Monday, July 30, 2012

Certified Instruction

I was looking for something on my computer, and ran across this article I wrote 13 years ago, when I first became an ARIA certified instructor. I am pleasantly surprised to see my attitude towards rider education hasn't changed, despite the years and arena miles. Unfortunately, my stage fright in front of a video camera hasn't improved either...but regardless, I thought I'd share it with you guys.


            I was working at Garland Farms in Georgia, when I decided the prestigious title of  “Resident Instructor” enough.  I sent Charlotte Kneeland my money and received a 10-pound tome entitled Horses, Second Edition to prepare for the up coming ARIA certification.  To add to the intimidation, the certification also required me to write twenty essays and submit a video of my teaching.  The paperwork reminded me over and over again that the video should be “an example of my best work.”
            Armed with this information, I began to prepare.

The Studying: Back to the books

I bravely began to study.  Horses, Second Edition by J. Warren Evans of Texas A & M is a very comprehensive, detailed textbook.  In short, it is dull.  I placed it next to my alarm clock determined to read some each night. Within a week I was referring to it as The Cure for Insomnia.  Although I was sleeping better than I had in months, I almost suffocated twice. A word of advice – never read in bed with a 10-pound sleeping pill on your chest.
In spite of nighttime setbacks I was learning from Evans.  And so were my students.  My Illinois students have long been familiar with my “do you know and do you care facts.”  Now Georgians were getting their share.
            I’d greet a student with “How was your day? Did you know a horse sleeps flat on his side for approximately 2 hours a day, broken into 7 1/2 minute increments?”  Or while grooming I’d say to another, “Those hard spots on either side of the tail are the ishial tuberosities.” 
            At first they would smile.  I think they thought it was cute.  After a few weeks they’d gently steer the conversation to other topics.  When I got to the chapter on internal parasites they would slowly slink into the tack room when I appeared. 

The Essays:  What makes me tick as a teacher?

            In between my late nights with Mr. Evan’s writings, I tackled the essays.
            The essay questions were very straightforward.  Actually, it was their directness that made them so difficult.  They required me to look at not just what I was doing, but why I was doing it.
For example, one question regarded the role of competition in my lesson program.  I have encouraged my students to compete, but never pushed them to do so.  What did that say about my teaching program?  What role does competition play in my student’s education?  Is that the role I want it to play?  Do my actions support my ideals?  All this introspection was making me dizzy.
Another question asked me to explain my philosophy of teaching.  At my ripe old age of 28 I had actually given it a lot of thought (actually, every time Dad asks why I’m not using my college degree), but forming those thoughts into coherent sentences, that was another thing.  I came up with the following:

I firmly believe that riding instruction is not really about teaching riding, it’s about teaching confidence.  Confident riders feel secure both physically and in their abilities.  To help this I require safe attire and try to put the rider on a suitable mount.   To make the student feel confident about her abilities I try to break each movement and/or exercise into smaller pieces and work each piece before putting them together as a whole unit. 

I try to teach the rider to listen to her horse.  I strive to teach them to use the aids to communicate with their horse, and to use the horse’s reactions to those aids to further refine the communication. 

I believe good riding gives the horse no reason to resist doing the correct work.  I utilize the training tree to help students evaluate where they are in their training and to give them a framework to further their progress.

After I finished I quizzed one of my long-time students as to what she thought my philosophy of teaching is.  I was delighted to find our answers matched.
After several drafts of each answer I was finally satisfied.

The Video: A Star is Not Born

            Now came the bigger challenge, making an example of my best teaching.
I assembled my brave student Katie Patton, Gina and John Krueger’s stallion Pik Winland, and our faithful farm videographer Dot Brock.  The weather was beautiful, the outdoor arena was groomed and ready, my lesson plan was planned and planned and planned again. 
            Dot started rolling tape.  My palms began to sweat.  My stomach started fluttering.  I suddenly developed a stutter.  I couldn’t tell my right from my left. Not good.
            I took the video into my cabin, locked the door, and pulled the curtains.  Then I made myself watch the video.  I tried to be objective and stick to what I can improve.  I came out with my ego in a bag and two pages of improvements.  First on the list was “teach, don’t just direct traffic.”
            Now I understood why the testers recommended making practice tapes.
            I tried again. 
            And again.
            By the 4th time Dot commented that my stage fright was becoming chronic.  
            I watched all four videos back-to-back.  The one with the best teaching was the one we did as an “experiment.”  Dot was figuring out her new camera and the video came out in black and white.  I wasn’t dressed properly (I had on one of my long college sweatshirts and a ball cap – I looked about 12). Halfway through taping the skies opened up and rain poured.  But the teaching was solid. 
            Not having the heart to put my friends through another session, I decided to submit it.

The Test: Fear’s moment to shine

            Test day arrived, and in my nervousness I arrived 45 minutes early.  Those 45 minutes stretched into years.  I worried.  I fretted.  I peered at each of the three other testers.  I was convinced they were big-name trainers with walls and walls of ribbons.  I was sure their student roster read like a who’s who of NAYRC medallists. 
            And I was just a lowly working student turned resident instructor.
            Then one of them said “Are you as nervous as I am?” and I realized they were 3 other professionals just like me.  We were all interested in providing safe, fun educations for our students. We worried about liability laws, correct turning aids, and finding time to get the laundry washed.  We put our riding pants on one leg at a time -- even the gal with a world champion saddle seat equitation title-holder for a student. 
            The test itself was straightforward and to the point.  You either knew the answers or you didn’t.  I thought I did.

The Wait : The Demon Doubt

            Then I went home to wait for my results.  I waited and waited and waited some more.  At the end of week one I wondered if my essay answers were complete enough.  Week two I dug out my text and looked up migration patterns of strongyls, convinced I had made a muck of them.  By week 4 I was sure I couldn’t saddle a horse correctly.  
            My students suffered with me. They tried in vain to console my doubting heart.
            Then the day arrived.
            I opened the envelope with trembling hands.  When I saw the words “Level III Dressage” on my certificate I squealed with delight.  Then I saw my scores – 99% in dressage, 99% in general horsemanship and the words “a very fine lesson” on my video critique sheet. The only negative comment was my “lack of professional attire,” and I could live with that.  I was sure it was Christmas.

The Aftermath :What had really been tested

            In the days that followed I did some soul-searching.  I asked myself why had I felt the need to tackle this test.  I am the same person now as I was before I had climbed to the top of my mountain and discovered it was really a molehill in disguise. I was pretty sure I was a good teacher before I took the test.  Pretty sure, but not completely sure. 
            Passing the test with flying colors gave me the confidence to believe what my students and their mounts had been telling me.  I do know my stuff.  I do communicate it clearly.  I do get results not only because of the depth of my knowledge, but also because of my love of that knowledge.  My definition of excellence is high enough.  All of these things were in place before I became certified.
The certificate just affirms it.   
Preparing for and taking the test didn’t change my teaching, or even my outlook on teaching.  It did change my outlook on me.  I had been a working student for two years at test time, and had beforehand spent a few years as a “working amateur.” I still saw myself as the gal who taught at the local hunter-mill on Saturdays, or the assistant to the “real” instructor.  I did not see the dressage professional my years as a working student had molded me into.  Taking the test not only affirmed me as a teacher, it affirmed me as a professional in my own right in my own eyes. 
I know that is the most valuable thing the test could have given me. 

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