Thursday, July 09, 2009

Who's teaching who?

If it hasn't come through by now, the main thrust of this blog is to promote using a motorcycle as a part of everyday life. It's open to debate, as most things are, as to whether or not we live a motorcycle lifestyle or if motorcycling is a way of life. To me, the word "lifestyle" has the meaning of affectation, or putting on. In my world, motorcycles are a part of daily life. Kind of like my coffee maker but a whole lot more fun. I'm passionate about riding just like I'm passionate about living with Katie. I'm lucky to have had two truly great loves. I just hope I never have to chose between them!

I've really enjoyed being an active motorcycle instructor. I have a chance to share my motorcycling philosophy with a receptive audience. Some of my students catch the fever and use a bike a lot. For example, Marv came through a class of mine earlier this year. Now I see his beautiful FZ-1 parked outside his work place almost every day. I've invited Marv to appear here as a guest. Here's hoping he takes me up on the offer. Marv's an enthusiastic and interesting fellow. I'm able to plant a seed with many new riders. Sometimes it sprouts, sometimes not.

Regardless of what happens down the road, riders all start at the same place. They start with learning to ride. Here in Oregon the vast majority of new endorsements are obtained by our Basic Rider Training graduates. Since I teach a lot, this means I get to touch many of these folks early on. The goal is to get these students to the point where they can demonstrate a basic level of skill. That skill level is demonstrated during our formal riding evaluation. It sounds simple, doesn't it? Take new students. Teach them to ride. Give them the riding test. Sign completion card and send them on their way. There's much more involved than it might seem.

As in motorcycling in general, so it is in this particular endeavour. The journey itself is where the real experience happens. Sometimes the journey is fairly uneventful. Other times not so much. In fact, the journey can be downright trialsome for some. The journey is what keeps me so enthused about teaching. I've had to acquire a whole new set of skills myself in the process. These skills have served me well in other areas of my life. Sometimes I wonder who's teaching who. In my not-so-humble opinion, I feel that being an effective instructor involves much more than passing along information. A truly skilled instructor makes a huge emotional investment in the students. We also need to be somewhat skilled parking lot psychologists, as well. Let me give you a couple of examples.

Here's a photo of a recent group of students. This isn't all of them as there's a few wandering around loose during the break. A full class numbers twelve students. Each one of those is a distinct and different personality. Each is there to reach the destination of becoming endorsed riders. Every one of them will require a slightly different journey to get there. The key to being an effective instructor is to give each and every one of them what they need. Which means we need to make an effort to tune in to each individual. To get them "there" you need to know where their current "here" is.

So what do you do with a young man who seems to have an attitude? He's there with his girlfriend. As you guessed, the young man needs to show off for her. He doesn't want it to be obvious that he needs training as much as she does. This makes him a bit less cooperative than he could be. I could choose one of three options. Firstly, I could ignore him. This won't give him what he needs. It could possibly hinder other students in their own learning process. Secondly, I could impose my "authority" on him. Sure, he'd comply but not align. I want alignment and I won't get it by shutting him down and making him think I'm a bad guy. I don't really care so much about his opinion of me. If he closes his mind, though, the important stuff won't be absorbed. The young man still won't get what he needs. I go for the third option. I make him my ally.

"Hey, it looks like you've maybe ridden before. I can see some good basic skills there. Your classmates are going to see this and they'll start looking up to you. It would sure be of help to them to see your great example as we ride the exercises."

Now he's having to focus on the proper technique because he wants to be looked up to. Deep down he's as insecure as the rest of the group. The young man rose to the challenge. He needed to be looked up to by his girlfriend. As a bonus I gave him the whole class. The truth of the matter is that the rest of the class is so absorbed in their own journey that they'll hardly notice him. Doesn't matter. Perception became reality for the young man. He got what he needed as evidenced by his doing very well on the skills test. I got what I needed. The chance to do my job. Which is to be the best instructor I can possibly be. Each student has the right to expect that from me.

That's my teaching partner Mike in the picture above. The skills test is done and we're starting a couple of traffic interaction exercises. The students will have a chance to mingle and deal with other traffic before facing the real world in a day or two. Mike's reading the directions so I took a moment to snap a photo.

One of the gals had purchased a beautiful red and cream colored Honda Rebel. She told me her first venture on the bike ended as quickly as it had started. With a spectacular launch and a broken ankle. Now she was here as a student to perhaps get a bit better start this time. Her enthusiasm level was sky high. Her skill level, well, a little closer to the ground. I love this kind of challenge. Rebel Lady didn't pass the skills test. However, during the journey her skill levels gained some altitude.

The other day I was in a department store. I guess my Hi-Viz 'Stich made me an easy target. One minute I'm walking down the aisle towards the back of the store. The next minute I feel this crushing pressure while my nostrils register the strong scent of leather. There was a brief moment of disorientation. Thinking it might be Mr. Riepe come to Oregon to do some bondage with me, I mean bonding, I twisted around to face my attacker. It was Rebel Lady. She laid a big hug on me and excitedly squealed that she had made it.

Taking what we had taught her in class, she practiced on her bike. Having a permit, she was able to ride along with her boyfriend. Then she went back and did the skills test on her Rebel. This time she passed just fine. She spent the next fifteen minutes telling me how she hears my voice in her head talking her through all the situations she's been encountering. Then she took me out and showed me her bike. Some people might find this annoying. It's just one of the perks for me. Can you hear the happiness in her voice? I had a part in that. By the way, Rebel Lady, you're welcome to use my voice in your head until your own develops.

Most of the students fall into one of three categories. There's aggressive and overconfident. There's the middle of the road bunch. Then there's the timid and nervous riders. Once in a while, though, a person will come in at the extreme end of the first or last group. One of our gals was at the extreme end of nervous. You could accurately say she was scared. In fact, she herself told me she was scared "spitless". Well, the word she used had to do with an excretion at the other end of the alimentary canal. I took the liberty of making a slight change.

In short, she told me that she used to ride as a passenger when she was a kid. The rider was her older brother and things were fun. Nothing bad happened to her brother, by the way. He just moved across the country and wasn't nearby for support anymore. Now in her fifties the woman decided she wanted to explore riding a motorcycle on her own. Whether her family is extra controlling or she allows herself to be controlled isn't a subject for this discussion. However, there was a lot of that going on. Basically the theme was "if you ride a motorcycle you will end up dead". Apparently it was an intense campaign. Yet, here she was. Totally scared but determined. I wish I could say this was a rousing success story. It wasn't. I guess it depends on how you measure success. Sometimes success isn't determined solely by reaching the destination. In some cases the victory comes from starting on the journey.

During one of the first few exercises the woman came to a stop, then did a slow tipover. This really freaked her out. She was determined to go on but needed some time to pull herself together. We gave it to her. A bit later she came to a stop beside me for some coaching. She told me she was feeling like she wanted to pass out. She didn't want to quit, though.

Now I had to make a decision as an instructor. I obviously can't have a student riding who's on the verge of passing out. Safety is job one for us. On the other hand, even if the student has no chance of passing the skills test, everyone deserves the chance to experience the discovery process. It's not my place to say when that journey should end for them. I'm only going to pull them out if it's very clear that to continue would put them or the other students in harm's way. One has to use reasoned judgement in the matter. That's why I try so hard to connect with the students. I need to know where they are at any point in time.

The woman and I had a conversation during the break. She opened up to me about where she was coming from. I asked her why she was feeling like she wanted to pass out. The woman explained that it was from the pressure to perform. She was doing all she could just to ride the bike, let alone be pressured to meet the objectives. It's not that the instructors apply pressure. We simply cheerfully coach. Putting myself in her place I realized that any amount of coaching would seem like pressure to an already overwhelmed student.

Just the fact that she opened up to me was gratifying. You might not realize how hugely the trust factor figures in. We're asking already timid and nervous students to do things way out of their comfort level. It is critically vital to be trustworthy to that student. There's no way they can experience success until they trust us enough to try what we're coaching them to do. Once they have their own success the process gets easier. It's those first steps that are so hard.

One of my stock jokes is about how the instructors are motorcycle people. That the program owns these bikes. I assure the students that they can trust my coaching. After all, I'd never ask them to do anything that would hurt my bikes!

Anyway, the woman and I worked out a system. I later informed Mike so we'd be on the same page. I told her that she needed to remember first and foremost that we were on her side. She was welcome to continue. If I felt her safety was at risk I would pull her out. Short of that, we would not put any pressure on her. For every exercise she was welcome to just ride the path of travel at her comfort level. She could participate in the actual skill practice when she felt she was ready.

You know, it worked. She never crashed or even dropped the bike, for that matter. She actually made some meaningful progress on her skills. When she showed she was ready, we offered coaching. All the while mixed with abundant reassurance. As you might expect she didn't pass the skills test. She knows that there's no way she'd be ready to ride a bike on the streets any time soon. Yet, at the end of the day, this woman was beaming with victory. She had taken the journey and conquered a huge fear. That's a win any way you look at it. Now that it's no longer a mystery as to what is involved, she told me she wants to come take the class again. I'm sure her results will be much better next time.

Yes, at the end of a class you're ready to just plop down on something and take a load off. The journey takes a lot out of all of us, instructors and students alike. It can be extra draining for the instructors as we become the catalyst that binds all the diverse personalities together to head for the common goal. At the same time, how many chances do we get to do something so meaningful for others? Not only that, but to do it with something we so deeply enjoy and believe in? When one class is finished, I get to start fresh with a new group the next week. It's a fascinating and rewarding role.

Like I said before, developing skills that will help the students get what they need has made me so much better at understanding and communicating with people I meet other places, as well. We need a lot more of that in this world. I learn as much from my students as they learn from me.

Who's teaching who?

Miles and smiles,



Balisada said...

I know how the one lady feels.

I was told my whole life, on a regular basis that motorcycles were dangerous and that I should never ride one.

I applaud her determination.



Balisada said...


It is good to know that there are other Rebels on the road.

I think they are like baby pigeons.

You know they exist, but you never see any.


Charlie6 said...

You sir are a great instructor....the army could have used your skills.

Nice technique, handling that kid.

R.G. said...

Where were the teachers like you when I was in school. Seriously Dan, you should consider writing a book. You can't spend as much time teaching and on the road as you do without compiling enough content for a "can't put it down tome".

Did I pass you on 99E heading into Oregon City on Wednesday?

Conchscooter said...

Interesting stuff. If riding had been such a challenge for me I'd never have taken it up.

Bryce said...


Being an instructor is similar to being a family physician. Each patient is different, has different requirements, different attitudes and different results are expected.

And you as instructor don't have a choice about your patients, you take them as they come through your door.

On another topic:
Today Friday July 10 is one of those days where summer has finally arrived. It is humid, about 30 degrees Celsius, and the reason air conditioning was invented. And for those who ride a motorcycle, superb weather.

If I was still riding, the reply would be, not!

This is the weather when I am at my worst, it is too hot, too humid and for me, too dangerous. Ruminating my decision about foregoing motorcycling, and today is one of the primary reasons. You can dress to keep warm, however you can't undress to stay cool. Especially while riding a motorcycle. And if
your body systems are not properly functioning, you'll suffer, big time.

Krysta in MKE said...

"At the end of the day, this woman was beaming with victory. She had taken the journey and conquered a huge fear."

I'm smiling just reading about her! Let us know when she finally graduates.

And I (again) second the idea of a book.

Steve Williams said...

Whenever I read your posts I always want to identify with you Dan but I always end up identifying with your students.

When I took the first MSF course I definitely felt pressure to perform even though no one put any pressure on me. While I wasn't going to pass out it was uncomfortable for awhile. But I did relax and things were fine.

You definitely should write a book. I've read a lot of riding technique books and they leave me cold with their clinical descriptions and missives. Your writing always touches on the human part of riding. It's your understanding of that combined with experience that makes us all nod our heads while reading.

As one of your distance education students I thank you for all that you do.

Steve Williams
Scooter in the Sticks

Dean W said...

Because that's what I want, Dan's voice in my head when I'm out riding. Squeeze in tight, Dan's voice- it's crowded in here, and some of us forgot deoderant (and their meds) this morning!

Actually I do have Dan's voice tucked away in back corner. It came to me in the third class I ever taught, and it goes "We do our best work with the most challenging students".

Sometimes, I wonder- was he talking about the students we were teaching together (which had a number of challenging students), or me?

irondad said...


You have now joined the "enlightened" group! Thanks to you, Rebels are more on my radar these days. Except now I'll have to try to get the squab picture out of my head.

It's hard to remember that the class isn't about us, sometimes. When we turn our attention outward more promising possibilities certainly present themselves, don't they?

Take care,


irondad said...


Katie tells me I should write a book, also. There are certainly many rich stories that come with the students. Maybe one of these days?

That wasn't me you saw. I was on the bike that day but didn't get farther North than Salem.


I know this is a low blow, but it sounds like riding WAS that much of a struggle for you! I write this with affection and respect behind my cruel words!

Take care,


irondad said...


Doctor Irondad? Interesting. I'm sorry you are having such a struggle with giving up riding. Hang in there, my friend. When one door closes, others often open with just as much treasure behind them. We just have to be willing to let go of one door handle and grasp another.


I hope I get to find out how it turns out for my student. We have a deep connection by now. I find the older I get the more I seem to be interested in my student's personal stories.

Take care,


irondad said...


What a nice compliment! What you stated about your experience is true for many students. As an instructor I try to always be mindful of what's going on inside a student's head. It would be so easy to overwhelm them without being aware I'm doing it.

I think of my job as reaching out a hand to help steady them, rather than pushing from behind.

It would be an interesting challenge to combine a "how-to" book with human interest stories. Hmmm.

Dean W,

It's probably pretty wild inside your head. Don't know that I would want to spend much time there. I'd start to feel inadequate when exposed to your intellect!

Definitely the students, not you. You were a shining star from the start.

Take care,


Anonymous said...

I just discovered your blog, and it's making me feel much better! I took the Team Oregon BRT class this past weekend and was terrified--had never been on a motorcycle before and heard all the "you'll die" stories for years. Toward the end of the second day, my instructor told me that I "wasn't ready for this" without further explanation. Needless to say, I didn't pass the skills test--but more disappointing was that I left feeling as if there wasn't an option for me to become a safe rider. You're spot-on when you talk about building trust with students--it makes an enormous difference if a student feels she can trust you and that you want her to succeed, especially when they tell you how much of motorcycling is mental!