It was early in my career as an interpreter. I was working for a contractor in BC Parks, doing many, many school programs, mostly on beaches. One of the most popular programs involved hauling a beach seine net through an eelgrass bed with the class, so that they could see the incredible diversity of creatures that lived there, and hopefully gain an appreciation for a habitat that they otherwise could not see.
I got in trouble one day when a particularly cynical group of 5th graders arrived. I introduced the group to eelgrass and showed them the net, then enthusiastically set off down to the beach as I envisioned the mind-blowing formative experience that was about to take place. All of the kids were about to become champions of sensitive intertidal fish habitats!
An eelgrass bed
Then, a kid asked "Are we going to catch anything?" and I stupidly replied with:
“If there's not at least one fish in this net for everyone here, I'll buy you all ice cream!"
I quickly led the group in setting the net and organized them into two teams to pull the ropes to bring the net in. When the net arrived on shore, I talked about how to safely pick up the creatures and place them in Ziplock bags of water to bring them to our observation pool, then led the class to the net to check out the hundreds of fish we had doubtlessly caught.
I began to feel nervous as I realized there was not much moving around in the net. I soon discovered that I had made a huge mistake, and forgotten to check the net thoroughly. There was a twist in the middle of the net, resulting in a big space at the bottom, large enough for all of the fish to escape through. Horrified, I began desperately searching for any creatures I could find in the net. I found three or four fish and a number of shore crabs. When the net was empty, which didn’t take very long, we gathered at the observation pool.
The group was completely engaged.. … in counting how many fish we had, as well as reminding me that shore crabs were not fish. It was glaringly obvious that there had NOT been a fish in the net for everyone.
It was the last program of the day, and so I ended up on the same ferry home as the kids, and spent the entire ride awkwardly avoiding questions about what flavour of ice cream I was going to buy them, while doing math in my head to determine just how much this mistake was going to cost me.
When we got off the ferry, the teacher tried to let me off the hook by announcing that they would be late getting back to school if we went for ice cream. I, however, felt that if I had totally failed to teach the class anything about eelgrass, I could at least show them an example of coming through on one’s promises. I pulled $20 out of my wallet and asked the teacher to use it to buy a bucket of ice cream and some cones, then drove back to the nature house that served as our office, completely embarrassed, where I said nothing to anyone.
A few weeks later, a package of thank you letters arrived. My coworkers were all very curious about why this particular class was thanking me for the ice cream.
This experience taught me to always double-check my equipment, and make sure the net was free of twists and tangles. The bigger lesson for me, however, was that it is important to set reasonable expectations for your group, and not let your ego get in the way of your participants’ experience. If I could go back in time, I would not have made any promises about what we were going to catch, and I suspect that without the distraction of ice cream, my group would have been pretty excited about catching shore crabs.
- Always double-check your equipment before your programs.
- Don’t promise the moon (or ice-cream for that matter). Keep expectations reasonable.
- Remember that what seems ordinary to you (like a shore crab) may be extraordinary to your group – especially if you show them why that is so!
Pam Murray is the Chairperson of Interpretation Canada and one of the editors of The Interpreters Big Book of Disasters. She manages and delivers school programs at Milner Gardens & Woodland and has never again even mentioned ice cream to a school group.