply. My Senior Drill Instructor at Parris Island was a man of few words, but his words were very well chosen and his body language was eloquent. I doubt that he'd read a book in his life—except for the Bible (maybe) and the Guidebook for Marines (certainly)—but he was an excellent communicator nonetheless. And his few, well-chosen words saved the lives of many Marines.

Get the idea? If your guru is competent and patient, if his explanations make even difficult things seem easy, if he listens to you and answers your questions honestly and well, and if he has the courage to say "I don't know" when he doesn't, then there's every chance you've found a good teacher. The rest, as they say, is chemistry. 'Nuff said.

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