When you were getting started in the field of interpretation, did you have a special person who inspired you and helped you gain confidence in yourself? Someone who took the extra time to show you the ropes, share advice, and give you encouragement? For me, it was my first professional supervisor, Wendy Rhoads, who served as Program Director at the Weis Ecology Center in New Jersey, where I did a 1-year internship.
Almost 20 years later, I am still working in the field of interpretation, and without a doubt Wendy is the reason. These days, I find myself doing a lot of introspection about whether I am paying Wendy’s gift to me forward. Am I taking the time and energy to invest in the next generation of younger interpreters? Am I passing down the gifts that Wendy so generously gave to me? If you have worked in this field for several years, maybe you have pondered similar questions.
It can be easy to go about our daily routines and focus on the tasks at hand — what needs to get done for this program, which areas of our site need to get cleaned next, etc. — and overlook the thing that actually needs the most care from us: our interns, seasonal staff, and others who are embarking on their career journey. Are we going to be the person who invests in them, gets to know them, gives them attention, and inspires them with the confidence that they can be a great interpreter? Or are we going to just make sure they’ve completed the day’s checklist of tasks? These folks are daring to take a plunge into a new world, and the way we help shape their experience could literally determine their future path.
From the moment I started working at the Weis Ecology Center, Wendy took me under her wing and supported me. Even though I know she was very busy, she took time to train me, show me the ropes, and make me feel welcome and comfortable. She took me out on the trails and ran through mock programs with me, gave me ideas for different activities to do with the kids, talked with me about concepts such as child development and inquiry-based learning, taught me natural history basics such as tree identification – generally investing her time and energy into helping me become good at my job. She even invited me to go hiking with her after work and showed me a variety of the nearby trails. I remember feeling astounded and grateful that she felt it was worth her time to do all of this for me.
Not only did she invest in me to help develop my skills, but she also invested in me by helping to develop my confidence. When I would be preparing for a program, she would often say things like, “I know you’re going to do a good job” or “The kids are really going to enjoy being with you.” I should mention that I came to this job with virtually no background in either teaching or biology – so I was constantly perplexed at why she had such confidence I would do a good job. She dared to invest in me without really knowing if her investment would pay off.
But it did. It had a huge impact on me. I had never experienced an adult treat me this way – go out of their way to give me personal guidance, tell me that they had confidence in me – this was just such a new experience. And you know what? I DID start to do a good job. I found that I LOVED this job. Her support triggered a self-sustaining positive cycle for me. Now, it’s not that she never had suggestions for improvement or constructive criticism. It’s that the overriding feeling she gave me was that she was “on my team” and working to help me succeed. Wendy showed me how meaningful it is to nurture, mentor, and build confidence in the younger people who come to work with you.
So today, I ask myself, am I doing for others what Wendy did for me? Am I taking the extra time to help them do a good job and build self-confidence? Am I making them feel that someone is “on their team” and wanting them to succeed? Am I doing everything I can so that our interns and entry-level staff have a first job experience that makes them want to continue along the path of interpretation? Are you?