SameBoat Shorts: Choosing a Guru

Can you learn to canoe on your own? Sure you can. But it’s much easier with help from a good teacher, and that raises an obvious question: What makes a teacher good? Well, three minutes is all it takes to find out. In the latest SameBoat Short, Farwell tells you how he’d go about choosing a guru.

SameBoat Shorts: Choosing a Guru

by Farwell Forrest | December 5, 2017
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Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t learn to canoe* without the help of an instructor. You can. Or at least you can if the conditions are right — quiet water and warm temperatures — and if you have the necessary prerequisites: minimal fitness, reasonable patience, and sound judgment. These are very modest demands, of course, and as luck would have it, Tamia and I took our first strokes without benefit of instruction, joining thousands of other self‑taught canoeists who’ve taken to the water over the years.

OK. It can be done. That doesn’t mean it’s the best way, however. A good teacher can make learning much easier, as well as safer. It goes without saying that children should never be left to their own devices, I suppose, but most adults will also benefit from competent instruction. Hmm… “Good teacher.” “Competent instruction.” That’s the rub, isn’t it? How can a beginner distinguish between a good teacher and the other kind? And how can a novice canoeist judge the competence of a stranger? Those are important questions, but like most important questions, they don’t have simple answers. There are almost as many kinds of good teachers as there are beginning paddlers. When all is said and done, therefore, choosing a canoeing guru is 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 best 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 smartphone than at your J stroke or roll? 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. Did your guru introduce himself by telling you about all the races he’s won, the rivers he’s run, and the Very Important Paddlers he’s known? But did he “forget” to ask you about your experience and interests until you were on the water? This is not a good sign. You’re looking for a teacher, not hiring a celebrity stunt man. An instructor’s best recommendation is his skill with a paddle, after all. Is he relaxed and confident on the water? Can he make his boat go where he wants it to go under almost all conditions? If not, you should keep looking.

A bad teacher is a risk‑taker. Attention to detail is important. Is the guru’s gear well looked‑after? It should be. Your life may depend on it. And any teacher worthy of your trust will exhibit good judgment in other matters, too. Is he cautious in situations where caution is warranted? Anything else is unacceptable. A course of instruction isn’t a suicide pact.

The bottom line? Even a novice can sniff out incompetence. You don’t need to be a cabinetmaker to spot a wobbly chair, do you?

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, yet 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 Oxbridge grads and Olympic coaches 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 many lives.

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 is up to you.
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* What’s with “canoe”? Am I snubbing kayakers? And what about the many beSOTted folks who have their eyes on a sit‑on‑top? Do I intend to include them out, too? No way! It’s just that I think “canoeing” is a much better one‑size‑fits‑all tag than “paddling.” It served perfectly well in this role throughout the latter half of the 19th century, and that’s when recreational canoeing was invented, along with nearly every kind of sporting paddlecraft in use today. So I can’t see any reason to change the label now. Can you?

Read more: SameBoat Shorts | Picking partners | Starting out and moving on

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