How long does it take to become a GREAT dive instructor?

By: Jon Kieren

As an Instructor Trainer, I am often asked about the process and timeline to become an SDI Open Water Scuba Diving Instructor.  The easy way to answer is to quote the minimum standards as listed in the SDI Standards and Procedures (also found on the SDI course description page HERE), and begin the discussion about getting a course scheduled.  With so much buzz in the industry lately about degradation of training at all levels, I felt it would be beneficial to write about what the MINIMUM standards set by most training agencies (as well as the WRSTC) really mean and what it REALLY takes to become a GREAT dive instructor.

The “zero to hero” Open Water diver to instructor flow path

Personally, I am a product of the “zero to hero” Open Water diver to instructor flow path.  I was an inexperienced open water diver with less than 20 dives spread out over about 6 years when I decided I wanted to become a dive instructor.  I walked into my local dive shop in Wisconsin, and informed them that I was moving to the Virgin Islands in 4 months, and I wanted to work there as a dive instructor.  3 and half months later, I was an Open Water Instructor and ready to get on the plane.  Fast forward 9 years and I am a rebreather and cave instructor, advanced trimix instructor trainer, and instructor trainer evaluator.  Those 15 years of diving and teaching have included a lot of mediocre courses taught, hard lessons learned and, frankly dangerous situations that I am lucky to have escaped without incident.  Many of those situations presented themselves because I simply did not know what I didn’t know due to inexperience.  I met all the minimum requirements set by the training agencies as I progressed, but I never really understood what that minimum requirement meant and who it was for.

To set these minimum standards, a group of people (not always active instructors or even active divers) sit in a room and decide what the minimum requirement should be for any standard based on the best-case scenario to create a competent diver or instructor at a given level.  This means perfect conditions (warm, calm, and clear water), perfect students (comfortable in the water, excited to be there, actively engaged in the training, etc.), no equipment issues, and no distractions.  It’s not entirely realistic, but it’s a minimum standard, a starting point.  From there, it is intended that instructors and trainers add time, skills, assistants, and reduce ratios, etc. based on the not so optimal situations they are presented with.  

So, if the industry’s minimum standards aren’t universally enough, how long should it take?  I don’t think that can really be answered in years, number of dives or certification cards.  My experiences have shown that what is far more valuable is time in the water in varied conditions and a professional’s drive to improve themselves.  

If you’re just taking courses to check off boxes you never have time to apply your knowledge

Those who take courses to check off boxes and just move on to the next level never really have an opportunity apply the knowledge and skill set, and it never really sinks in.  I’ve heard a lot of people advise that an aspiring instructor jump straight from their divemaster course into the instructor development course because the DM info and skills are “fresh” so the candidate will have an easier time regurgitating the information.  I can understand that theory, but it’s a scary thought that a DM with little to no practical experience working with students and guiding divers would have an easier time in an IDC than a seasoned professional.  That would make me question the quality of the DM program and whether that information has truly been mastered by the candidate.  

My personal advice to aspiring dive instructors?  Knock out a couple hundred or so dives in varied conditions (not just your local quarry or even just warm water vacation diving), and go through your DM course.  Spend a year or so working actively as a DM, crewing dive boats and assisting classes and continue to develop your own personal diving skills by taking diver level courses.  Even if you aren’t interested in technical diving, take an intro to tech class, for example.  Growing your personal knowledge base and experience in different facets of diving will give you a better perspective of how and why to teach many of the basics.  On top of that, you will have the opportunity to learn from more experienced instructors who will be valuable mentors in your growth as a professional.  

As a newly minted educator, start slowly.

Once you have built a well-rounded foundation of true diving experience, select an instructor trainer that you know personally and respect as an educator.  Your IDC should not be a “read the bullet points out of the instructor guide” process, but one that takes the knowledge, skills and experience you have as a dive professional and uses it to mold you into an educator.  As a newly minted educator, start slowly.  Work with small groups of students (1 or 2) at the entry level, and take time after each class to reflect on how things went and where you can adjust to improve the next time around.  

Continue to develop your instructional skills by taking specialty instructor courses.  

Many agencies allow “experience based” upgrades, which is fine for average instructors.  But if you truly want to be a great educator, learn from an IT that has experience teaching at that level.  Trust me, you’ll pick up some valuable tips on how to teach more effectively at that level.  

So, to answer the original question, “how long does it take to become a great dive instructor”?  The answer is “forever”.  Becoming a great instructor is something we should always strive for, but also know that there will always be something more for us to learn no matter how experienced we are.  Take your time and enjoy the ride; the journey is the best part and as dive instructor, you can make that journey last a lifetime.  

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