I have been thinking a lot about education recently. It started at a family gathering in January. I was standing with a group that included my brother, when one of my cousins approached to introduce us to a friend. Turned out she was my fourth grade teacher. My brother was also in her class a few years later. We both recalled being petrified by her. She ruled her class with nastiness, sarcasm and viciousness. Not a happy memory even after all this time. Then last week CBC did a call-out for stories about a favourite teacher. For me that would be Mrs. Washburn who followed in fifth grade. I think perhaps she was a war widow – she had an ageless air about her. Hair pulled back in a neat bun, wire rim glasses sitting on a beakish nose. Ramrod straight – crisp white shirts, long box-pleated skirts and oxfords — at a time when they were definitely not fashionable. But what an inspiring educator — I think of her in a kind of Mary Poppins way. Strict disciplinarian, but even-handed with a great sense of how to make learning fun and interesting.
These idle ruminations came into focus this week with the announcement that Einstein was right. The gravitational waves predicted by his general theory of relativity have been detected by an international team of US-led scientists — including at least one Canadian. My first exposure to the theory of relativity came in a Grade 10 physics class. Our teacher walked the class through the basic formulas. But I was puzzled. I wanted to know why it worked and I threw up my hand. The teacher responded by repeating the formula. I asked again, “I know that sir, but why does it work?” We went back and forth like that for several rounds, until jeered by fellow classmates I sat down and shut up. The episode basically killed my interest and curiousity in physics. Instead of saying simply — “It is just one of the universal forces that we don’t fully understand yet,” or perhaps, even admitting “We just don’t know,” the teacher had reverted to ridicule to shut down my questions.
I try to keep these lessons in mind when dealing with our own young interns. They arrive fresh-faced from school full of enthusiasm and lots of theory but often not a lot of practical experience to ground them. Here at Jesson we try very hard to take our responsibility seriously to nurture and guide these newcomers — give them the applied skills to move on to a great career in PR, without dampening all of the energy and excitement that brought them to us in the first place. It isn’t always easy. There is routine and discipline in any job, but we do try to help them understand why it matters. And when they come with ideas that aren’t quite rooted in strategy, or reflect an idealism or perhaps too much academic theory to offer a pragmatic solution, we try to be respectful when we respond. Creativity comes from putting the fresh thinking out there and the last thing I would ever want to do is destroy the willingness to take risks to come forward with new ideas.
If a teacher can scar for life, so too can a mentor. There has been a lot written recently about compensation for interns. If we can’t always provide significant financial reward, the very least we can do is offer these young people a rich learning experience. I hope when our interns leave us, they can take some of this with them. Gravity is needed to pull things down to earth — but we also have to let the imagination soar! Here at Jesson that’s our goal anyway.