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Choose Your Students Well, Less Teacher’s Hell Will Slowly Go By

We’ve all heard the mantra, “Choose your instructor carefully!” Wise words, right? What about choosing your students? Here Stratis Kas, tech diving instructor and author of the book “Close Calls,” recounts his rather sharp learning curve in choosing suitable students! NOT! They did what?!?



By Stratis Kas
Header image and photos courtesy of Stratis Kas unless noted.

Choose your instructor carefully! This may be the most popular mantra in diving education. Heck, I have not only said it many times, I even wrote about it in the August 2020 issue of InDepth: Technical Diving Myths vs. Reality. As much as this remains true, it’s also incomplete. Diving education is not just knowledge. When done well, it’s mostly mentorship—…a proper relationship between student and instructor that starts during the course. As with most relationships, there are great highs as well as disappointing lows. Also, as in life, responsibility for the success or the failure is borne by both sides.

In an ideal world, all dive training should result in responsible and ever-evolving divers who themselves become mentors for the next generation. This, of course, is more than often not the case. As with all instructors, I have been both a student as well as an instructor many times. We all started as divers and then evolved throughout our training until finally some of us chose to keep on learning by electing to teach. 

Unfortunately, in the ever-increasing commercialized reality that diving is becoming, it’s practically unheard of for an instructor to fail the student before the course has begun. 

There are many influencing factors involved in the decision to not reject the unqualified student. One of those reasons is about business. A  potential client who is turned away not only means an immediate, measurable loss of income, but even more importantly, can—and will—affect the instructor’s reputation in the market, as no rejected student will likely be  honest about the reason the course did not happen. All the blame will fall on the instructor, who “for no reason” chose to not proceed with the training, even  if, from the instructor’s perspective, that may have been the most responsible and principled thing to do. And if the student quits diving in reaction to the rejection, that rejection could have saved their life. 

 Some instructors might be  personally challenged to succeed where others did not, or perhaps chose not to try. In these cases, the outcome, should it be positive, will be because the instructor expended a great deal of effort in order to allow the student to succeed and to achieve the best results. It may be driven by ego, but the end is met.

As training is still very unregulated, when it comes to skills and knowledge on all levels, instructors who encounter students who do not meet the minimum requirements to enroll in their courses are faced with a dilemma. What is the correct thing to do? Do instructors, as well as training agencies, need to become more exacting in their acceptance of a student? Do check dives need to become a standard? 

I require all new students to do a check dive to demonstrate that  all the basic skills and knowledge of their level are confirmed in order to focus on the new skills and not on what is supposedly already known. A classic example is when divers expect to learn position control during their cave course. This is unfair for both student and instructor, as the students do not utilize all the water time to progress in their specific course knowledge, and the instructor is now required to hybridize a very straightforward training plan, naturally with fewer chances of success.

I am lucky not to have to depend exclusively on diving training for my financial survival. But I also hope that even if that was my only source of income,  I would follow the same protocols—making sure that my future students were ready for what they wanted to do next. Not just physically (very important) but also mentally. So what do I do when I am confronted with a very weak candidate? 

Nowadays, I just say “No,” and I follow up with a very thorough explanation of why I said that. But, I haven’t always made this wise choice.

I hoped to enlighten, or at least entertain you, with a small selection of  challenging situations that came my way earlier in my career. Some good, some bad and some, straight down ugly. Enjoy.

An unabashed cert card collector

We’ve all had them—the people posing as students saying they want to learn how to dive when what they really want is the card. The number of certification cards in their wallets matters much more than actually learning to dive, and what someone will do for a plastic card boggles the mind. Even so, rarely do they admit up front what they are after, but a few years back I received a phone call from a certification card collector who openly admitted that was all he cared about. Even though I tried to persuade him to look elsewhere for his training, he wanted me. In the weeks that followed, I started liking the guy, mostly because of his brutal honesty. So, I decided to give it a try. This was a non-tech diver who wanted to become Full Cave certified. As this is not completely uncommon, I was open to hearing more about it. 

And then the madness began! “John”  made it clear from the start. He did not care about theory or exams. On the other hand, I am a stickler for theory, and at the time I was teaching from my own cave diving manual for CMAS—a manual John never opened. When I explained that he would need to take the examin order for him to pass, he remained uninterested. Every dayJohn proved to me that he was not even close to being ready for the course. While I was used to students who tried to hide their weaknesses, John was open and proud about his. 

Photo by  Cave Training Mexico

I’ll admit it: I was hooked. When we arranged to go through his equipment needs for the check dive, he  was expecting to use his brand new drysuit without proper training. I explained to him that this was not possible, and he then planned to dive the 11ºC/52ºF cave with his wetsuit. What this man was apparently willing to do for a plastic card amazed me. 

Next, when we discussed the need to meet  at a local swim pool to do the check dive, John informed me that he needed for the session to not exceed  45 minutes because he couldn’t go longer than that without a cigarette break.He also said he planned to  urinate in the public pool whenever he needed to rather than exit the pool and use the restroom. I was working on how I could handle the untenable situation when a drowning accident resulted in the cessation of access to all public pools, saving me and tightening John’s timeframe. He then decided to train with a different instructor, much to my relief, and some time later I learned that he had gotten certified to teach cavern courses with his full cave certification card.

What should I have done differently? I should never let myself agree to ‘teach’ this arrogant man. I was fascinated with his obvious disregard for protocol, and somehow must have let myself believe I could do what no other instructor could–help him to see the importance of proper training. Never again.  

Students with personality conflicts

As a brand new instructor, I was inclined to “over deliver,” and perhaps this influenced my decision to teach three divers at once. Knowing what I know today, I would advise a new instructor to take on one or two students, but certainly not three simultaneously. Only experience can help an instructor read signs that precede potentially dangerous situations, and it’s very difficult to keep an eye on three students simultaneously.

 My three students—all men—were uncomfortable with one another from the outset. Tension was palpable in all our classroom theory sessions, complicated by conflict in the relationship dynamic of a recent breakup of two of the guys with the addition of a potentially new  friendship forming. There was lots of competition, and the mood was surly.

 A check dive was not required—my second mistake—since all of them were already tech divers, having been certified by a well-known instructor. One of the divers, “Bill,” was the better diver, the only one who seemed to be suitable for the course, and the only one able to remain still in the water and pass all the open water skills and the cavern dive. His success escalated the rivalry between the other two, as they tried to best one another to be as good as Bill.

 During our first full cave dive, we had to pass through a restriction at the cave’s entrance. To my surprise, Bill refused to do so. We consequently exited the cave and Bill ungeared.

 I then dove with the other two divers, and a few minutes into the cave, an emergency was simulated, and one of the started self-rescue procedures, ignoring the protocols of team diving. The dive was called, and at debriefing, I terminated the course.

Photo by Yannig Charles.

 At a later date, one of the two divers successfully finished his cave training with me, but Bill and his new friend chose not to learn basic skills that would allow them to be ready for a proper cave course. They were both later certified as full cave explorer level by a different instructor. 

What should I have done differently? Certainly I should not have jumped into a three-student course on my first experience as a new instructor. Also, I needed to  be more aware of team harmony—and disharmony—and to relay to my students exactly how important it was.  If two divers are at odds with one another, instructors have every right to question their willingness to save one another in a cave. 

Note: Nowadays, I use this restriction to check the ability of all new full cave divers to deal with the actual environment they are certified for. If that restriction is too much, full cave diving is too much. 

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The uptight, overstressed candidate

This is a case of a student’s overall demeanor, possibly practiced, belying his internal signals of distress.

“Joe” was an educated man in his early forties. He was successful in his work that involved not only following protocols, but also thinking outside the box. He was an ideal candidate, or so I thought. He was excited and focused and a pleasure to teach. Our open water sessions were successful, as he performed all simulated skills with ease. I noticed but ignored that as he was performing skills well, there was tension in his hands. Even as he was simply making a tie off, his hands shook. Because he was such a high performer, I didn’t examine it more closely. 

Our first cavern dive was reachable only by boat. We were anchored in front of the sea cavern, with the seafloor 5-7 m/16-23 ft  below us. The cavern was  beautiful and perfectly suited for a first overhead experience. This cavern was nearly all open on top, with a massive central air space. To a student, it could feel like cave diving; I knew better.

Joe geared up and chose  to jump in before he donned his fins, claiming that was simply easier for him. However, as soon as he entered the water, his overinflated wing’s valve  popped, and he lost all his buoyancy. He was properly weighted, and had he been wearing fins, he would have had no trouble remaining at the surface, even with a failing wing. He also had two fully functioning regulators, one in his mouth, and he could see the bottom a few meters below him. His fins were in his hands, but none of that computed with him, and he panicked. He began to fight the descent, and he screamed. Three people immediately jumped in to save him, and once back on the surface, he needed 10-12 minutes to recover from his panic attack. 

What should I have done differently? I needed to watch more closely for subtle signs of stress, because “Joe’s” slight signals that he was frightened and distressed, even though they belied his general demeanor, were real, and they were red flags that I missed. 

The privileged professional 

“We never stop learning”. If only that was true. 

Some of my worst students have been diving professionals who want to be certified at technical and cave levels in order to teach these disciplines at a lower level. 

Two separate instructors, “Adam” and “Ned,”  were part of a course that also involved a student who was not a diving professional, “Roger,” and that combination proved disastrous. Once our dates were firmed up, I prepared the proposed schedule and sent it to each student. It was fully detailed, including breaks, transfer times, and meals. In respect of my training organization, the schedule fully followed the standards, even if it was intense. It was a full cave course. It was going to be intense. 

In addition to the email, I organized a group video call for the purpose of allowing the students to introduce themselves to one another and begin team building. 

It was a cold winter day when we all met for the first time in the classroom. I had the chance to informally discuss diving with the two professionals before the other diver arrived. Then, as soon as the class began, I  felt that we were conducting a co-teaching course with Adam. Not only from his interference in my theory, but also his constant interjecting questions that were more commentary than actual questions, as well as in his body posture in relation to the other students. 

I took Adam to the side and explained to him why this was not only okay for me and the other students but essentially also for him, since, by taking on that co-teaching role, he was not absorbing information the proper way. Adam did not like that, but he seemed to accept it, and we moved on. 

Not more than one hour more passed, and on the theory break, Ned informed me that he, as “he already had the skills,” he would not be able to do the swimming pool skill sessions in the late afternoons. His reason was that he had to go back to his family and take care of the kids. 

As readers probably know, advanced cave diving courses are not a 9-5 thing. They cannot be. Their success is based on full immersion of the entire unit (students/instructor/assistants) for the length of the course. Dive courses are meant to keep divers alive—and therefore to keep them with their families. Ned was shocked to hear that his request was not going to be approved, because he was sure he would  have the understanding of a fellow instructor. Ned decided to stop the course, and he asked me for a refund, then a partial refund, and then finally threatened to report me to my training organization for not catering to his specific needs. As a reminder, the full schedule with exact times and explanations had been presented before the course started, making his threat baseless. 

This is important for all instructors out there: do not make special exceptions that modify your course and what you need to make it fair, equitable, and effective, to satisfy the wants of your students. That does not mean that an instructor should not try to accommodate requests, as long as they are reasonable and  do not compromise either the scope and integrity of the course or the other student’s needs. 

The next few days went on quite okay. Adam and Roger (our nonprofessional student) got along very well, although Adam seemed distracted.  After the fact, I concluded that he had continued to resent me and spent a lot of time in his mind imagining how he would be conducting the course.

On our second to last dive, in an objectively easy cave regarding navigation, Adam was connecting the open water to the cave’s main line. I was following side-by-side with Roger, checking Adam’s placements and tie-offs. At the main line connection, Adam connected his primary reel onto the main line and directed the reel’s double ender toward the inside of the cave. In cave diving training, we consider all bolt-snaps and double enders connected to the main line as directional markers. Therefore Adam made a critical mistake. A potentially deadly one. Even worse, Roger, who had grown not only to like but also to respect Adam as a diver, was looking at the reel pointing the wrong way, and wondering why it was not done the way he learned. Roger did not consider Adam a fellow student but a mentor, or even a co-instructor. Therefore, to Roger, Adam could not have made such a mistake, and Roger was unsure how to fix it in the field. 

Roger looked at me and pointed at the reel. I wrote on my wet-notes,  “what do you think?” Roger froze. A minute passed, and I called the dive. On our way out, the primary reel got cut, and Adam executed a perfect repair. Out of the water I asked them both if they knew why the dive was called. Roger stood silent and Adam, in a good mood because of the great line repair he had made, asked if any of us had a serious failure that justified the dive ending. 

Back in the classroom, I asked Adam to repeat the same procedure of connection to the main line, which he did correctly this time. I requested another open water simulation skill day to refresh and make sure potentially life-ending mistakes would be avoided. Roger was still frozen, but Adam, when confronted with the mistake, denied that he made a mistake on the connection (thank God for my GoPro), then he tried to explain why “it was not such an important mistake” being so close to the exit, until he finally left the class in a fury. The next day, Adam did not come back. 

Many theoretical elements or practical skills can—and will—be learned by making mistakes and getting better each course day, but there are two categories in which I will not tolerate even a single mistake during the last phase of training. These are navigation and gas management. The reason is simple. They are the main issues that will kill you in a cave. And also they are simple enough for anyone NOT to make a mistake once they are learned. If a student makes a mistake regarding navigation, they have endangered lives.

What should I have done differently? I think I should have figured out what  both of the professionals’ true motives were for taking the course. According to skill alone, they were probably suitable for cave training, but I believe they were status seekers, both of whom with attitudes of superiority. In Adam’s case, he was unable to be called out on a mistake, which made his ego such that he was not a good candidate. Roger is now certified and enjoys cave diving recreationally. 

The student who could not count to save his life—literally

This will show my age, but there is a critical issue that recurs in many if not most young people today when it comes to general education and knowledge. Maybe it’s dependency on electronics that has substituted for using one’s brain, or (sadly) perhaps today’s teaching does not demand, nor even encourage, basic skills such as simple math. 

It was a very hot summer night when I met Jonas. Jonas immediately showed a great sense of humor and comfort with himself. as the days passed, we became friends. Heasked me if I could teach him some tech theory in the afternoons on his breaks, and I accepted. Jonas had attended a few tech courses as an intern but got “charmed” by my methodology and approach when we were comparing plans. He wanted to feel “in control” instead of following blindly what a program would tell him to do. I liked Jonas. 

Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and I am good at math. Relatively complex math thinking is easy to me— it feels natural. In my first years of teaching math requiring courses (gas management and decompression) I often saw students having a hard time following my logic. Not expecting that we are all comfortable with my personal way to interpret and calculate the above subjects, I decided to focus on helping them realize that once the logical thinking is there, the calculations were easy. And even more importantly, mistakes stood out because of this same logical thinking (example: if a double cylinder “gives” 400 minutes of gas consumption at 30 meter’s depth, something is almost certainly wrong).

Jonas showed from the start that math was difficult for him. Not an issue, I thought, as many people are not. Surely the basics would be there. At the end of our second session Jonas had to calculate 80/4 (=20). Surely this should not be a problem. But Jonas froze, and after half a minute or so, went for his smartphone calculator app. I immediately stopped him. “Come on man, how much is eight divided by four,instead? Let’s start there.” Nothing. 

I was teaching decompression and gas management to someone who could not calculate simple equations, which would have caused serious issues for him, but one stood out more than the others. Since Jonas avoided all math related experiences, when he was asked to calculate gas for an emergency cave return scenario (he was already cave certified), he simply could not. During the next few days, we were supposed to discuss “in water gas recalculation,” and I had a dilemma that I could not take lightly. Jonas would not be able to learn any of this the proper way. At least not at what I consider minimum standards to justify the risk of technical diving and reduce it to “acceptable”. 

I had  to explain to Jonas that I could not certify him after all. 

What should I have done differently? At the time of the event, nothing. Nowadays, I take much more seriously the assessment of pre-existing conditions when it comes to teaching these courses. I not only do a water check dive, but I also explain the importance of this logical thinking and basic (at least) grasp of math for diving training. 

The student who certified himself

I believe (and hope) that this situation is so rare that it has to be an individual incident.  Since it was not a proper paid course, and I was simply “mentoring” the individual while working together in the same facility, makes it so much more serious. 

“Gus” was a talented young man who had been an athlete all his life and was good at anything sports related. As a consequence, he was very good in the water. His skills were top notch, and all signs pointed to him having (as per his own wishes) a very successful career as a diver. Gus was not yet 20 years old when the issue occurred. 

We met in a hybrid tech/rec facility where, at that time of the year, mostly recreational divers were clients. For Gus, it was a boring time. Instead of visiting caves and doing deep tech dives, he had to guide in shallow reef dives. Since he was spending a lot of time with me, Gus started to feel comfortable with me, and he asked me questions like if I thought he should be certified at levels higher than he was, based on his skills alone. 

The truth was that he had those skills, but there was no time for the instructor to spend training him because it was the busy season for the dive center. This frustrated Gus every day. Seeing that, and feeling sorry for him, I proposed to the diving center that—if they were okay with it—I would train  Gus on our free days. My main motivations were mixed between it being a good thing to do and my own boredom. Also, I believed Gus had what it took to ace the courses smoothly and easily.

What happened next is a cautionary tale. As I entered the system to register Gus for the courses he wanted (I was planning to surprise him) they were not available. This could happen only two ways. Either I was not certified to teach them (which was not so) or he was already certified at those levels, which made no sense, as he kept saying how much he deserved to be certified. Naively blaming the system’s error, I let the issue go for the day. But, then the next day, I received an email from my training organization that congratulated me for certifying Gus at the course A and B. My mind was not able to process the information. What was happening? 

When I confronted him, Gus initially denied everything. As I pressed him more to “confess,” he finally did, explaining that he deserved the certifications and that he had used my name as an instructor in the system which he had access to, to certify himself.

To this day, this is my most shocking memory as an instructor. 

What should I have done differently? Nothing, except learn from it. Take nothing for granted, and never underestimate the deviousness of a highly motivated and unprincipled person to get what they want. My experience with Gus was an eye-opener and made me look at the world a little differently.

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The student who gives up (all the time)

Being humble is nice. And it allows room, by removing the ego for new information and knowledge. But there is a limit to everything. And constantly putting yourself down (looking for a compliment maybe?) will not make you a better diver. Nor will it make you more likable. 

“Martin” was one of those divers who started diving late in life, and he wanted to do it well—perhaps even perfectly. Which was why we got along as soon as we met. I failed to identify Martin’s problem because he seemed one one hand optimistic, while on the other hand, he kept using phrases such as,  “I will never be as good as you,” which I should have seen as red flags. I ignored them, as many students start out with that attitude, but lose those envious statements as soon as they start to feel good about themselves.

As usual, we went in the water with another two students to do our check dive prior to the course. Martin was unlucky in that the other two students were probably the best I ever had the privilege to teach. Which meant that the difference was obvious. I think that, as a minority, Martin was sensitive about being seen as incompetent/inadequate, while the other students represented the norm. Our check dive included a series of skills performed on a stage made with a guideline in order to verify the student’s ability to stay still and control their position in the water. Having control of where you are in the water is an essential and often overlooked skill that, in my opinion, is absolutely mandatory for all overhead and technical courses. As these courses add new skills, the divers should never enter into such courses hoping to learn or improve these basic skills. 

The two other students performed their skill almost proficiently from the first try, and when it was Martin’s turn, he could not do much. He was not ready for the course in reality. His love of diving was greater than his skills. Which is okay, especially for a person with a good attitude such as his. All I needed was to cater the course more specifically to Martin and separate it from the other two, obviously much more advanced, divers. This happens. I was not worried. 

As I approached him, Martin stared at me, frozen. No matter what I tried to explain to him, or adjust things for him, he simply started into nothingness and floated like a dead fish. Initially I  hoped that he was trying to achieve a still position in the water. I soon realized that it was not the case. 

When the dive was over, as I was trying to explain our situation and how I wanted to deal with it, Martin began speaking very disparagingly  about himself and saying that he now accepted that he would never be what he hoped to be, and that all the people who told him in the past that he was not good enough were right. I tried to explain that, considering that none of these people were serious divers themselves, and also were not in Martin’s life anymore, he needed to come out of that dangerous self-pity loop that he was in. 

Sadly, Martin kept quitting every chance he had. From simply freezing underwater, using cold as an excuse to end the dive, to even leaving the water on his own. It took more than a month of back and forth, and a lot of buddy bonding drinking nights, to manage to get Martin to trust me that I would not be another one who would tell him that he was not worth it as a diver.

What should I have done differently? Not sure, as still today I strongly feel that there was no better way (for Martin) to proceed through the course. Not sure I am up for another one like this, though. For an instructor, the satisfaction of the student is very important. It’s what keeps me going. My small consolation is that at least now he can dive properly.

And then, even if so rarely, there are the ones I want to add extra diving days to their course. The ones that I feel, “I should have filmed this course and used it as personal promotion.” When everything is so smooth that I forget all the bad ones and remember why I love teaching so much. 

You know who you are, and I thank you personally, once more.

Dive Deeper:

InDepth: Technical Diving Myths vs. Reality Greek cave instructor and filmmaker Stratis Kas explores some of the unstated myths about tech diving and offers up some hard-won consensus reality.

InDepth: How to Choose Your Dive Training by Rich Walker

Be sure to check out Stratis’ book, Close Calls, which details the close calls and near misses of more than 60 prominent divers who nearly lost their lives. If they made mistakes, you will too!

Stratis Kas is a diving instructor & explorer, a film-maker, adventurer and storyteller. Stratis Kas deals with all of his subjects — extreme weather expeditions to days lost in wilderness — with unique sensitivity and fearless focus. He travels to remote, sometimes risky, and often freezing locations to create stunning films that change what we know about diving expeditions.

Since 2016, he has led the Top2bottom cave filming team that specialize in Adventure Filming. In 2017, he finished his first film “Amphitrite” that won a finalist place in the film festival, “Short to the Point” in 2018. Currently he is finishing his second feature film “Infinite Liquid” produced by Because I Can Ltd.


Why I Became a GUE Instructor

Jon Kieren had been an experienced tech diver and instructor for years when, curious, he took a Global Underwater Explorers’ Fundamentals class, a prerequisite to GUE’s technical and cave training. Soon, he didn’t just want to be a GUE diver. He wanted to be a GUE instructor. Kieren writes about the draw of GUE and why he started over with a new agency.




by Jon Kieren. Photos courtesy of SJ Alice Bennett.

I’ve had the pleasure of working in pretty much every aspect of the diving industry over the past 15 years or so. I’ve been an instructor and boat captain in the Caribbean, worked in the training department of a large training agency, served as a consultant for equipment manufacturers, and traveled all over the world teaching as a full-time cave and technical instructor trainer. Many would have said I’d reached the highest levels in the diving industry. 

So when I decided to start all over from scratch to become a Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) instructor, many of my friends, peers, and students scratched their head a bit and wondered why I would want to invest so much time, energy, and money to teach things I had been capable of teaching for years with other agencies. The answer was I wanted to commit to excellence. “Can’t you do that by teaching for other agencies?” they would ask. Not really.

Over the years, I had become quite frustrated with almost every aspect of the dive industry. Low-quality instruction, lack of accountability from agencies in accidents and quality assurance, manufacturers releasing equipment that created more problems than it solved, and dive shops and instructors at all levels racing to the bottom in terms of quality — all of it was making my blood boil. When I “saw the light,” it was refreshing, inspirational, and a huge relief. I finally found an answer to many of the issues I had been banging my head against the wall trying to solve for years. Here’s how it went down.

In 2016, I left my job in the training department of a large agency after five years of frustration. I realized I could make a larger impact on the industry working with one or two students or instructor candidates at a time. I moved from south Florida to north Florida’s “cave country” to teach full-time as an independent instructor. It was a bit scary to not have a guaranteed paycheck, but I was determined to make it work. I was hungry to improve as an instructor and knew I could do better. The problem was, after working at the highest levels with some of the biggest names in the industry, I didn’t really know where to turn. 

Enter Mark Messersmith. He’s a GUE board director, instructor evaluator, chief operating officer of dive equipment manufacturer Halcyon, and one of the nicest guys around. I had gotten to know Mark a little bit over the years, and always appreciated his laidback and super supportive demeanor. When I approached him about GUE training, he asked, “Why?” Knowing my background, of course he knew the answer, but I think he wanted to hear it from me. 

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Fundamentals: Where the Fog First Lifted

I first started down the technical diving path when I was working in the Caribbean as an open water instructor and boat captain, and I came across GUE in my research. I was immediately put off by the standardization and team-diving philosophy, and decided other agencies would be a better fit for me. Of course I didn’t know what I didn’t know, but my thought was, “There can’t be just one way to do EVERYTHING.” Plus, I really enjoyed solo diving at the time. After moving through the ranks over the years and working with hundreds of technical, rebreather, and cave students, I had the opportunity to work with several GUE-trained divers. Most of them had only taken Fundamentals, the prerequisite to GUE’s technical and cave training courses, but two things were consistent with all of those students: The classes were easier to teach, and they were way more fun. We would be able to start cave or tech diving straight out of the gate and not need to spend three or four days on basic skills. I wanted to know what GUE’s secret was to create such solid and consistent divers, and that’s when I approached Mark.

To answer his question, I was honest and told him I wanted to steal as much as I could from the Fundamentals course to incorporate into my classes. He just smiled through his mustache and said, “OK.” We scheduled a class, and I got to work watching all of the skills videos and practicing on my own in order to prepare. To say that I was nervous when class started was an understatement. I think I hid it pretty well, but what if I didn’t meet the highest standard for Fundamentals and get GUE’s coveted tech pass? What would that say about me as an instructor? Mark’s casual style put me at ease as we began, and I was able to focus. When Mark got to the third slide of the first lecture, it was like the fog had lifted and I could see everything clearly for the first time. I knew the trajectory of my career had just shifted and I’d be starting all over. “This is going to be expensive,” I thought.

So what’s on that slide? A simple statement that was the answer to all of my struggles: “End the disconnect between training and passion.” As Mark explained the issues in the dive industry, of which I was all too aware, he also explained how GUE addresses those issues. From the top down, GUE’s board of directors members and instructors are passionate divers and explorers, no exceptions. This changed everything for me. One of my biggest frustrations was recognizing that at the very top of the industry (senior managers of the agencies), almost nobody was an active diver. Presidents and VPs were diving once a year for social media posts to create an illusion they were still active and passionate—many of them with very limited teaching experience and making decisions on standards at the highest levels of technical, cave, and rebreather training when they had only been in a cave once or dove a semi-closed rebreather a couple of times back in the 90s. 

This lack of passion filters down through the industry. It’s amazing how many instructors (technical, cave and rebreather included) refuse to get in the water if they aren’t being paid. Even with my limited experience at the time, when I went to work for the agency, I would have my head in my hands thinking, “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” when sitting in on big meetings as industry heads for all of the agencies were in my opinion focused more on how to keep standards low and profits high rather than on safety and quality. 

A Commitment to Excellence

But now, staring at this slide, we discussed the ways GUE is focused on keeping quality at the highest level and inspiring divers to be passionate, competent, and capable of incredible conservation and exploration efforts. We discussed the global GUE community and all of the remarkable things they accomplish. It was so clearly the answer to everything.

I didn’t just want to be a Fundamentals diver. I wanted to be a GUE instructor. As I started on the path, I started to really realize why “Commit to Excellence” is printed on the back of our t-shirts. I was pushed harder than I had ever been in the past, with support and encouragement. The goal was always to improve, no matter what we were doing: from parking our cars at the dive sites to be courteous and leave room for others, to maintaining perfect stability in extremely task-loading situations, and developing the best instructional and evaluation techniques. There was never a time in any of my classes where I was told, “Good job.” It was always, “Good job, but here’s how we can make it better.”

My Tech 1 (and later Tech 2) instructor, Guy Shockey, made a statement that I remember every day. He explained that he chooses to be a GUE instructor because when he wakes up in the morning and gets ready to teach a class, he knows without a doubt that he has the capacity and resources to teach the best class available. So when I’m on my way to the shop or dive site to meet my students in the morning, I keep that in the back of my mind. I have the capacity and resources to teach the best class available. It not only gives me confidence, but keeps me honest. There are no excuses and no room for shortcuts. Commit to excellence. 

We are held to that standard of excellence through several mechanisms. We have strict annual renewal requirements to ensure we are actively diving and exploring so that students are learning from someone still passionate about what they are teaching. These requirements go far beyond what is typical in the industry, and we are actually monitored for meeting them.

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Staying Current (And Competent)

Most agencies have some form of “currency” recommendation, meaning you’re supposed to teach or assist a class every few years. However, there’s no oversight to ensure instructors are meeting this requirement. There’s loads of instructors out there (tech instructors and instructor trainers included) who haven’t taught a class in five-plus years. There’s nothing stopping these instructors from going out and teaching a class at their highest level. Sure, if something terrible happens, the agency and insurance company will likely drop the instructor, showing that they violated a standard by not remaining current. But at that point, it’s already too late. Students pay the price. Even if there isn’t an accident in training, it’s very likely that students will not have received adequate training and will be more at risk in their post-training diving activities.

GUE instructors need to show dive logs verifying we have conducted at least 25 non-training dives each year, half of which need to be at or above their highest teaching level. This ensures that when you sign up for a GUE class, you can be sure the instructor in front of you is still active, current, and passionate about what they are teaching you. 

All GUE instructors, instructor trainers, and instructor examiners are required to be re-evaluated at their highest teaching level every four years. Nobody is exempt from this rule, as it means that we are consistently ensuring everyone is teaching the same things, to the same standards, without drift. 

Scuba diving is a physically taxing activity, and the more aggressive the dive, the more physically fit the diver should be. Even on fairly benign dives, you never know when the current or seas might pick up, or when a failure could result in extended decompression times. We believe that having physical fitness requirements that are consistent with diving goals is extremely important. No smoking allowed for any GUE diver or instructor, and we require swim tests at every level of training. 

Instructors have to meet pretty stringent fitness requirements each year. We have to be medically evaluated for fitness to dive, maintain a low Body Mass Index (BMI), conduct timed swims and diver tows, stair climbs and equipment carries over long distances, all of which verify our ability to assist our students in emergencies. This is surprisingly absent from other agency’s renewal requirements. There are lines in the renewal agreement about being fit to dive, but there’s no oversight, and they don’t even require a medical exam.

We also have a 100% quality assurance process, meaning every student completes a quality control form. This is not only so our QC director can identify any drift from the standards or issues with our conduct in class, but also to help provide feedback on how we can improve the training we offer. We encourage our students not to just tell us what we did well, but treat us how we treat them in the debriefings and include areas we can better support their growth, because there’s always some room for improvement.

I don’t mention all of the renewal requirements as a flex, but rather to show that it takes a significant investment for GUE instructors to remain in current teaching status. Someone who isn’t committed simply won’t remain current. It was a huge draw for me, as I had seen how the minimal standards typical in the dive industry contribute to the disconnect.

For me, as an instructor, the benefits of GUE go beyond the high-quality training, standardization, and community. The opportunity to work toward ending the disconnect between training and passion as well as the continuous commitment to excellence are what keep me motivated. Not a year has gone by since my Fundamentals course that I haven’t seen significant growth as an instructor, and I don’t see that changing until I hang up my fins.


InDEPTH: The Economics of Being a Tech Diving Instructor by Darcy Kieran

Other stories by Jon Kieren:

InDEPTH: I Trained “Doc Deep” by Jon Kieren

InDEPTH: SUMP POTION #9 by Jon Kieren

InDEPTH: Grokking The FATHOM CCR: My Dive into the Nuts & Bolts with the Inventor by Jon Kieren

Jon Kieren is a cave, technical, and CCR instructor/instructor trainer who has dedicated his 13-year career to improving dive training. As an active TDI, IANTD, NSS-CDS, and GUE Instructor and former training director and training advisory panel member for TDI, he has vast experience working with divers and instructors at all levels, but his main professional focus resides in the caves. In his own personal diving, Jon’s true passions are deep, extended range cave dives, as well as working with photographers to bring back images of his favorite places to share with the world. 

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