Last spring, I signed up for the Minnesota Motorcycle Safety Center's (MMSC) instructor course. Don't ask me why, I can't remember. I'm old and I forget really painful stuff faster than G.W. Bush forgot his past. After two mildly difficult four-day weekends I was officially an MSF instructor. A month later, I taught my first course. Actually, my first course was not really a course, but the last section of a repeat course; called a "skills retest." I taught two more of those mini-courses before I taught my first almost-whole-course; the two half-day range portion of the three day Basic Rider Course (BRC).
Being a rookie, although a pretty old rookie, I made a bag of mistakes. I made mistakes early on and I made mistakes right up until my last class in late October. I'm confident that I will be able to keep making mistakes with the same highly-tuned, deeply-ingrained incompetence during my second year, if they let me. Like riding a bicycle or expressing ignorant politics, some skills stick with you for life. Fortunately, my students were incredibly generous and forgiving. And fun to be around. And motivated. They came to class ready to become motorcyclists. They did their homework. They rode MMSC's beat up, broken down, under-powered rat bikes almost without complaint. Snow, sleet, rain, heat, wind, or an idiot instructor didn't keep the majority of biker-wannabes from becoming bikers.
I held up my end of the Minnesota program's 85+% completion rate. I think I helped license almost two hundred new Minnesota and Wisconsin motorcyclists. Even the folks who didn’t pass the course appeared to enjoy the experience. On several occasions, I had the pleasure of taking students through the course twice and no one failed the second time around. Some of those students so obviously enjoyed their success that I felt almost as if I was the one “passing” the exam just from being in the vicinity of their celebration dance.
One of the new instructors I worked with gave me an added incentive for the job, when he explained why he didn’t care if his students ever became bike-owning, daily motorcyclists. He described a middle-aged, looking-for-adventure student who was simply checking off an item on his/her list of “things to do in a well-lived life.”
After finishing the MSF course and getting a motorcycle endorsement, this student might never ride a bike again. But the student had ridden a motorcycle once, and he/she rode it well enough to get a license. That experience was enough to qualify as a meaningful life accomplishment. After hearing that analysis, I realized that I was seeing this exact situation, over and over, in my classes. I was able to be part of that accomplishment as that student’s coach. I don’t think I’ve ever been part of anything that significant, outside of the lives of my immediate family.
About halfway though the season, I co-taught a couple of classes with an experienced instructor who was also a terrific rider. If I hadn't had that opportunity, I'd probably have more reservations about doing this next season. Honestly, the paperwork, the weather, the mangled bikes that need emergency repairs before you can start the class, and the usual administrative hassles are enough to make one season a full purpose experience. Getting to hang out with motivated new motorcyclists and really good rider-coaches made up for an awful lot of the downsides.
My moment in the sun with an experienced co-instructor, Steve Lane, taught me a lot about saving footsteps on the range, getting the most out of the student's riding time and the range, and how to compensate for the minor weaknesses in the MSF program. That stuff would have been plenty, but I got a lot more from Steve. A road racer from the days when bikes didn't practically ride themselves, Steve taught me about as much about riding as he did our students. When I finished that class, I could occasionally skip my SV's pegs and I’d gained new, justified, faith in road traction. My 30 year old dirt bike habits began to fade into the background of my street riding technique. I'm finally half-expecting my tires to stick to the asphalt on turns. For the time and money I spent in the MMSC program this summer, the class with Steve returned my investment in full.
The time I spent on the range, demonstrating skills, allowed me to work on that new knowledge in a low-threat and (sometimes) well-groomed environment. Regardless of what happens to me and the MSF program next year, I am forever improved as a motorcyclist and I appreciate the opportunity.
How often do you get to help someone achieve a life-goal? How often does an ordinary rider get to abuse someone else's motorcycle, away from traffic and beat up roads, and get paid for it? America, what a country!
MMM June 2003
POSTSCRIPT: When this rant appeared in MMM, I pissed off a lot of Minnesota MSF instructors. Steve is not the most popular guy in the program, regardless of his success as a teacher and the generally positive opinion of his students. He's a bit of a cowboy and occasionally needs the gentle hand (or backhand) of a program director to rein in his cowboy-ing tendencies. Since he and I live and work at opposite ends of the Cities, I don't get to work with Steve much anymore. When I do, it's still fun and I still learn something about riding and teaching.
I wasn't kidding in this essay, either. I was so discouraged with how poorly the state's MSF program was mismanaged that I was pretty much ready to call it a "career" after one season. I didn't think I'd participated in a single BRC class that actually provided value to our students.
One of the strongest objections I have to modern education is the fallacy that teaching is a science. "Bullshit" is my only response to that idiocy. Teaching is an art and artists require freedom. Hell, science and engineering are also art and scientists and engineers need freedom, too. Any "educational program" that is designed to squeeze out individuals and creativity in presentation, personality, and style is just posing as "education." Any manager who spends a microsecond trying to drag instructors into "line" and dumbing-down the program to the lowest common denominator of instructors is a fool and a catastrophe in the making. Our No Child's Behind Left Alone system is a joke, a failure, and will be the ruin in the United States of America and democracy in North America. If you care about education (and most don't in this decaying nation), it's worth finding the answer to the question "Why Are Finland's Schools Successful?" It's not because they try to carbon-copy every classroom.