Last week I attended the funeral of a mentor. Professor Maurice Balson, or Maurie as he preferred to be called, was a best-selling author, social commentator, and pioneer in the education of teachers and parents.
I met Maurie toward the end of my psychology training at Monash University while preparing for my Masters Research Project. Most Masters and PhD students do their thesis on a topic related to their academic supervisor's area of expertise. Usually, the research topic is very narrow, and of little interest to the student, but enables the supervisor to get additional publications to their name.
I wanted a topic that was genuinely meaningful for me, and could make a practical contribution to society. My interest was in work experience programs, a relatively new phenomenon in the 1970s, and how these could be used to provide useful life experience and personal development opportunities for high school students. But I had a problem. No one in our faculty had researched this area, and I was having trouble finding a supervisor. I went to the head of the faculty for advice. She initially suggested I just work with one of her academics on a topic of their choosing. When I argued that I didn't just want to follow the status quo, she said "Well then, an unorthodox approach will probably need an unorthodox supervisor", and sent me off to talk with Maurie.
I had never enrolled in Maurie’s classes, but I had heard stories about his unconventional and entertaining teaching style, where he’d have students in stitches with stories and jokes about his two pet passions - how to work with difficult kids in the classroom, and how to improve the skills of parents.
When I tentatively knocked on Maurie's open door, he looked up with a smile, beckoned me in and asked, "How can I help you?" I explained how I wanted to run a study on the emerging field of work experience programs, why the topic was of interest to me, and that I was looking for a supervisor. He said with a glint in his eye, “I don’t know anything about this area, but it sounds interesting and useful, and I'd be happy to be your supervisor.” I remember feeling that, at last, I had found a kindred spirit.
Over the next two years, Maurie listened to my ideas, encouraged me to explore innovative research methods, and pointed me in the right direction when I needed help with thorny statistical questions. After submitting my thesis to two academic assessors, one marked it as excellent, but the other objected to the fact that I had not included political theories in my discussion and said it needed a rewrite. This assessor’s perspective made no sense to me, as it was philosophical and not evidence-based, so I went to Maurie for advice.
I watched his face as he read the critique wondering what he'd say. He looked up at me over the top of his glasses and asked what I thought and why. I told him the argument had no relevance to the research study and that the assessor seemed to be pushing a biased political agenda. “So what should I do?” I asked. “Ignore it” he simply said, handing it back to me. “We’ll find another assessor.” Not only was the thesis praised by the third assessor, the State Government subsequently used the findings to guide the development of their Work Experience Programs. I’ll always be grateful to Maurie for backing me on this.
Years later, after I had been working in the franchising sector for some time, I decided to have a crack at writing a book on the psychological dynamics of the franchise relationship. Knowing Maurie had written two best-selling books, Understanding Classroom Behaviour and Becoming Better Parents, I went to see him at the university to pick his brain. He was his usual enthusiastic and supportive self, and I subsequently included some of his psychological theories in my first two books, Managing the Franchisee/Franchisor Relationship, and Profitable Partnerships. For instance, Maurie was an advocate of Adlerian humanistic psychology, which taught that most behaviour is driven by the need for respect, belonging, and a sense of purpose.
Some time later, I invited Maurie to Queensland to give a talk at a parenting seminar I had organised as part of Psychology Week. As was his way, he generously and immediately agreed. I remember standing at the back of the packed Brisbane Town Hall watching in delight as over three hundred parents roared with laughter at his jokes and anecdotes.
At Maurie’s funeral, Ian, his son, referred to him as an “educator, innovator and likeable rogue”. Maurie would have been proud of how Ian had us all laughing with stories about his dad’s quirky exploits as a pioneering and influential educator who didn’t fit the traditional academic mould.
Maurie inspired thousands of parents and teachers to be the best they can be at what he regarded as the two most important roles in life. He used to say, “If you want better children and a better society, then you need better parents.” I also know many educators, including myself, who will tell you he was the most memorable and motivating university teacher they ever had. By the way, if you have enjoyed reading one of my books, or attending one of my workshops (such as the one below), you can thank Maurie, because he taught me that you can make a difference by being different, and how to make psychology practical and fun. And for that, I will always be grateful.
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