“IE stands for It’s Easy. It really is, you’ll breeze through it.”
Everyone said it, everyone really seemed to mean it, but it did very little to untangle the tight knot of nerves that had taken up residence in the pit of my stomach over the two weeks building up the exam. Or rather exams. Because the PADI Instructor Exam (IE) is in fact a series of tests and practicals that determine whether you are capable of safely and effectively teaching others how to scuba dive.
Firstly, they test your theoretical knowledge. One hour and half exam tests your knowledge of physics, physiology, equipment, dive planning and the environment. A second tests your understanding of PADI standards and procedures. For the first, you’re given a remake if you fail one of the five sections – two sections failed and you’re out. The standards exam has no leeway for mistakes – a first time pass is required.
Next you’re put to the test in confined water where you must demonstrate five skills at professional quality. Points are given for slow, precise, calm demonstrations which make the skill look easy whilst also highlighting every key step. A failure to score a minimum of 16 out of 25 will be a fail.
After the skill circuit, you’re given your assignment. Each candidate is given a skill to brief, demonstrate, work through with their students, and then debrief. Your fellow candidates act out the role of student, each experiencing a problem when it comes to replicating the skill. You must find it, correct it and continue to repeat the skill until the student has mastered it. Failure to do so is yet an other opportunity to fail the overall IE.
Once out of the water, you need to conduct a 5-10 minute presentation on a subject which is given to you 24 hours before. A minimum of 3.5 out of 5 must be scored, or else you’re required to prepare and present a second presentation. A second fail here means, again, that you’ll fail the entire IE.
Out in the open water, your rescue skills are examined as you perform what’s known in the trade as ‘Rescue Skill 7’ – towing an unresponsive, non-breathing diver to safety whilst removing their equipment (and your own) in the water while providing rescue breaths. This is simply a pass or fail, with one remake allowed.
Finally, the mac-daddy of the tirade of assessments comes during your simulated Open Water dive. Here, you are given two skills which you must brief and debrief. In the water, as in the confined section, you must be on the look out for all potential and actual mistakes. Failure to spot or correct a mistake is a fail. Allowing the mistake to escalate into a potentially dangerous situation is a fail. Simply underperforming in general is a fail. And there’s no remake.
Doesn’t sound so easy now does it?
Stretched out over 2 or 3 days, the IE is designed to test prospective instructors to the highest level; a good thing for certain. After passing, you’ll be qualified to teach a handful of students with no assistance or supervision so it’s imperative that you can prove yourself capable of doing so and it’s important for new divers to know their in safe and responsible hands. But while all the sections of the IE seem perfectly manageable when written down on paper, what they don’t account for is the mind scrambling-affect that so many pitfalls for failure can have on your nerves.
As the start of our assessment drew closer, I felt as if my brain had been extracted from my usually rational head, thrown about in a blender, and then dumped forcefully back into my aching skull. All logic and calm left me and I started to stress disproportionately about the likelihood of failure. Whilst I had a good handle on the presentation and the rescue scenario, the complete serendipity of the skills and the exams terrified me. I’m quite a studious person – have always done well in exams – but the prospect of thousands of dollars and months of training being whisked out from under my nose simply because I might fill in a stupid answer or fumble my way through a skill scenario due to shaking fingers filled me with dread. It felt like my fate was all too tied up with the actions of others, and that made me unfathomably nervous.
During the examiner’s introductory session, I felt the backs of my eyes prickle with spiky tears. Aghast with defiant embarrassment, I blotted angrily at my leaky tear ducts, trying to discourage tears from spilling over and revealing to the whole room what a wreck I was. An hour later, as the exam papers were placed before us, I felt my throat constrict and the hot flush of teariness creep across my cheeks. I had managed to convince myself in the past hour that I knew absolutely nothing and that I’d never pass another exam in my life. How I forced myself to put pen to paper and just push through I don’t know, but finding out I’d passed with flying colours was the motivation I needed to spur me on through the rest of the IE.
Despite having complicated skills to demonstrate and supervise, I managed to keep a level head, and surfaced after the final dive feeling like I’d done the best I could have. I was still unsure as to whether I’d passed or not, used as I was to the exacting standards of the IDC, so when the examiner called me over and gave my hand a hearty shake I felt the weight of the past few weeks of worry whoosh off my shoulders like wind across the sea.
In retrospect, I understand the sentiments of those who’d emerged on the other side, those who were trying to reassure me by saying “it’s easy”. Their theory isn’t that the examination process is easy to pass – it isn’t, at least a quarter of our assessment group failed – but rather that if you’ve committed to the IDC, if you’ve done your homework and racked your brain over the mental washboard that is the preparation, if you’ve practiced your in-water skills until your skin is as wrinkled as a prune, if you’re making ‘you watch me’ symbols with your hands in your sleep, then, and only then, will the IE be manageable. It’s easy in comparison to the everest you’ve made of it in your mind.
I still think it’s a somewhat flippant abbreviation. No matter how prepared, how skilled you are, the exams test you emotionally. I finished after three days of constant assessment feeling tired, vulnerable and raw. Not until I’d got both feet back on solid ground, a drink in my hand, did I process the fact that I had done it, that my goal had been met. Because for me, the IE was so much more than just an exam; it was the summation of over a year of planning, stressing and saving; it was the final stepping stone in the long long path of training that began with my Open Water in Malta all those years ago; it was the assurance that I would have the pleasure of teaching my Dad to scuba dive; it was validation that leaving the comforts of my life in England to challenge myself to conquer something new and bold was the right thing to do. With so much riding on it, it’s no wonder that I was reduced to a quivering shell of myself throughout the instructor training, but I couldn’t be prouder that I’ve come out the other side and I can’t wait to see where it takes me next.