The job of a school group ski instructor

Written by on January 26, 2021 in Blog, Sport and Adventure

the team of new sci instructors

The job of a school group ski instructor…

In the winter of 2018/19 I did the BASI level 1&2 ski instructor course with Interski in Pila, Aosta Valley. Having somehow or another managed to pass the course I have so far done 4 week’s paid work with Interski as an instructor, looking after school groups from the UK….

It seems a very long time ago now, the evening of Friday 22nd February 2020, which was the last time I found myself in an Aosta hotel, standing up nervously in front of a room full of noisy and excited British school kids, handing out skiing certificates and badges. Together with 3 or 4 other instructors also assigned to the school for the week, we have just finished 5 action packed days looking after 8 boys and girls each, plus the odd teacher, up on the mountain in the Pila ski resort.

2019/2020 season cut short by Covid

Sadly, the 2019/20 ski season was cut short a couple of weeks afterwards due to Covid and as we now know, it is going to be December 2021 before we will be doing anything like this again. Which is such a shame for all the school groups who have had to cancel their ski trips. For many of the children it would have been their first, and possibly one and only experience of winter sports in their lives. For some, it was going to be their first trip abroad ever. So many brilliant learning opportunities lost, even before you think about the actual skiing bit. And it is a great shame too for all of the hundreds of instructors and resort staff who in a normal year come to Pila, Courmayeur and La Thuile in the Aosta Valley with Interski to help the kids and their teachers to have a great holiday.

insterski office in Aosta - Working for Interski: the job of a school group ski instructor

The end of week presentation ceremony

The end of week presentation is quite a special moment for the instructors. Something that at first you dread but after a couple of goes at it without making a total idiot of yourself you actually quite look forward to. The funny thank-you cards and signed souvenir t-shirts I have collected from my groups are treasured possessions.

When you are first given your group at the collection point up in Pila on a Monday morning, you are looking at a bunch of nameless and faceless bodies, all kitted out in matching black jackets & trousers. The only things distinguishing them are their varying height and size and the colour of their helmets. It is sometimes even difficult to immediately identify which are the boys and which are the girls.

But over the course of the week, skiing together, having lunch together, standing in queues and riding lifts together, each individual character gradually emerges. You get to know them all pretty well and on the Friday evening when you hand them their awards it hits you that you have become really quite attached to them. And because of the faith that they have put in you to guide them safely through their first adventures on skis, they seem to have become quite attached to you too.


The Level 1 group – complete beginners

The badges and certificates you give out at the end of the course relate to the 5 technical ‘levels’ that make up the Interski learning to ski pathway. Level 1 are the complete beginners and Level 5 are accomplished and experienced skiers & snowboarders.

The groups that have been assigned to me have so far all been Level 1. The kids who can already ski want to be out with the most dynamic instructors, who’s energy and skill would be wasted down on the nursery slopes doing up ski boots and teaching the snow-plough.

The Level 1 groups will be striving to master the Level 1&2 skills – with the overall goal of being able to do linked snow plough turns on blue and not too challenging red slopes, by the end of the week.

Going from Monday morning when you are helping them do up their boots and put their skis on for the first time, to finishing off on Friday afternoon skiing all the way down together from the top of the mountain is quite a journey, with lots of ups and downs along the way.


The beginner’s group skiing week

This is how the beginner’s week in Pila usually takes shape…..

Day 1 – Baby Pila

On day 1, we find ourselves a spot down on Baby Pila and then sort our kit out – liners outside our ski boots, boots properly strapped, jackets zipped, helmets buckled etc. First we learn to slide in a straight line, come to a gentle stop using our edges in a wide snow plough and side-step back up the slope again. We make a first slow turn to the left and then to the right by steering our feet.

When we can hold a snow plough all the way through a turn and link two turns together, we try to make it down the beginner slope to the bottom of the moving carpet. Some can do it straight away and you can more or less let them start doing laps on their own. Others can’t do it at all so you walk them down and work with them on the flatter part of the slope at the bottom.

It’s a hectic job trying to help to everyone who needs it, whilst keeping an eye on the others. There is lots of falling over and people flying all over the place. Its not a pretty sight and its certainly not textbook BASI group management practice. But it is effective and to be fair, it is a proper ‘nursery’ down there with only other beginners to worry about. All the instructors help each other out and somehow or another by the end of the day most of the gang are going up the carpet and coming down the slope quite happily.

snow plough - Working for Interski: the job of a school group ski instructor

Day 2 – Baby Goraz (hopefully)

On day 2, you probably do some more work down on Baby Pila to get the weaker ones where you need them to be with their snow ploughs. Then usually after lunch you have a first amusing, if somewhat panic stricken ride on the Liason chairlift. It takes you up the mountain a bit, where there is another moving carpet called Baby Goraz and a slightly more tricky slope to deal with.

Some kids will still be struggling, either because they have zero confidence or because they are un-coordinated. Sometimes both.

In each of the groups I have had so far there has also been one extremely big, heavy lad who can’t hold a snow plough, so ends up making half a turn before flying off down the hill. Often the only way to give him enough control while he figures out how to control himself is to ski down backwards, with him leaning on you by holding onto an outstretched ski pole. It is a real physical challenge dealing with these big guys but so far, the ones I have had have been great characters and really rewarding to work with. Despite hundreds of falls, being completely exhausted and having the mickey taken out of them all the time by the others, they have stuck at it and got there in the end.

At the other end of the scale there are always one or two very confident ones, always boys, usually called Max or Ryan. Right from the start they are trying to ski parallel with no technique and just want to go fast. No matter how many times you explain to them that the snow plough elements you are teaching will allow them to parallel ski properly when the time comes, they don’t want to know. The best thing for them and you is to shove them up a group or two as soon as possible, which means gritting your teeth until the blessed Wednesday morning re-shuffle. To be fair, these cocky guys always manage to flourish in their new, higher level groups so I guess they are right to be pushy.

sking slopes in Pila

Day 3 – group re-shuffle, then up to Grimod (‘The Confidence Slope’)

From Wednesday morning onwards, after the re-shuffle, you are dealing with a more balanced and manageable bunch. And it is from this point on that the group seems to relax and start to properly enjoy itself. The quiet ones come out of their shells and the disinterested ones start to join in more. Whereas over the first two days things might have been a bit fractious due to the differences in ability, especially if the group contains kids from more than one school, now there is more harmony and a positive team spirit starts to emerge.

Wednesday afternoon is usually when you try to make the big jump up the mountain, taking the cable car up to the ‘Confidence Slope’, otherwise known as Grimod. There will be one or two who probably aren’t ready for it yet. But if the vibe in the group says that it is time to move on somewhere more exciting after two and a half days in the claustrophobic nursery areas, you are going to err on the side of bravery if you possibly can.

Stumbling out of the cable car up at Grimod is a cool moment when your mob properly gets to see the full awesomeness of the mountains for the first time.

The first couple of attempts down this proper, much longer Grimod piste are tough, at least for the weakest ones, who in all fairness probably should still be down on Baby Goraz. As the person responsible for them it’s the moment of the course when you are most out on a limb. This could all end in tears and you will be in big trouble for bringing them up here too soon! But fortunately so far, everyone has risen to the challenge brilliantly. There’s been lots of hairy moments for sure and also some tears. And you get plenty of dirty looks from the Italians but by the end of an afternoon up here your team will have taken a giant step forward.

The good thing about Grimod is that you have the option of heading back down in the cable car if necessary. This has been useful on a couple of occasions when someone has chickened out or hurt themselves. In that case either you all go down together or if there are any of the teachers about, one of them might offer to take the kid down for you to pick up at the bottom. The teachers are not allowed to take them skiing on their own for insurance reasons but they can accompany them to a bar or on a lift.

Normally though, as soon as you mention the possibility of skiing all the way back down from Grimod to the end of day meeting point in front of the Pila-Aosta ‘ovovia’ station, where all their mates will be congregated, everyone is desperate to do it. The route takes you along a nice gentle path through the pine forest, down one or two slightly steep bits and finishes with a kamikaze dive down a short, crowded pitch before a long flat cruise home to glory.

ski school

Day 4 – Leisse, Nuova & generally cruising around the resort

After the thrills of Wednesday afternoon, the last two days are really pleasant and by Friday afternoon you don’t want the week to end. The thought of having to start all over again with a new group on Monday morning back on Baby Pila when you could be cruising around the mountain with your new mates is a hard one to take.

Thursday morning you probably head back up to Grimod, perhaps via the Leisse chairlift from where there is a nice long, gentle run but with a sudden steep schuss at the end which is always exciting, because for the first time they pick up some decent speed, if only for a few seconds. Some even get into a bit of a tuck.

Our snow ploughs are still a bit ugly but by now they are much more solid and reliable. Mastering the ‘Confidence Slope’ has had the desired effect, so you push on with some progressions, both in terms of taking on some of the easier red runs around the resort and by introducing some new Level 2 technical elements and drills. Like traversing with parallel skis, hopping up and down, skiing on one leg, narrowing the snow plough shape and switching back and forth between a snow plough and parallel skis while going along.

Some of the group have by now got the feel of standing on their outside ski enough to be able to have a go at some plough-parallel turns, bringing their skis into parallel in the second half of the turn. This is a central Level 3 skill.

And because they are obsessed with them and you can’t put it off any longer, today they will have finally brought their beloved ski poles with them.

Day 5 – we are proper skiers now!

The adventures continue thick and fast on Friday, doing as many miles as possible, getting better and more secure all the time. By now we are trying to use our new plough-parallel technique as much as possible so that we can ski faster.

This being the last day you try to cram in lots of other little experiences for them to put in the bank for next time and to chat about with their mates on the long bus ride home. A trip up Couis 1 to Pila’s highest point to see the view of Monte Bianco and the Matterhorn. A heroic assault on the infamous Red 3, according to Interski legend, the steepest red run in Europe etc.

Even the weakest skiers tend to come really good on the last day and when the time comes around 15.30 to make the final run back to the collection point everyone is loving being a skier and doesn’t want the adventure to end!

ski instructors having a coffee after a day of teaching - Working for Interski: the job of a school group ski instructor

Bring on the 2021/22 season

Lets pray that things get back to normal soon and that the Italian resorts can be open for the beginning of next season, so that Interski can get the next generation of British school kids out here to the Aosta Valley for some skiing!

Read more about winter sports in the Aosta Valley!

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