Joan Heaton would prefer we not mention her age in this article. “I feel that what I’ve done in the skiing world, I love that it’s being paid attention to,” she says. “I hate to think my age would have any effect on that. If people have any math skills, let them figure it out on their own.”
A ski instructor at New York’s Windham Mountain, Heaton has accomplished plenty. She’s written two books and countless articles on applying teaching methods to ski instruction. She’s been the keynote speaker at the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) National Academy. She was awarded PSIA’s 2003 Distinguished Service Award, the 2016 Education Excellence Award, and in 2010 was given the Lifetime Membership Award.
Heaton’s introduction to the ski world came in the mid-1970s while working in the Teacher Education division of The City College of New York. She started a class where students could earn college credit for learning how to be ski instructors at Vernon Valley, New Jersey (now Mountain Creek). A novice skier herself at the time, Heaton hopped in the class with her students. At the end-of-year evaluation, students said they learned more from her than they did from the instructors, and thus began her fascination with what she dubbed The Teaching Aspect of Ski Instruction.
After roughly 40 years of teaching, Joan retired from The City College in 1995 and embarked on a two-year mission to ski as many places as she could. She skied all over North America and went to Chile, Australia, Europe, and Japan, where she says she skied the deepest snow of her life. When it came time to settle down again, she starting instructing at Windham Mountain, New York. Twenty years later, she still teaches every weekend of the winter.
Something Joan has no aversion to talking about is how she’s accomplished all of this despite not having “hot feet”-her term for being a good skier. “I’m a teacher,” she once told the PSIA education director. “I’m a teacher, and I also ski.”
We have a sneaking suspicion the professor can arc ’em a little better than she lets on.
Taylor: What made you decide that ski instruction would be a good way to prepare people for being physical education teachers?
Heaton: I have found the skiing world absolutely marvelous. I think it makes lovely people, caring people. I just thought the tie between teaching and being involved in the ski world is the way to go.
What are a few of the aspects of teaching methods that translate into ski instruction?
During one of my first lessons, I had a student I was trying to teach what I thought she should know. On one chair ride she said, “Look, would you just relax? I’m getting married and I had to sign a prenup that I would take three ski lessons. This is my third lesson. Don’t worry too much about anything.” So I backed off of doing what I thought the student wanted and I moved into: What is it you want?
Are you still giving lessons every year?
I’m a part-timer. I have a lovely group of women in the adult program at Windham. And I do a little bit of everything. We have a belly dancing party every year, and they’re teaching me to belly dance, which I’m loving.
What place do you see small ski areas holding in the ski industry?
This past year I went to Royal Mountain. That’s a small mountain in Central New York. It was absolutely mesmerizing. The owner, who bought the place on foreclosure when he was 19, was there flipping hamburgers. And he so proudly showed me around. These are the schools that start the love of skiing and make it a lifetime activity for people, and they’re the ones that are going to make it or break it for us. So I’m pushing to get our attention to these smaller feeder mountains.
Tell us about the two books you’ve written.
My first book was “A National Survey on Teacher Behavior in Ski Teaching.” Then, when I couldn’t find anything on experiential teaching, Jim Vigani and I wrote “A Little Book About Skiing Better,” and it has done extremely well.
Do you think sometimes the ski industry makes it too hard for people who aren’t good skiers? I think sometimes we forget how difficult just getting to the ski area can be for people.
We’re on that all the time at Windham. At our orientation, I say: “Let me tell you what it takes these people to get in front of you. They need to get here. They need to buy clothes. They need to buy equipment. They need to do all this, and then they stand in front of you, and if you don’t give them your absolute best, shame on you.
I don’t care if you have a hangover or what you have. Those people put out effort and money to stand there and they deserve your best.”
Every once in a while, we get in rental boots. There’s an eye-opener. Put on a pair of rental boots, let’s see how good you are.