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Janet holding her kayak on the river bank

Dream Team: Janet and Katrina bring the stoke for Zoar Outdoor’s upcoming ACA Certification Course

By Amanda Major

You want to take an American Canoe Association course to start your journey becoming a whitewater instructor, but you’re not sure who to take the course with. Fear not! The course that you need to register for is here. Zoar Outdoor’s upcoming 5 day Level 3-4 Whitewater Kayak ACA Instructor Certification course includes a 3 day Instructor Development Workshop and a 2 day Instructor Certification Exam. The instructors of the course: Janet Cowie and Katrina O’Brien. Together, they have a collective 50+ years of kayak instruction and bring two unique and inclusive approaches to mentorship and instruction.

During preparations for the rapidly approaching spring season at Zoar Outdoor, Janet and Katrina took some time out to discuss the upcoming ACA Instructor Certification course they are teaching together in April. If you are looking to gain ACA Paddlesport Instructor Certification, this is a course you surely won’t want to miss.

Check out in the interview below what these two superstar instructors had to say about their upcoming course, their special sauce, and what a great day of instruction means to them.

Interview with Janet and Katrina:

Q: How many courses have you taught? 

Janet:

I’ve been at Zoar for over 27 years. I first got hired at Zoar because I took a certification course to be an instructor, and they recruited me out of the course. I have taught many courses at Zoar Outdoor and all over the country and world.

Katrina:

I’ve lost count, but each is unique because of the students and what they bring to the experience.

 

Q: How long have you been an instructor? 

Janet:

 Since 1991 I’ve been an ACA certified instructor but I was teaching with my college outing club.

Katrina:

Since June 1998.  To this day it remains one of the things I’m most proud of in my career. 

 

Q: Has your instruction changed over the years? 

Janet:

To be a good instructor, you must be able to change and grow. You also have to take feedback well. Some of the old standards that I’ve developed through the years still work. But also, an instructor needs to be connected to the realization that we’re different people within our society over 25 years. The demands on the type of people who pursue Paddlesports and what their needs are may change over time. The essence of what we’re trying to get across doesn’t change—it just grows. When I am instructing, I try to give folks a set framework that they can use as their foundation, and then I make sure I can change, grow, and modify that to fit their personality or their situation.

Katrina:

In recent years, I’ve been trying to instill an appreciation of place and sense of stewardship for whitewater rivers to my students.  I deliberately made this shift while directing a middle school and high school outdoor education program.  My goal is to foster a love of rivers among everyone, but especially younger folks.  Even if people don’t end up becoming lifelong paddlers, I hope they’ll still value rivers as magical and important places.  In an age where more and more of what we do is online or linked to technology, developing these connections is particularly important.  

 

Q: Talk to me about a moment that you had on a course that changed the way you instruct. 

Janet:

When I was mentoring an instructor trainer candidate, we had a person who was in the course and was very surprised at the outcome of their certification level. She did not get certified to the level she had expected to. All along the way, we were trying to make it clear about where we thought she stood. At the final interview, she was really angry and frustrated. This was one of the first experiences that my instructor trainer candidate had in dealing with somebody that was not happy with their outcomes and the IT Candidate ended up doing well in handling the situation. I learned more about managing my own expectations around communication and active listening. I have learned to be really gracefully patient and to take the time to make sure people understand the feedback we are giving and why we are giving it—ultimately for their growth. Constant clear communication and checking in to make sure people truly understand you is key.

 

Katrina:

Mine is less a singular moment and instead overall themes.  I’ve been fortunate enough to co-teach with many amazing instructors.  In addition to building trust and camaraderie with these educators, I’ve been able to learn from them while also developing my own style.  Keeping kayaking approachable and fun is a critical through-line in all of it.  Listening to students and crafting the experience to fit their needs is foundational to everything we offer.  I’ve watched paddling positively impact the lives of many of my students.  This is an incredible gift that we are privileged enough to be able to offer!  I love watching students glow with a sense of belonging, potential, and enjoyment from kayaking and the river community.    

 

Q: What would you say to someone considering becoming an instructor?  What are your words of wisdom?

Janet:

I wouldn’t give them words of wisdom; I would ask them a question. Know your “Why.” Why are you doing it? What is your motivation? Where does your passion lie for this work? Are they doing it for the money? Because they need a good summer job? Because they are passionate about kayaking? Are they doing it because it’s an ego thing? Or are they doing it for the betterment of other people? That is what a teacher really does. They’re trying to share the passion. Going into the ACA instructor certification course with clarity around why you want to do this and how you want to frame your and other experiences will be valuable.

Katrina:

Don’t wait, start now!  Teaching paddling is incredibly rewarding and impactful.  The process takes time, so be patient with yourself and open to learning.  Devoting yourself to becoming an instructor will improve your own whitewater kayaking technique and get you fired up about sharing the sport with others.  You’ll create meaningful connections with students and other instructors that have the potential to last a lifetime.  Teaching paddling helps one recognize that the boating community is small and that we have a responsibility to support and encourage each other, as well as taking care of the rivers we paddle. 

 

Q: Let’s say you are cooking an “instructor pie.” What are the top 3 ingredients? 

Janet:

Really? Only three ingredients?! Because it’s way more ingredients.

Empathy, fun, and spontaneity. Those are the obvious pieces. The subtle ingredients include keeping both the big picture details and goals in mind while also effectively maintaining the immediate tasks and goals. Looking at the small details while also understanding the big picture. Let’s call this having a “vision.”

Being able to navigate group dynamics and work well with others, and of course the skill base. The main ingredients are empathy, fun, knowing the big picture & small picture, and knowing how to communicate and break down technical skills.

Katrina:

Here are my ‘super food’ ingredients: 1) Situational awareness (risk management, timeliness, recognizing and adapting to student needs, anticipation, attention to detail),  2) Emotional Intelligence (includes humility, empathy, self-awareness, teamwork, self-motivation, and what motivates/rewards others), and 3) Attention and Care to Quality (aim to exceed the expectation or standard, maintain a growth mindset, tactfully share feedback, graciously accept feedback, take pride in work, avoid “good enough”).  Simple and transferrable, right?! 

 

Q: What kind of characteristics and attitudes make someone successful during an ACA instructor course/as an ACA instructor? 

Janet:

Openness and being willing to learn. The first part of the certification course is the instructor development workshop (IDW), and we expect you to be open to learning and changing with humility. We want to make sure you can instruct, and you learn from each other. Once you can understand how you learn, it’s easier to teach others.

Katrina:

Candidates who excel have a growth mindset, are open to feedback, practice humility, and don’t stake ‘success’ on their certification level.  Folks who enjoy these courses are good paddlers and good teachers who can take and apply feedback with the goal of actively becoming even better!

 

Q: What’s your special sauce? 

Janet:

My desire to see greatness in others. I value patience and wanting people to develop and grow. My role is really to champion the growth of others.

Katrina:

Well applied sarcasm.

 

Q: What is the craziest prop or teaching activity you’ve ever done? How’d it go? 

  

Janet:

I have a dead (rubber) fish that I bring to play with. One of my favorite tools for discussing teaching models and showing different teaching styles is the paper airplane. I teach people how to make a paper airplane, but in all the different teaching styles. Also, I think googly eyes are one of my favorite teaching tools.

 

Katrina:

I’ve done some pretty fun things when teaching people how to race mini motorcycles.  It’s the most fun you can have on two wheels, so it tends to go pretty well!

 

Q: What are you most looking forward to in the upcoming course? 

Janet:

Teaching with Katrina. The things I am most looking forward to in my job in the past 27 years have changed. While I’m in more of a management role, the essence of where I started in this business is teaching. I feel so honored to still be able to teach and share information and passion. As my role and jobs have changed, I want to set the pathway for others to step into my place. My goal is to train amazing people. In doing so, I get the opportunity to teach with these really cool people.

Katrina:

Being part of folks paddling progression and professional journey!  

 

Q: What do you do to prep for a course? How long do you spend prepping? 

 

Janet:

When I first started instructing these courses, I used to manage it down to the minute. I had an outline, and I didn’t want to miss anything. Now, I still have the outline, but I’m not micromanaging the time as much. Sometimes, there’s opportunities that go in another direction based on what your group needs. I have a big bag of actual props that I pull out and start playing with to figure out what’s going to be different, what’s going to be the same. I try to reflect on past courses to process what worked well, and not so well. I do review all my outlines, and I try to find new ways to approach topics because teaching is dynamic, and I want it to be exciting for me as well as the students.

Katrina:

Thinking about the course context and what the goals are for the students and the program.  Whenever possible, it’s nice to craft experiences to fit the participants and their needs.  The unique aspects of the course determine how I prepare.  Discussing the course with my co-instructor (the amazing Janet!), our goals and how we want to accomplish them is essential.  I do a lot of reflecting at the end of a day teaching and after a course about what worked well and what could have been improved.  This serves me well in that it helps me to learn from my experiences and improve future courses.

 

Q: You’re co-teaching the upcoming course. How do you create a successful co-instructor dynamic? 

Janet:

It’s a joke, but I always remember that it is not all about me. You go into it knowing that people are messy and different. And that’s also something to celebrate. Because this other person can bring in different aspects and ideas. I like to approach co-teaching with a plan and some structure, because usually when things get uncomfortable it’s when there was no plan. The plan could be as simple or more in depth. Coaching can take many shapes.

When it comes to co-teaching with Katrina, I have the realization that I taught her how to paddle when she was 15 years old. I’m really proud of her. It is so exciting to see where she’s gone and how she lives the passion of this industry. Part of me just wants to sit back and watch. And part of me wants the opportunity to challenge myself as well. I am excited for us to have space to talk about different ways to present material; it’s always good for an old dog to learn new tricks. I believe that I can, and I believe that I’m going to be inspired by her. Mentoring can go both ways.

Katrina:

Listening, learning, supporting, and being excited to empower all others.  Janet has been a mentor and inspiration to me for decades, and I’m excited that we’re teaching this course together!  Much of my desire to encourage others to become boaters and welcome them into this community has been out of gratitude for the support and inclusion that I receive from my first Zoar kayaking instructors.  It’s doubtful that I would have taken this life path without their kindness and willingness to mentor me.  A respectful and open partnership between co-instructors helps create a positive learning environment where everything else becomes possible. 

 

Q: Finish my sentence: “At the end of a really good day of instruction, ….” 

Janet:

“I feel incredibly satisfied with the way my students have had successes, and I look at my co-instructors, and we can give each other high fives and say, “That was awesome!”

Katrina:

“I’ve made a connection with my students, seen them become excited about kayaking, and am confident that I’ll see them out on the river!”

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