Roles are reversed for former Bulletin Editor as he becomes the interviewee
Before we begin, this piece needs some context. I have been lucky to know Jens Nielsen through the many occasions he interviewed me. These meetings always went much longer than we had planned and included a range of subjects that we knew and loved, as well as others that raised our collective curiosity. A few years back, at the end of one of our meetings, I told Jens that I treasure the times we spend together and that if he ever retired (not when but if) that I would like to interview him. He laughed of course and said why not. So here we are, my interview with Jens.
You might be surprised to learn that for someone who has been a staple in the journalistic community, Jens claims to have never had formal instruction in writing. In fact, he told me that he is not even a fan of reading. Like many newcomers to Canada (imigrating to Canada from Denmark at age 6), he learned at an early age to listen and to understand what people were saying rather than focus on the mechanics of language. This unofficial training developed in him a skill that was perfect for his chosen profession. He possessed the ability to listen, comprehend and share stories. Evidence of this skillset comes from his initial writing job with the North Battleford News-Optimist. This baker’s son from Wilkie was so skilled at capturing the essence of a story that in his first interview the editor hired him on the spot. This is also a fine example of his belief in himself. His early confidence led to sports writing at the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and eventually to top scribe at the Saskatchewan Bulletin where he has engaged so many of us with his talents. He said he never considered doing anything else but writing and much like the amazing educators he reported on, his focus was to be the best at what he did.
The subjects of his stories came through recommendations from others, finding out who was being recognized by peers, or plain old keeping his ear to the ground. In this way, he delivered a range of stories that not everyone might have discovered. His work was the human-interest stories about the local teacher or administrator or bus driver who contributed to the success of students. This approach led him to individuals who claimed that they had nothing important to say but were in reality “quote machines” providing inspiring stories and insights that impacted generations of teachers and administrators.
He admits that his approach was not observing instruction but rather talking with teachers after the work was done. Most often these interviews took place in a principal’s office, which in many small schools was the only quiet place. He also felt comfortable in the gym, interviewing in an environment where he has spent many years. I believe that his home in a school would be a gym but for the past 20-plus years his professional home was the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation. Working with a “great team” to regularly publish the stories of education in Saskatchewan. Engaging in tasks with the humility and respect that is a hallmark of good journalism. Knowing when to say “no to a story that was BS” and when to do everything possible to capture the stories that mattered for the diverse and loyal readers of the Bulletin.
Never one to play the role of the shrinking violet, Jens’ confidence was present each time he went after a story. His skill in “finding the lead” and using his innate ability was foundational to the many stories about the amazing people of Saskatchewan. This high degree of confidence should not be mistaken for an inflated ego. He was connected but didn’t use his connections for political purposes. Rather he used his “press pass” to access and engage in grounded honest conversations, be it with the Minister of Education or a teaching assistant in a rural school. It was also part of his approach to mentoring. work-ed students who shared time with him would know if they had a sense of story writing through his feedback. He delighted in those who shared a similar ability to see the story in the words.
Jens spoke fondly of the teachers in smaller communities. Being raised in a rural community he realized the impact of one person. His work highlighted individuals able to see possibilities and demonstrate a made-in-Saskatchewan approach to problem solving or creating a memorable experience for their students. When asked about his favourite stories he was unable and unwilling to pick one. Everyone he interviewed knew that their time together was precious, and their actions were treated as unique and important.
Interviews with Jens were conversations where the roles blurred. When asked about how many stories he had written over the years, he mentioned mapping the towns in Saskatchewan where he had visited. The total of 150 included repeat visits to many of the dots on the map, both large and small. He shared a love of travelling to the northern schools in the province. He spoke of the teacher who sent birthday cards to all of his students even well after his retirement. He shared his excitement about the impact of teachers nurturing students to be the next generation of social justice leaders. Or of the principal who helped a younger teacher understand that being a coach was about developing, not winning. Every story was his favourite one.
He was able to transfer his ability to understand people to the only other area he claimed to have any natural talent, coaching soccer. Much like his success working with educators, he was able to draw out the best from his players. And they loved him for it. For his players, his approval often meant more than that of their parents. High praise indeed. He shared with me that despite the success he attained as a coach, he couldn’t remember the number of provincial championships his teams won, but he could tell you how many weddings he attended. This connection to people is further evidence of his talents and a great source of pride.
For someone who claims not to be a teacher, Jens Nielsen taught us all the importance of the individual and of celebrating success. He turned his gift of listening and understanding into a legacy of storytelling that captured the essence of Saskatchewan educators. This lasting gift will be treasured by those who were the subjects of his conversations and by the thousands of others who knew him through his writing. We are forever grateful for you, Jens.