A Q&A with US Sailing: Don Rotzien on Teaching Techniques

Don Rotzien has been recognized for his unique ability to teach the most complex sailing topics to his students participating in the sail education programs at Hudson River Community Sailing (HRCS). At the National Sailing Programs Symposium (NSPS) last February in Austin, Texas, Rotzien received a US Sailing training award for Excellence in Instruction.

As the program growth and development officer at HRCS, Rotzien aims to develop students by identifying their inherent potential and guiding them to achieve it. Whether he’s directing an adaptive sailing program or rigging a spinnaker simulator out of a thin plastic bag and wooden dowels to teach a group of high school students, who are forced inside during a rainstorm, Rotzien has the unique and ability to teach the most complex sailing topics. He also serves as a mentor to both students and staff by inspiring others to reach their goals and never give up.

US Sailing: Can you offer some specific examples of how teaching complex subjects with creativity and innovation can make the experience fun for everyone?

Don Rotzien: If you’ve taken a US Sailing instructor course, you’re probably familiar with the building block approach, multiple pathways learning, and the importance of land drills. The real challenge is putting those concepts together in a meaningful way that students will enjoy and retain long after the lecture or demonstration is over. While it’s often easiest to gather in front of a whiteboard and deliver a lecture, I’ve always found that integrating STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) elements and hands-on on-land activities is more engaging and better prepares students to succeed out on the water.

While teaching a spinnaker clinic with too much current and too little breeze, I threw together a miniature spinnaker simulator with a couple of dowels, some small line, a plastic bag, and a fan. It was simple, but allowed students to perform all the steps of spinnaker sets and jibes without having to worry about any of the stress involved in doing it for the first time on a rocking deck out on the Hudson River. The same effect can be accomplished with a dinghy on a dolly, or a keelboat at a dock if the wind is accommodating. I try my best to ‘think outside the boat’ to create experiences that will stick with students after they leave the classroom.

US Sailing: How do you stay fresh with new, fun ideas for teaching techniques?

Don Rotzien: Teach to your passion. Figure out what you love and use it as a lense for your students to see sailing through. Don’t limit yourself to what you love about sailing. You can teach basic sailing from a scientific perspective, a historical perspective, a competitive perspective, and I’ve even taught a Philosophy of Sailing course using phenomenology. Use your passion, come up with a vision, and if you give yourself enough time to prepare, you can engage your students in a deeper, more meaningful way.

Remember to ask why. As instructors, it’s easy to take the basics for granted. Take the time and genuinely ask yourself questions like:

  • Why does a sail work?
  • Why do your students want to learn how to sail?
  • Why am I teaching sailing?

They can be tough questions, but if you can take the time to reflect on the answers it will help guide your teaching process and make you a better instructor.

US Sailing: How have your learning experiences impacted your ability to teach and adapt to your audiences?

Don Rotzien: It can be hard at times, but I always do my best to empathize with my students. The best advice I can give any instructor is to remember to remain a learner both in sailing and in life. Challenge yourself to try to learn a new skill every once in a while. Learning a new skill is really hard. Sailing has its own unique language and mechanisms, and relies on students sensing an invisible force to propel themselves over a constantly moving fluid. I’m always trying to be mindful of how intimidating and challenging that can be. I do my best to not only be patient with my students, but with myself as an instructor. Remember, it’s supposed to be fun! Enjoy the process.

US Sailing: How does Hudson River Community Sailing support their instructors and foster this type of learning environment?

Don Rotzien: I can’t say enough about how fantastic an organization Hudson River Community Sailing is. For anyone not familiar with our organization, HRCS is a New York City-based community sailing center that aims to develop leadership and academic success in underserved youth while offering sailing education to a city that desperately needs access to the water.

From our membership and students to our management and staff, it is the most positive sailing culture I can imagine. Every individual is onboard with our mission to use sailing not only as a way to have fun, but to challenge us to be better people, and as a result, we have a collective growth mindset that is really powerful. For HRCS, sailing is a mechanism to achieve greater things in our lives, and the lives of our students.

US Sailing: Discuss the mentorship-styled approach of HRCS to helping students become leaders?

Don Rotzien: Growing up in New York, or any city for that matter, can be tough. At HRCS we do our best to use sailing as a way to teach and talk about problem solving, perseverance, and life choices. Any sailor knows that being organized, communicating clearly, understanding the needs of your crew, and evaluating risk are essential to sailing, whether you’re trying to make it through a storm, or around a race course on a breezy day. We just act as translators to help relate those concepts to the bigger picture in our students’ lives, so that they can not only lead others, but lead themselves to where they want to go.

– Photos courtesy Hudson River Community Sailing

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