Those Who CAN, Do. Those Who CAN’T, Teach.

Written By: Lance Piatt

By: Tom Wood


We’ve all probably heard this comment, and some of us may have even made this comment ourselves after sitting through a rope rescue or rope access class taught by someone who probably couldn’t teach someone to (properly) tie their own shoesWell, I think it’s safe to say that like everything else that can be taught or learned, rope access and technical rope rescue has its share of folks who probably belong IN the class instead of in front of it.

As a rope access and rope rescue instructor myself, I still find myself occasionally sitting in a classroom, learning from others. And when I do, I’ve come to realize that in the rope rescue and rope access world, there are some common traits that all good instructors seem to share. As an instructor, I do my level best to practice what I preach and hold myself accountable to the same standards by which I judge others.

So just what are the hallmarks of a good instructor in this demanding field? Let’s go down the list.

#1 They have solid, real-life, real-world experience



“Experience is the hardest kind of teacher. It gives you the test first and the lessons come after,” said Oscar Wilde. Now, when it comes to technical rope rescues, let’s be honest here folks. For the most part, they are pretty rare. Or at best, they happen infrequently. So when you get an instructor who regales the class with a multitude of technical rope rescue war stories, it’s probably a safe bet that they are either exaggerating or these rescues happened in the previous century. Don’t get me wrong, war stories are great tools for making a point, but they shouldn’t be used in a learning environment to feed the instructor’s ego. And if that instructor isn’t out there in the trenches getting their hands dirty anymore, they are missing out on some valuable learning experiences and this leads to stagnation. Which brings me to point #2…

#2 They possess a fanatical willingness to learn

The best instructors are the ones who are still willing to learn, and freely admit that they don’t know everything. Beware the instructors who heavily rely on their reputation, or past achievements. Beware instructors who don’t like to be questioned or second-guessed. And beware the instructors who tell you that there is only one method or technique to accomplish a goal. I call this the “My way or the highway” teaching philosophy. That one technique or method that they are so fond of may the only one they know. Also, technology is advancing at a rapid pace, and if someone never leaves the classroom (physically or mentally), they’ll not only miss out on changes to the gear, but also on the evolving techniques, changing standards and guidelines that apply to the safe and efficient use of the gear. Here comes point #3…

#3 They maintain involvement in the industry that puts bread on their table

Now, I used to proudly claim membership to the rope rescue technician clan, and denounce those who had become long in tooth (and heavy in ass) as belonging to the rope rescue politician clan. I have softened my view on this somewhat over the years. Especially here in the U.S., we need folks who know their way around a rope to educate those who try to legislate what we do out in the field. Anyone who’s ever suffered through an NFPA, ANSI or ASTM standards meeting knows full well that some of the folks who write the rules for what we do as rope access and rope rescue technicians don’t know a bowline from a butterfly. As instructors (and some might say old farts and not be too off base), I feel we owe it to our respective industries to participate- to give back, in some way. In short, we shouldn’t just sit back and collect money or accolades from students without giving something back that advances our industry. As instructors, we need to remain vested in the rope rescue and rope access industry. And sometimes, that means that we need savvy rope rescue politicians in our corner.

#4 They can adapt to different styles of learning


I know several guys and gals who are uber-talented rope technicians, but they make for terrible teachers when asked to do so. Instructing is a skill, a talent. The best instructors know how to LISTEN as well as talk. They understand that every student learns differently, and adapts their teaching style to better suit the needs of the students. Lecture, visual aids, written material and opportunities for kinesthetic learning are all equally important if we want our students to walk away from a course with the skills to not only pass a test, but to survive and thrive in the stressful and high-risk environment where we ply our trade.

#5 They can admit to being wrong

This is a big one, and probably the rarest. If you’ve ever watched an instructor tie an improper knot, or rig a system that just doesn’t work and then watched them waste twenty minutes of valuable class time rationalizing their actions instead of just saying “I really screwed the pooch on that one,” then you know what I mean. We are all human, we all make mistakes. But when pride takes precedence in an environment where lives are potentially at risk, we are treading on some mighty thin ice. To err is human, to own up to it, divine.

Wrapping it up

I have to say that I have been fortunate to learn from some of the best and brightest folks out there in the rope rescue and rope access biz. But perhaps no one has had a more profound influence on me than the late Steve Hudson, one of the founders of PMI, the company that I now work for. Steve lived and breathed every single trait I mention above, and did so with humility and grace. So thanks Steve, for being such a great rope rescue and rope access mentor. For being the kind of person who not only DID, but also taught. But most importantly, thanks for being the kind of human being that one would aspire to.

About Tom Wood

image002Tom is the Training Manager for PMI’s Vertical Rescue Solutions. He is a SPRAT Level 3 Rope Access Supervisor, a 17-year veteran and current Field Director of the Alpine Rescue Team and a U.S. Terrestrial Rescue Delegate to ICAR. A former journalist and Combat Photographer for the USMC Reserves, he is also a freelance author and writer. Tom is an avid ice climber, mountaineer, and caver. He lives in Conifer, Colorado with a wife and three children who, to his constant amazement, support him in all his crazy endeavors.


About Vertical Rescue Solutions

VRS_LogoAt VRS™, we don’t just teach rescue — we live it. With knowledge gleaned from a variety of disciplines (Fire, EMS, Mountain Rescue, Confined Space, Technical Rope Rescue, Cave Rescue, Industrial Rescue) and years of hands-on, real life rescue experience, VRS™ instructors focus on saving lives through education and instruction. With the establishment of the new ANSI Z359 (2007) standards for the establishment of a Managed Fall Protection Plan, the employer has more responsibility than ever for the safety of their workers. And in the often confusing and ever-changing world of safety compliance, we not only know the rules, we’ve helped write a few ourselves. PMI and VRS staff members are active participants in ANSI, NFPA, the Cordage Institute, SPRAT, ASTM and ASSE. VRS can help businesses and organizations formulate a documented Rescue Pre-Plan and Rescue After a Fall Plan.


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