Going to a good surf school or camp offers two advantages compared to learning from well-intentioned surfing buddies. First, professional instructors are likely to have more experience than your friends, if not in years, then in the variety of conditions and situations they've faced. Also, a professional knows how to teach as well as what to teach. You learn the correct techniques safely and efficiently.
But how do you decide on the proper surf school? Recommendations from other pros, like surf shop owners, can be useful. Also look for accreditation by the International Surfing Association (ISA), the sport's world governing body. Accredited schools agree to follow exacting standards regarding safety and teaching. For one thing, ISA-approved instructors are certified in lifesaving skills. And students are furnished with equipment that's appropriate for their abilities.
Non-credentialed instructors can be just as skilled and effective, of course. As with any service provider, it's wise to ask for references and check records with the Better Business Bureau. You might also download the ISA's criteria for recognized schools from its Web site as a guide for evaluation. Ask, for example: Are classes limited to eight students per instructor? Do students start on softboards (which are made of foam for added safety and buoyancy)? Do instructors make sure students have mastered specific skills before passing them to a more advanced class?
Also consider personal preferences. You might be more comfortable with group rather than individual lessons, or with a female or male instructor, for example.