Having completed the Trainee Instructor Course the next step was to start on my shadowing hours (70 logged hours ski school experience). The rules were in the process of changing at the time. They are always changing something in the system. Several people on my Trainee course were keen to take their Instructor course the following November as that was the last course before the 70 hour rule came in. I was advised that I was not ready to go for the exam so soon so resigned myself to doing the work experience. As a concession during the first year it was not compulsory to finish the hours before taking the Instructor exam, only to do them before being awarded the qualification.
I duly got in touch with my nearest dry ski slope, Ski Rossendale in Rawtenstall, North Manchester and arranged to come along and do some hours. This was before the Chill Factore opened so it was the only place to ski near Manchester. It was council run and had a nice atmosphere. There was a friendly ski school, an active freestyle scene and fairly regular competitions. Most of the lessons were beginner sessions so I began my shadowing with taster sessions and beginner groups. At first I either watched or joined in as a group member, trying out the exercises. I soon learnt that teaching taster sessions on a dirty strip of plastic outside Manchester is not the most glamorous side of ski teaching. In the winter it was damp, in autumn the slope was covered in leaves and in summer we got eaten by midges. As the instructors got to know me they allowed me to deliver parts of the classes, and eventually I was doing whole lessons by myself while the paid instructor watched. I soon learnt the drill – explain the kit and the rules, mess about on the flat with one ski. Sidestep up the hill. Do some straight running exercises: jumping, catching, dancing (heads shoulder knees and toes), eyes shut and so on. Finish with how to stop. On that beginner slope they never needed to stop, so teaching them the snowplough brake was a bonus. If the group were really good we might have a go at a turn but that was unusual. And that was the end of the hour.
The two hour lessons were a bit more challenging. People on these had already completed the hour long taster session and were ready to start turning. I learnt that there are many ways to teach the plough turn (wedge to my North American readers, widge to the Kiwis). Many tricks are used by instructors to encourage turning, some of them by the Book, most not, some imaginative and innovative and some invented on the spot to help a particular struggling client. The big difference as an instructor was that the customers taking these lessons had differing abilities and expectations depending on their previous experience. This surprised me given that their previous experience was only supposed to have been an hour, but some had learnt quickly in that hour, some had been taught by different instructors with different approaches (not better or worse, just different), some had skied the day before, others weeks earlier, some were more advanced but felt they should start again after a break. Some were at similar levels but had learnt different ways of doing things. This is something I have found throughout my career - the closer the class is to being complete beginners the more it is possible to follow a script, but the more advanced they are the more the lesson has to be adapted on the spot to cater for the individuals in the group. Even in lesson two I was beginning to understand this.
As I was allowed to take more responsibility for delivering the lessons I was shadowing I found to my surprise that I was not just enjoying myself. I was getting a real buzz out of people's achievements in my lessons. The first time somebody managed to turn, or when they finished the class with a big grin on their face I felt a deep satisfaction to have been part of that process. Those hours learning my trade on the plastic matting at Rossendale gave me the first insight into how much I was going to love (and need) this career. If I am completely honest, up until that point a large part of my motivation had been a simple case of wanting to ski more and to live and work in the mountains. From this point on I began to realise that I loved ski teaching as much as skiing itself, and I do feel privileged to have spent my career doing what I love doing.
I met some great characters in my time at Rossendale who really helped both in my career and as role models for how to inspire a class. People like Geoff with the bad jokes, or Rob - now working in Verbier, or Peter who I think was the boss. All of these helped and encouraged me and showed me how to manage a class. Although if I had taken my BASI exams six months earlier I could have avoided the shadowing hours, I am very glad that I did them. They prepared me for the ski teaching world, helped me pass the teaching parts of the exams and made sure that I was not completely incompetent when I came to teach my first paid lesson (that is for another post though).
It did take me some time to manage the required seventy hours. Rossendale is a fair distance from where I was living, I was working full time, and often when I went there would only be one or two hours available to shadow. Looking back these are all excuses, and I could have made the time to go more often. When I got to the Instructor exam I was only about halfway through my hours, and it was quickly obvious which members of the group had done more and which ones less. My advice to anybody in the same position is to get the hours done as quickly as possible and begin teaching for real.
I should finish with a word about Ski Rossendale. The slope was in decline for several years with council cuts and competition from the shiny (and expensive) new Chill Factore - an indoor snow slope on the other side of Manchester. The council eventually closed the slope early in 2011. The story has a happy ending however as the slope was taken over by a group of former instructors there and was reopened later the same year. The slope is now run with an emphasis promoting ski participation within the local community, and the slope is used by local groups and schools as well as offering the usual range of lessons and activities. Find out more at www.skirossendale.co.uk.