The Best Teacher I’ve Ever Had

A Scuba Diving Inspired Guest Post from Instant Relevance Author, Denis Sheeran

We are huge fans of Instant Relevance by Denis Sheeran because it asks teachers to take the world surrounding them and their students and seek ways to connect it to their lessons. Denis has done just that exactly one day after his very first scuba diving adventure. He is in Oahu to speak at the Google Classroom in Paradise event and fulfilled a bucket list item while he was there. Read all about why his instructor was the best teacher he has ever had below…here is Denis!

As a kid growing up in the 80s, I lived in a one television home without cable, and without much decision making power with regard to what we watched as a family. So sometimes I’d get lucky and we’d watch The Muppet Show together as a family. Other times, not so lucky, and we’d get Murder, She Wrote (you know…everywhere Jessica Fletcher goes, someone dies. Coincidence? I think not). Where I DID luck out regularly was that my parents saw TV as a learning tool and would put on PBS a lot, especially those nature shows where an animal always dies (where’s JB Fletcher now?) but the world comes to terms with it as “just what happens in nature.” My favorite of the nature show genre was undoubtedly the underwater ocean adventure type. Sometimes we’d get Jacques Cousteau, other times just a show about a thriving reef or a deep ocean whale migration. Because of those shows, I very seriously considered a life and career in marine biology. But, as life would have it, I never had the opportunity to snorkel, scuba dive, or pursue that passion and instead followed my other dream, to be a math teacher and help kids learn. Now in the next phase of my education career, I spend time helping other teachers become better teachers. In fact, that’s what brought me to Hawaii this week, where I’m speaking at Alice Keeler’s Google Classroom in Paradise Conference. Last week I turned 41 years old, and yesterday…yesterday, I went scuba diving for the first time in my life. What’s that you say? Pics or it didn’t happen? Ok, here are a couple.

As the author of Instant Relevance, Using Today’s Experiences to Teach Tomorrow’s Lessons, I went into this thinking “I’m totally going to get some great lessons out of this! I can’t wait!” Well, I got one lesson. One, powerful lesson. And it came from my “first time scuba” expedition leader, Erik. The title of the lesson Erik taught me is “How To Be A Teacher” and it exemplifies the combined mission of the DBC authors, effortlessly.

Teach With Passion. Let Learners Explore. Make It Real. Build Relationships. Grow Together.

My dive experience began when I went to Erik’s website, Oahu Diving, and read about first time dives. All of the information was there. Everything. Erik knew that first time divers are the cautious type, and he provided us with all of the information we’d need, in advance, so he wouldn’t need to spend time delivering it to us. It’s because of this information that I trusted him and signed up for my first scuba diving trip. Once I signed up, he texted a reminder to check out all the information because he knew we could learn it on our own, but he wanted to make a personal connection anyway.

The day before the trip I got a text from Erik. There was a time and location change for the tour. He gave me the new address and I planned my Uber trip accordingly. But I couldn’t help but think…why was the location changing? I confirmed that I’d still be there and trusted that there was a good reason. When I arrived about 15 minutes early for our launch. Erik immediately came over, shook hands, shared that he was prepping the boat and told me to head around the corner to a coffee shop and relax for a bit. Wait…this was my first scuba dive…EVER! How could he be so calm and suggest “having a tea” before we left? Not being one to pass up a chance for a new caffeine related experience, I walked over to the Island Brew Coffee House, and I suggest you go there too if you have the chance. Absolutely outstanding coffee.

What had just happened was that Erik, my scuba teacher, had taken his new student, smiled at him and in different words than these had said “I bet you’re nervous. It’s cool, everyone is. Go do something you like for a few minutes. I’ll be here when you get back.” The teacher in him had connected with his student on a personal level, immediately, and expected nothing other than that his student be willing to calmly learn.

When I came back, the other participants in today’s scuba adventure were there, too. Two couples were sitting nearby. One was a pair of first timers, the other was mixed. She had done this once before and he had been diving for a long time. Erik even recognized the second couple from a previous trip. With obvious experience, and significant enthusiasm, Erik told us the procedures for the dive, mentioning that he’d tell us again on the boat. He showed us some hand signals for when we’re under water, he talked about the timing of the trip, and then he mentioned where we were going. It was at this time that I realized why he’d changed the time and location for the trip. He’d had his students in mind all along. He checked the weather, the currents, the wind, and had made a decision that we should move our launch and visit a different site. He’d adjusted his plans to make our experience better.

Once we were on the boat, we got strapped into our jackets, gear, breathing regulators and flippers. Erik showed us how to breathe through the regulator and clear small amounts of water out of it in case we needed to, and then we practiced for a couple minutes to get comfortable with it before there was a fatal amount of water on the other side of our breathing holes. Then he poured water into our masks and showed us how to clear it out for when we were underwater, but had a problem with there being water in our faces. He showed us our gauges, most importantly the air tank gauge, and what all the buttons on the jacket do. Then he reminded us of our hand signals like he said he would. These were things that were not listed on his website. This information, and the practice time, were not for our own instruction. These were the mini-lessons and the guided practice we needed while our teacher was nearby. He could have put this on the website like other dive sites do, but Erik chose not to. He also focused his instructional attention on us first timers. He knew he had to meet us at our level, so we could go forward from there.

It was time. “Pool’s Open!” Erik yelled when we got to our spot. One of his assistants had tethered the boat to a rope anchored on the ocean floor and it was time to take the test on everything we’d learned. Flippers on, check. Mask on but not over ears, check. Regulator in mouth, check. Anxiety rising, check.

I walked the plank, literally, and was in the water. Here ends the lesson…right? Everything Erik had taught me was working. I was going hand over hand down a rope to the bottom of the ocean and not dying. He could go back to the surface…I’d passed the test. Did he? Nope. Erik knew (in other terms) that the test is not the end of the learning, but the springboard for it. I’d passed the test (successfully gone underwater without drowning), but now Erik simply opened the door for me to explore. He’d been here a thousand times before, but didn’t tell me where to go. He knew where the turtles would likely be, but didn’t show me. He knew when to check up on me, but didn’t interfere with my exploration. I was learning by myself. Learning how to exist in an environment that was not made for me. I’d been given all the instruction I needed to be given, then left to explore, adjust, think, feel, repeat. At one time I saw Erik taking pictures of a turtle from beneath it and thought, “this would make a cool picture” so I floated above the turtle to get the shot. Erik recognized his student’s wonder with the moment and desire for attention and took the pictures I’d hoped he would.

I turned and saw the experienced guy from the second couple gliding effortlessly past using his own GoPro to take pictures and video. He was on another level for sure. But just then Erik went over to him and they scuba-swam off together. One of the assistants came over to me, checked my air gauge and pointed me up to the surface. I was low on air…high on life…but low on air. So rather than become low on both, I went up.

Once we were all on board, we were off to our second dive site. We were going to do this again! While swapping air tanks, the regulator I’d been using had an issue (thankfully this happened on the boat and not underwater). They swapped it out for a new one and I was ready to go in for dive number 2. I went in first this time, and was on my way down the rope when I noticed that the new regulator was letting small amounts of water into my mouth. I cleared the mouthpiece like I’d been shown, but again, quickly, there was a little water in there each time I breathed. My anxiety level began to raise up a bit this time. Was this safe? Was it normal? Was I just lucky that the other regulator didn’t do this the first time? But I remembered all Erik had shown me, and who he’d shown himself to be, and knew that he wouldn’t have put me into a situation that was unsafe or too difficult for me. So I calmed back down (thank you mindfulness training!), breathed carefully, and just cleared the mouthpiece more frequently than I had on the first dive. I didn’t die. What else can you ask for?

After we got back to the dock Erik asked us for our email so he could send us the pictures of our trip. He also asked “Well, think you’ll do this again?” When I responded that I’d love to his next comment shocked me. “Next time you come, be certified. We’ll go out there and look around together in some new spots.” He didn’t want me to spend my money on another first timers tour. He didn’t want me to have the same experience again. He wanted me to take the seed that was planted so long ago that had finally had a chance to sprout and cultivate it into full grown passion for scuba, then come back and learn together.

Erik, not a “teacher” by training or certification or education, is the best teacher I’ve ever had, and the embodiment of what the authors of the DBC books are creating as their cumulative message.

Pursue Your Passion, Increase Student Engagement…Teach Like A Pirate
Empower Your Students To Succeed…Learn Like A Pirate
Make Learning Amazing…Lead Like A Pirate
Use Today’s Experiences to Teach…Instant Relevance
Give Students a Chance To Explore…Explore Like A Pirate
Embrace the Power of Student Curiosity…Spark Learning
Students Can Own Their Own Learning…Empower
Free Your Teaching…Ditch That Textbook
Push Boundaries…Kids Deserve It

Do I regret becoming a teacher instead of a marine biologist? No. Do I wish I’d gone scuba diving sooner? No. Am I going to give up education for the ocean? Maybe….well, no. What do I regret? Not being the best teacher my students ever had. These books and the message they send would have unquestionably changed my teaching and changed the experiences my students had. As you take some time this summer to reflect on the 2016-17 school year and prepare for the next, read them. Share them. Talk about them. Then, next fall, Teach like a pirate. Learn like a pirate. Lead like a pirate. Use today’s experiences to teach tomorrow’s lessons. Let your students explore. Spark their learning. Empower your students. Free your teaching. Push your and your students’ boundaries.

Dive in. The water’s great.



Thank you, Denis!!

Awesome message!! This made me think about some of the great teachers I’ve had in my life that were outside of the traditional educational system. Have you had any such “teachers” make an impact in your life? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!



PS: Join Denis in the #MakeItReal hashtag on Twitter!