Finding the Best Instructor for You

Of course your scuba instructor must be a competent, experienced diver. But equally important, he or she must be a good teacher.

By John Francis

Which Is the Best Certifying Agency?

At one time, the drill sergeant model prevailed among scuba instructors, but barking orders is not really an effective teaching technique. Breaking your spirit and crushing your ego may turn you into a good soldier, but it won't make you a competent diver.

On the other hand, the instructor who is full of jokes and sympathy, who is everybody's friend and promises to pass every student, may not be doing the job either.

How do you identify a good instructor? He or she will have a current instructor's card, of course, and liability insurance. But your real focus should be on teaching ability and style. Here's what to look for:

  • A small class. How many students per instructor? "Six to eight is plenty," says SSI's Director of Educational Development Gary Clark. With more, you may spend too much time waiting and receive too little individual attention.

  • An assistant instructor. When you have a problem, the assistant can help without holding up the class.

  • Multiple sessions. Some instructors pack a full course (not including the open-water dives) into two or three sessions. You finish in a weekend, but you may not truly internalize what you do learn. On the other hand, six sessions means assembling your gear six times and clearing your mask six times, and gives you time to digest the material between sessions.

  • Lots of water time. You learn by doing, not by reading about it. Four open-water dives are an absolute minimum.

  • People skills. "The instructor should be easy to talk to," says PADI course examiner Jeff Meyers. You should feel comfortable asking questions. A good teacher does not read notes from a podium. He makes eye contact. He's patient with "dumb" questions and clumsy performance.

  • Individual attention. Ask how the instructor will handle it if you have problems learning a task, suggests Martin McClellan, a PADI master instructor. He should understand that people learn at different rates and should offer extra sessions if they're necessary. "If he says, 'Don't worry, you won't have problems with me,' then his ego is getting in the way," says McClellan. "He won't want to recognize your problem because he thinks it will cast doubt on his teaching ability."

  • Empathy. The good instructor understands that it's reasonable for new students to have fears, and tries to reassure them. The instructor who instead heightens fears by telling "war stories" about terrors of the deep is more interested in nurturing his ego than his students. "I wouldn't take that class," says Jed Livingstone, NAUI's Vice President for Training and Development.

  • Experience. Good teachers are not made in a day. For how many years has he been an instructor? An assistant instructor? A divemaster? A diver? Does your instructor seem to teach from his own experience or does he regurgitate a textbook?

  • Organization. The class should keep moving without irrelevant digression. The instructor should be following a plan. "It has to be fun but structured," says SSI's Clark.

  • Punctuality. The instructor should show up on time and prepared to start the class. He should end on time too, and not early. Nothing should be more important to him than teaching you skills on which your life will depend.

  • A fair price. How much does it cost, and are there "extras" like boat fees, equipment rental fees, etc.? Considering that your life is literally at stake, price should not be your primary concern. An excellent instructor is almost always worth the price.


Which Is the Best Certifying Agency?

IDEA, NASDS, NASE, NAUI, PADI, PDIC, SSI, YMCA - more than 12 agencies offer the basic scuba certification. Does it matter which one trains your instructor and issues your card?

For your entry-level certification, probably not. At this point, you are not yet a "finished" scuba diver. You've taken only the first few steps down a long road of self-education. Whether you've taken two steps or three depends more on your instructor than his agency, and more on your own diligence than either. Many instructors, in fact, hold cards from several agencies.

As with doctors and lawyers, your real training comes "in the field" after you are certified. Statistics show a strong correlation between dive accidents and lack of experience, particularly recent experience, but no correlation to the acronym on the C-card.

- John Francis