Thoughts from a rookie ski instructor

Dave Belin teaching at Eldora Mountain Resort.
Photo by Elizabeth Miller

“Why am I doing this?”

I was certainly not the only person pondering that question during lineup on that cold and very windy morning. I had been asking myself that question ever since I was hired as a rookie ski instructor at Eldora Mountain Resort months before: Why, exactly, did I decide to teach skiing?

On that President’s Day Monday, with the wind blowing so hard you could hardly stand up, let alone hear the announcements, no one else at lineup stepped forward to teach either.

So, our ski school supervisor pulled out the “Hours List” to see who was on the bottom rung of the ladder, and, of course, called my name. My thoughts about signing out and returning to my “regular” job were immediately put aside as I headed to the Children’s Center, head bowed against the wind, to teach a kids group lesson.

Let me back up a little: I am 42 years old and have a full-time job, a wife and two elementary school-age sons, serve on two local boards, and have a long “honey-do” list just like any other dad. So why did I want to spend my precious weekends teaching, rather than spending time with my family or free skiing — or both?

Up until that cold and windy day, my name had rarely been called at lineup. As a part-time rookie instructor, I was at the bottom of the seniority list for teaching lessons. As a result, I was getting to do plenty of free skiing, but wasn’t teaching very many lessons. I was getting up early on the weekends, driving back and forth to the mountain, not getting to spend time with my family, and barely getting paid to do it. My paychecks were less than $20 (for two weekends of work), meaning that I wasn’t even making enough to pay for gas. Thus, my soul-searching question about the greater point in all of this.

That day, however, ended up being a turning point in my season. Despite the strong winds (or “breezes,” as they are called), it turned out to be a great kids group lesson. The weather was actually sunny along with the wind, so it wasn’t too bad once we got going. I remember working hard to remember all the kids’ names, which was a challenge for me. This particular group of kids had been on skis before, so we practiced some gliding wedges, some side-stepping and some basic turns before lunch. Lunch is served in the Children’s Center, but the instructor is responsible for actually serving the food. Going back to the kitchen multiple times for more ketchup, more water, more mac and cheese and more juice made me feel like the harried waiter I had been right after college. I was so busy getting food for the kids that I barely had time to scarf down a couple of “dino” chicken nuggets myself before heading back to the snow.

Photo by Elizabeth Miller

Many of the particulars of that day have blended in with all the other lessons I’ve taught since then, but probably the thing I remember most was being hyper-focused on keeping the kids together and in my sights. I certainly had some practice with that while teaching my own kids, but having seven unknown students to keep track of is very different from corralling two of your own familiar offspring. That day was filled with counting and re-counting purple- and pink-clad girls and boys in blue and black every time we boarded the lifts and skied the runs. Not losing a student is clearly a critical part of being a successful ski instructor, and on that first day my attention could not have been more focused on keeping the group together and the students safe.

Though rare, it is certainly possible to lose a child, especially on a crowded day; the ski area has several procedures in place to keep the kids safe, including writing down the color of each kid’s helmet, jacket and pants, having a different color lift ticket for the children in lessons and giving parents a special receipt they turn in when picking up their child at the end of the day. As a rookie instructor, it can be challenging — but necessary — to keep track of all these details throughout the day.

I was relieved and exhausted at the end of that day, in no small part because I returned each child to their parent safely. I remember the sense of satisfaction and calm I felt walking through the parking lot back to my car, knowing that I had tried something new and had done admirably well at it. I was surprised at how much energy, both physical and mental, that first lesson took. That night, I slept better than I had in a long time.

I must have done something right on that windy day because, after that, I was assigned to teach at the Children’s Center every weekend until the end of the season. At first, I was intimidated by the ins and outs of the procedures and the commotion in the Children’s Center, but quickly grew to enjoy the energy and the challenge. As a part-timer, it took me a few weeks to learn the names of all the other staff (nametags don’t just benefit the customer), and to learn the rhythms of the Children’s Center — how to answer parents’ questions, when to take the group out to the snow, ways to get the kids warmed up both to me and to the skiing, when to come back for lunch and, most importantly, when and where to stop for the bathroom. I was fortunate to learn a lot of these little tricks from other instructors who were happy to share their experiences and perspectives.

Photo by Elizabeth Miller

There are good stories that come out of every lesson — kids riding around the bullwheel, a code yellow (which is why the aforementioned bathroom stop is so critical), strategies to keep the group together, dropping kids off at the end of the day. I remember the day after teaching my first kids’ lesson, my back was so sore I could hardly walk (I am clearly no longer 20 years old — or at least my back isn’t). I also remember the “never-ever” 9-yearold girl who had been pretty frustrated with learning to ski. She answered my question at lunch about what they had learned so far that day with, “To keep trying and don’t give up.”

I was surprised and gratified that she was so positive despite her difficulties in learning to herringbone and skate on the flats.

One reason I decided to teach skiing was that I wanted to get my wife and kids up to the mountain more often. I am a real believer in the importance of spending time as a family doing fun activities, and skiing is high on that list. The last couple of winters, however, we had found ourselves looking as the calendar turned to March and realizing that we had skied only a handful of days. I wanted to make skiing more of a family priority, and working at the ski area would get us all out on the hill more often.

The tricky part about getting my family to ski more frequently, I learned, was that when I’m teaching, I don’t get to ski with my family. So the whole “spending more time together as a family” sometimes worked, and sometimes, it didn’t work. Halfway through the season, my two sons started a multi-week lesson program, skiing and snowboarding with the same instructor and same group of kids over the multi-week progression. We would all carpool up to the ski area together, then the kids would go to their lessons, I would teach my Children’s Center lesson and my wife would ski with a friend or just take some laps by herself. We would meet up at the end of the day to ski a run or two together and then relax with a hot chocolate in the lodge, telling stories about our respective days — our own version of après-ski.

For me, working full-time as a consultant and part-time as a ski instructor didn’t leave a lot of time for family, let alone all the other things you might want to (or have to) do in your free time. One of the major challenges I found was that I had to rearrange my schedule to take care of all the errands and chores on weekday evenings, rather than on the weekends. Balancing everything — full-time work, family, chores and errands, and part-time teaching — was the biggest challenge. My wife was very understanding during this experiment, because in general she would rather have me home on the weekends than spending time with other people’s kids.

Another reason I wanted to teach skiing this winter is that, from a business standpoint, if we as skiers and snowboarders want ski areas to be healthy and viable places where we all can recreate, then they need customers now and in the future. Today’s kids learning to ski are tomorrow’s ticket- and season pass-buying customers. As enjoyable as it is to have an un-crowded day on the hill — when you feel like you have the area to yourself — it isn’t good for business. The future of a healthy ski resort industry is dependent on continuing to introduce people to the sport and to make sure they come back season after season. I’m hopeful that I was able to turn at least a few kids on to the sport of skiing, and that they will continue to participate in the future.

Being a ski instructor was both rewarding and challenging, and, at times, frustrating. Teaching skiing and snowboarding is a lot of work, both physically and mentally, for not a lot of pay. It makes me wonder why people do it. How do you pay your rent if your paycheck is so small? The challenges in teaching skiing are evident when you look at the turnover rate for rookie instructors. In my training class of 12 rookies at the beginning of the winter, only three made it to the end of the season. In talking to other instructors, those numbers seem pretty typical. However, some of the instructors who do stick with it have a long tenure. The ski area I teach at has several instructors who have been teaching for more than 30 years.

So why do people choose to teach skiing and snowboarding? The only answer I came up with is that they love it. They love teaching, they love skiing, they love the camaraderie of other instructors, and they love sharing that passion for skiing and snowboarding with others.

For me, there were a lot of reasons to teach skiing: obviously, because I love to ski and I love to teach, but also to try something different, to get my wife and boys out on the hill more frequently, to introduce a new generation to the sport and to tackle a new challenge. Overall, it was a lot of fun. I learned a great deal about motivations, communication, lesson progressions, learning styles, entertaining kids, work procedures, being flexible, talking to parents and keeping things in perspective. At the end of last March, I passed my Level 1 Certification from the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA), and I am back this winter teaching skiing again — and no longer asking myself why I am doing it.

Dave Belin is part-time alpine and telemark ski instructor and the full-time director of consulting services at RRC Associates in Boulder.