The value of ACA certification

stylized ACA logo“The Gold Standard” is a term frequently heard nowadays that may have changed its connotation since its original coinage, shifting to an implication that something represents the best, the ultimate, the gold medal. American Canoe Association instructor certification is often referred to as the “Gold Standard” of paddlesports instruction 1 with, I believe, this intended meaning.

Let’s go back and take a look at the original meaning of the term “gold standard” though and see if it doesn’t also fit (or fit even better) its use to describe what ACA paddlesports instruction represents. 

The gold standard is a system devised to base the value of a currency on the value of its amassed weight of a precious substance.

In my metaphor, the value of ACA instruction becomes the stength of some precious commodity amassed. Below, I begin to build that “bank” to catalog and demonstrate the bulk and value of that commodity:

Long-term representation of all paddle sports

Since 1880, the ACA has been a non-profit organization dedicated to representing all paddle sports and paddlers. Unlike some smaller organizations that cater (admittedly, well) to a niche market of paddlers, one of the great strengths of the ACA is its ability to incorporate the interest and knowledge of all paddle sports (including even newcomers like Stand Up Paddleboarding) and to build on an existing knowledge base to find synergy and corrolary among all disciplines.

Community standards and peer group with an opportunity to participate in standards development and setting.

The ACA’s Safety Education and Instruction Council (SEIC) develops, maintains and evolves ACA’s paddlesports curriculum and standards. The SEIC is a volunteer member-formed body representing each paddle sport discipline comprised of appointed and elected experienced instructors. These peer groups monitor the state of paddlesports education and continually evolve instructional curriculum and standards to keep abreast of current knowledge and techniques.

With representation by volunteer/independent, commercial and paddling club instructors, SEIC remains “tied in” to the heartbeat of paddlesports in the USA and around the world. In order to find out what practices really represent current community standards, instructors, government agencies, non-profit groups and the public need look no further than ACA curriculum. Any instructor can participate in, and benefit from participation in the SEIC.

In courtrooms, the concept of “community standard” helps define what prudent instructors with a given level of training might do in a certain circumstance. This can often be an esoteric concept, but with the aid of a body like SEIC, considerations and opinions of best practices for instructors can be cataloged into the body of knowledge passed along to new and renewing instructors. These standards can and do change over time. The instructor update process of ACA certification provides a mechanism to see that instructors are kept up to date with such knowledge.

Access to curriculum and tools

New instructors are frequently faced with the challenge of deciding on and developing curriculum. The SEIC make available multiple levels of example course material for skills courses as well as more defined criteria for skills assessments and certification. Recognizing ACA as a leader in paddlesports education, the United States Coast Guard has historically come to ACA to develop paddling-related safety and educational materials through extensive federal grants. In addition to the ACA Instructor’s Manual, ACA members have also developed and published more in-depth materials on topics like kayaking, canoeing, and materials for paddlers with disabilities.


ACA instructors have access to low-cost/high coverage insurance on a per-course basis through ACA for the courses they teach. This type of professional insurance is invaluable to the independent or club instructor wanting to protect themselves and their students.

Pro Deals

Recognizing the value of professional advice about and use of their products, many paddlesports and outdoor equipment companies offer ACA instructors special discounts for purchase of their equipment. An ACA instructor on the water with this gear speaks volumes about equipment and equipment choices to paddling students.


Getting the word out on courses is one of the challenges that instructors face. The ACA maintains an online calendar of skills courses, certification courses and instructor updates to which all ACA certified instructors may contribute. This targeted reach provides instructors the best possible notice for their scheduled courses. These calendars also work the other way: Allowing instructors to collaborate with each other on teaching opportunities and finding update/upgrade courses to enhance their own training.

Industry Recognition

Many of the largest and most well recognized paddling schools and outfitters in the United States (and more around the world) recognize and utilize the value of an ACA certified instructor. This certification establishes that an individual has met baseline community-accepted standards for educational and safety skills that helps an employer guarantee that they are hiring someone qualified. Many commercial schools take this the further step of operating their own in-house training programs and even in-house ACA instructor development programs with ACA certified Instructor Trainers (IT) and/or Instructor Trainer Educators (ITE).

Governmental Recognition

As mentioned above, the U.S. Coast Guard relies heavily on the ACA for development and maintenance of paddling-related educational and safety materials and programs. The ACA shares a seat on the U.S. National Safe Boating Council (NSBC) and partnership in the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA). In other words,  when it comes to paddlesports safety and education and the government, the ACA is both well respected and well represented. The interests of paddlers and instructors is being served by ACA’s participation in these national-level programs.

International Recognition

There are now ACA Instructors or Instructor Trainers in 25 countries around the world with more being added all the time. This kind of recognition of a “gold standard” program emphasizes the portability of an instructor’s credentials and capabilities to the corners of the earth. The ACA education program is a known commodity that is valued wherever it goes.

Broad geographic distribution

ACA instruction exists where the water does. In coastal regions, you’ll find coastal instructors. In mountain regions you’ll find whitewater instructors. In the flatlands, you’ll find a mix that educate the masses of new paddlers that are getting into paddling canoes, kayaks, and SUP on lakes, stream and rivers. Since ACA education covers all paddle sports, ACA instructors serve to fill niches and satisfy markets where they exist. In any given area, it’s not uncommon for instructors to become certified in a variety of paddling disciplines at a variety of levels in order to meet the demand for qualified instruction.


ACA education programs provide a diverse mix of full-time ACA staff and member-run volunteer programs. With a worldwide instructor corps in the thousands and instructor trainer corps in the hundreds, ACA is able to deliver its programs effectively across a very broad geographic range. These numbers and organization allow ACA to provide professional-level services to paddlers, instructor candidates and instructors including insurance services, certification maintenance and enhancement, publications and advocacy.

Tiered certification program with opportunities for advancement and continuing education

ACA instructor certification is available for several disciplines including river, surf and coastal kayaking, river and touring canoe, raft, stand-up paddleboard, safety and rescue and adaptive paddling. In most of these disciplines, a hierarchy of skill/venue levels allow instructors to select and demonstrate proficiency teaching from beginner all the way to advanced students in progressively more challenging conditions. While safety of the classes and students remains paramount at each level, this system allows for a growth and “career path” for instructors to build their skills.

Personal satisfaction

In developing material for this article I asked ACA River Kayak instructors on Facebook: “Why should someone become an ACA instructor?“. Not surprisingly, the answer most commonly returned reflected intrinsic motivation rather than external factors 2 . Instructors teach because of the personal reward they get from seeing new paddlers gain new skills. This is the answer you’ll get from most ACA instructors. Being a part of this community and achieving this “gold standard” becomes part and parcel of that personal reward.

ACA instructor certification is not just about gaining personal paddling skills and knowledge of paddlesports (although instructor certification courses contain a great deal of both).  An instructor development workshop assumes that candidates enter the course with significant paddling skills at the level of their desired certification. Rather, an ACA instructor development workshop places a great deal of focus on developing teaching skills and the ability of the candidate to recognize what makes their own paddling efficient and to subsequently pass that information effectively on to a new generation of paddlers.

I’ve tried here to outline both tangible and intangible benefits of becoming an ACA instructor and the value derived from doing so. I have obviously “bought into” the system, as instructor, instructor trainer and volunteer on the Safety Education and Instruction Council. I enjoy being a part of the system and voicing  opinion of how to make the system better. I do, though present this article as an invitation for discussion of the pros and cons of ACA instructor certification and invite the reader’s feedback about how it can become more valuable.

(A special word of thanks to Janet Cowie, Director of Instruction Programs at Zoar Outdoors and Secretary of the ACA’s River Kayak Committee for the concept for this article. Janet is but one of the many ACA instructor trainers who are asked: “Why should I become an ACA instructor?”. Hopefully this article sheds some light.)

  1. Particularly in North America and particularly by the ACA itself, but also frequently by its instructor and instructor-trainer corps
  2. Thanks to Charlie Duffy and Pat O’Hammy for their input!
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4 Comments on “The value of ACA certification”

  1. I think having the waiver that the ACA provides is anohter benefit of being a Certified Instructor.

    1. Agreed, Dave. ACA has access to a lot of resources including the support of legal counsel and insurance providers. This type of paperwork targeted directly at the types of activities and risk of ACA courses gives instructors a real leg-up in managing their personal legal risks. Combined with the development and evolution of community standards and practices, an instructor can see just where their own practices reside relative to peers in their line of instruction.

      Thanks for the comment!

      1. Access to members of the discipline committees is a hidden and very valuable benefit. These committees are all volunteers and have the best experts in the country in each discipline, many with decades of experience in their chosen fields. I can’t think of any other professional organization that shares teaching tips as is done in the ACA. This has been a huge help to me personally.

        1. Agreed, and I think not only access to members of the committees, but really to the committees themselves. Individual instructors are welcomed to add their voices to work of the committees and participate as affiliate members. In developing and publishing for the River Kayak Committee, I’ve tried to make access to communication with the committee that much easier and transparent.

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