CMSP Instructor Course

The Instructor Diaries: Becoming a CMSP Instructor

It’s rush hour on a Monday. I’m splitting lanes down 880, on my way to the first of eight prep classes. Why does it always seem to be drivers with smashed-in quarter panels or other pre-existing body damage who blast their horns while I’m legally exerting my AB 51-given right to split lanes? These jarring, aggravated exhibitions of jealousy at my freedom remind me how fortunate I am to live free of a daily rush hour commute.

As a bartender, I’ve mostly, luckily avoided the daily masses, which in general keeps me safer. Becoming a California Motorcyclist Safety Program (CMSP) Instructor will help me be an even safer rider and let me continue with a schedule that still avoids the throng of commute traffic. But getting there—to the class and to instructorhood—is a hell of a lot of work.

I decided to become an instructor for several reasons. First, I knew it would make me a better rider. I seek out additional instruction often, and I’ve taken a few classes every year for the past couple years. Being more confident and comfortable while riding makes me more capable, and therefore safer—and of course, the singular purpose of the new rider-oriented Motorcycle Training Course (MTC) program is safety. The Instructor Training (IT) materials state that the “goal is to train students to a proficiency that minimizes crashes, injuries and fatalities,” something I can get behind 100%. The safer other riders are on the road, the safer I will be.

My other reason is that I started a motorcycle tour company, Motobird Adventures. I want a moto-centric career but need flexibility and freedom to travel when I get the itch. Instructing isn’t a Monday through Friday, nine-to-five gig, and this flexibility is very appealing to someone who travels frequently.

To become a CMSP instructor, you must prove proficiency by passing a skills test on a motorcycle and a multiple-choice knowledge test, and also score well in a live evaluation of your teaching performance, both in-classroom and on the range. But the hell of a lot of work I mentioned starts earlier than that: before I even began training as an instructor, I had to have ridden a minimum of 12,000 miles (waaay past that!) and regularly operated a street-legal motorcycle. I then completed, provided, or procured the following items just during the application process:

  • Sponsorship by a CMSP training site.
  • Evidence of clean driving record, obtained from the DMV.
  • CMSP-specific background check from DOJ and FBI ($74).
  • High school diploma or GED.
  • Current motorcycle endorsement (with at least five years as a licensed driver).
  • Non-refundable $495 fee due with no guarantee of successful completion ($495).
  • MTC as a student within 12 months of starting instructor training ($258).
  • Intermediate Riding Clinic (IRC) as a student ($275).
  • Observe at least one complete MTC from start to finish (strongly encouraged to observe more), complete a written assignment based on class observation.
  • Read Total Control High Performance Riding Techniques, 2nd Edition ($30); complete a written assignment based on the book.

Speaking of education, prior to actually teaching the MTC, I had to complete first aid and CPR training ($120) and study the Total Control policies and procedures document.

Once initial certification is completed, instructors must:

  • Conduct five complete CMSP MTCs or equivalent course offerings in a two-year recertification period.
  • Participate in one professional development workshop per year (provided by CMSP).
  • Participate in a minimum of one “personal learning activity” per year. This activity must be something that will improve the either the riding or teaching abilities of the instructor.
  • Avoid any actual or perceived conflict of interest between CMSP, Total Control Training Inc. and other business interests.
  • Comply with the rules of professional conduct, policies and procedures.

If you’re exhausted from simply reading the requirements, and while reading, your wallet ran away and hid… yeah, I hear ya. The whole process is expensive, time-consuming, and potentially frustrating, depending on how you choose to look at it. As a bartender, I learned and earned—so there was no real financial risk. I did also go to college in preparation for the “real world,” a much bigger financial and time commitment.

More and more, I hear how college graduates are having a harder time finding work. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but for some, those years start to look like a “waste” of both time and money. Conversely, successfully completing CMSP instructor training almost guarantees you a job. Candidates have to be sponsored by a school, so once you complete your training, you have a job with an hourly wage more than double that of many entry level positions, teaching new riders how to ride, and how to ride safely. 

And I did say it was going to be a lot of work, right?

But… we’re preparing to train new riders, most of whom have never swung their leg over a motorcycle. As emphasized in the training—and as all of you have experienced—unless you really are just parking your motorcycle at Starbucks or literally just kicking the tires, motorcycling is dangerous. The CMSP educates potential riders about how to ride and just how dangerous riding is, then lets them consciously decide whether to take on the responsibility of the most dangerous way to travel on public roads.

Per person-mile ridden, motorcyclists are 38 times more likely to be killed than car drivers. Let me repeat that: in direct comparison to driving a car for a mile, riding that same mile on a motorcycle increases your probability of dying, of no longer existing in this plane of reality, of causing all of your loved ones to cry a whole lot, by 38 times.

The majority of the CMSP’s new rider training is focused on teaching riders and potential riders ways to bring that number down, from choices in gear to continuing rider education and skills development.

But no matter how we try, riding is still dangerous. I met instructors who have had students complete the program, only to get out riding and die shortly after. The mindset instructors are encouraged to adopt is that our students will never take another class on riding; whether they pass or not, we are their last point of contact before they get out on the road.

It’s a heavy responsibility and when I look at all of this work from that perspective, I wonder: is it enough?

There are over 120 CMSP training sites. When I first became interested in becoming an instructor, I was introduced to Sue Taylor, who (among many other things) manages the schedules of Two Wheel Safety Training (TWST) and Bay Area Motorcycle Training (BAMT), two of a handful of schools in the Bay area. Sue is the only person in California who runs preparation classes before the grueling 70+ hours of actual instructor training, designed to assist potential instructors with both passing training and being better instructors.

These prep courses were attended by current instructors who shared their first-hand teaching experiences, personal observations and feedback. We reviewed policies and procedures and discussed what to expect during training—all of which really, really helped.

Part of the prep courses was PowerPoint practice. Presentation is key: all of the information we present to the students is stuff we as experienced riders generally already know: safety facts, gear information, general operation of a motorcycle. It builds from there to slightly more complicated, but still-basic information about how two wheeled vehicles navigate turns and so on. To help me manage all of this, I wrote out detailed, complete scripts on index cards for every slide. Writing scripts while reading the Total Control book really helped me hone how I articulated more complicated concepts.

During both prep and actual training, the sheer volume of information felt overwhelming. To vastly oversimplify: instructor training prepares you to teach two classroom PowerPoint-centric sessions and two range sessions (range is what we call the portion of the course where the students are on the motorcycles and riding in the parking lot) where you read range cards word for word. None of that sounds so difficult on the surface, but obviously there’s a lot more going on.

Much of the work is done on the backend, by the instructors. We must provide just enough information to the students to educate them and keep them engaged, but not so much that we overwhelm them. We must ensure smooth movement from exercise to exercise on the range, while still being able to provide important feedback in an effective, productive manner. If you’re a good instructor, all of this is invisible to your students, which makes for a more successful and easy learning experience.

One helpful thing about instructor training is that class size is limited, just as it is in standard CMSP courses, where range sessions typically top out at 10 to 12 students. My IT sessions comprised of seven other instructor candidates matched to four instructors, offering plenty of individualized feedback and diverse examples of teaching styles.

During our classroom sessions, we discussed why the MTC is set up the way that it is: how the build and repetition of information is presented to be easily digestible for new riders. We practiced the best ways to present the classroom material, building on one continual idea rather than parceling out information subject by subject.

Obviously, individual presentation styles have an impact on how new riders absorb that information. I was encouraged to watch TED Talks and comedians, paying close attention to how the speakers linked ideas and presented information in an engaging and entertaining manner. After all, nobody wants to be lectured, but more importantly, it’s much more difficult to retain information presented in that droning style.

The PowerPoint deck is intended to be presented naturally, not read—the students are able to do that themselves. Instead, instructors expand upon ideas with their own knowledge and experience. There’s no video or even audio, tools which generally help keep students engaged, so it’s vital that instructors are not just knowledgeable, but also capable of sharing that knowledge in ways students will absorb.

Classroom sessions are followed by range exercises, where everything is timed, from setup and exercises to breaks, end of day reviews and debriefing. Since we cover so much material, staying on track is critical. Range time is carefully orchestrated: range cards tell us where cones go, where we stand, what to look for and coach on, what must be communicated to the students, how long exercises should run and more.

Directions for exercises are to be read word for word to the students. This is done not only for consistency sake, but also so students get the most direct, clear and correct instructions for each exercise.

Instructors are trained on not just what to coach on, but also on the manner in which feedback is given to students on the range: quick and clear, in a way that should only help to build both skills and confidence.

I find this aspect of the range the most challenging: both during the day and at the end of the day. Debriefing at the close of range time helps students understand what they should focus on and also lets them know where they are doing well, which makes the “negative” less painful. As I instruct more, debriefing has become easier, but I’m still working on improving. Like riding, as the motions become habit, it frees up more mental bandwidth for better coaching, and I am better able to remember students’ names and identify them once they’re off the bikes (without helmets) and provide specific feedback about their five-hour ride ‘n’ learn session.

Some days, I’d sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic on my way home from training, because I was too exhausted for mindful lane splitting. My boyfriend and I barely saw each other or spoke—I’d come home to find a towel laid out, dinner was on the table as soon as I got out of the shower, and then I went to bed—only to repeat the process the next day.

I was somewhat lucky in that the IT sessions I attended were broken up over two long weekends in nearby Newark and Santa Clara. The weather was nice, albeit cold in the mornings. Other instructor candidates have to travel to other parts of California and stay at a hotel, and I heard that last winter’s session was held during a week-long downpour.

On the day we taught actual students (under the watchful eye of our instructors), we went until 9:30 PM, having arrived at 7:30 that morning for our own courses. The following morning, we had to be on the range at 5:45 AM to get the motorcycles out and prepped for the students, so I opted to stay at a nearby hotel.

If I had a regular 9-to-5 job, this whole process would have been even more difficult and even with my relatively flexible schedule, the time I took off for instruction cut my income by about 25% for the month of January. But instructor pay is ok, certainly better than I made at a company where I designed wedding invitations, and can be especially lucrative if you work double shifts of either 10 or 12 hours. It’s also completely possible to make back all of the money spent on becoming certified (and then some) over the course of the first two weekends instructing. 

There are a few CMSP instructors who only teach for a living, while some are retired and are happy to work a couple of days on the weekend. There are many others who have “normal” weekday jobs, for whom teaching income is just extra money. For me, as a bartender, it’s a pay cut, but the benefits are huge. I get to be surrounded by others who are passionate about riding and champions for safety. My riding has improved and will continue to do so, and meeting the requirements for ongoing learning is something I’d do anyway. At least now I can write it off, right?

This story originally appeared in our April 2018 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.

Kerri is the founder of Motobird Adventures, a motorcycle tour company for women riders, run by a woman rider. She’s leading a group of women to Baja California in April, aboard her trusty F650GS. Find out more at