Learning the Slopes with Joanne Clements
Last winter, Joanne Clements heard that Sunlight Mountain was looking for female ski instructors. “So,” she says, “I figured, why not?”
At the age of 82, this was a courageous move. With years of experience in both skiing and teaching under her belt, Clements felt it could be a great opportunity to continue using the skills she had honed over the course of her life.
She got the job. Clements brought to it a can-do attitude, robust alpine skills, good humor – and not to mention 30 years of tutoring experience. “I started working with kids and adults,” she recalls. “Frequently I would be placed with someone who was really afraid. They would look at the mountain and say, ‘Oh it’s really steep, what do I do?’”
Applying the multi-sensory learning techniques she had picked up in her teaching career, Clements tailored her sessions to suit each ski student. “I might have a real beginner there with me, and I would make the instructions interactive,” she says. “You have to break it all down, teach one part at a time in a way they can learn. Once I had a woman who was particularly afraid of getting off the ski lift. But, I was able to show her some pictures of the correct way—how to put your hands forward and stay balanced, and so on. And it worked. I saw her the next day, and with a few little reminders, she had it down pat. I’ve really learned to appreciate the minute little bits that our brains have to deal with in the bodies we live in.”
Growing up in Minnesota, where the slopes aren’t quite as steep, Clements learned to ski as a child in the late 1930s. She had no idea that her fun wintertime hobby would eventually become a lifelong passion. She even remembers the first pair of skis she ever bought with her own money. “In my first job, I saved up and got myself some: straight hickory with steel edges. That was way back in the 50s. The resorts in Minnesota have only about a 300 foot drop,” she says with a chuckle. “And it was always so icy. Nothing like here in Colorado.”
As a young woman, Clements left Minnesota briefly to study secondary education at the College of Wooster in Ohio, but soon returned to her home state to work, start a family – and ski. “When my kids were little, I would take the bus once a week to our little local resort and go skiing,” she says. “It was something I did for myself.”
Over the years, the joy of the sport never left her; she spent winter after winter enjoying the cold, gentle hills of Minnesota. When not skiing or raising her three daughters, Clements cultivated another passion: tutoring. “After college, I thought I was headed for social work. But, I found tutoring so rewarding that I kept doing it,” she recalls. “I had the privilege of working as a private tutor at the Reading Center in Rochester, teaching kids and adults about words, spelling and reading. I also tested individuals for dyslexia there.”
It was during her time at the Reading Center that Clements became fascinated with multi-sensory learning. She was eager to apply new educational techniques to her work as a tutor. “The question I asked people was, ‘How do you learn best?” she remembers. “By listening to words and describing? By watching someone else and imitating? By doing it yourself? It was amazing to watch people learn something new. It brought a joy to my life, seeing someone achieve something they thought they couldn’t achieve.”
In the 1990s, when her children had grown up and Clements had spent over 30 years tutoring, she embarked on a new adventure – moving to Colorado. She now resides in New Castle.
On weekends and holidays last winter, Clements again had the chance to employ her specific learning techniques on the slopes at Sunlight Mountain.
Clements made sure that her youngest students received more than just tips on how to do “pizza and french fries” with their skis. “Oh I always did a spelling lesson with the kids,” she says, laughing. “It’s about engaging more than one part of their brains. I combine spelling with learning how to keep your skis together, how to turn, keep your weight downhill, all those things.”
She remembers one boy who was having an especially tough time. “He was in fourth grade. He got to the top of the mountain and simply said, ‘I’m not doing this.’ So I go over to him and we start walking down the hill together. And of course I give him a spelling lesson. He spelled famous correctly, so we went on to other words ending in -ous including expeditious. Suddenly I realized: this kid is really bright! Here was a boy for whom everything else had come very easy – but skiing was hard.”
Clements kept the boy company as they walked. Although she never saw him again after that day, his struggle left an impression on her. “I really hope he went back and tried again. I wanted to say that yes, it is hard. And yes, you may fall down. But that’s the hardest thing there is about skiing,” she says. “Once you get past that part, it is great fun!”
Her advice for the boy is as applicable on the slopes as it is in real life: “Test your courage. Courage is a choice.”
Armed with years of wisdom and experience, Clements is looking forward to another beautiful Colorado ski season. If you visit Sunlight, you may just catch a glimpse of her with a new class of students learning to ski and spell.
Oh, and in case you were wondering: Clements traded in her old hickory sticks long ago. Nowadays she glides down the mountain on a new pair of gleaming white Fischers.