Interview: Molly Johnson

Talented Star Shares Her Take on Private Schools

by: Erica Ehm

"Hold on a sec. I"m just reading on email from Otis' teacher"

So, I wait while Otis, and Henry's mom, jazz singing sensation Molly Johnson, focuses on her son's education before she's ready to talk about herself. 

Molly wasn't always this selfless. In the 80's she was a free spirited rock'n roller considered by many to be the fashion queen of of trendy Queen St. W.

With no formal musical eduction, Molly has become one of Canada's most celebrated singer songwriters, her new album of standards receiving rave reviews. With no university degree, Molly is a proud Officer of the Order of Canada for her commitment to Canadian Culture and Philanthropy. And now, again with no formal training, Molly is hosting the weekend Morning Show on CBC Radio 2, proudly playing Canadian musical gems ignored by commercial stations nationwide.

Today, Molly has her priorities straight. Education is big for her.  She credits this passion for learning to her parents. Her dad, a retired professional football player, pulled himself out of the Philidelphia ghetto to finish a degree in Kinisioology. Her mother, who married a black man in America in the 40's, taught Molly courage and to stick with things through adversity.

Instead of going to school, the stage has been Molly's classroom. She began her hands-on education at age five when she and siblings Tabby and Clark  were cast by Ed Mirvish to perform in his stage production of Porgy and Bess. By eight years old, her love of dance lead little Molly to the National Ballet School, where she studied until she hit seventeen. 

Ironically, Molly has no formal music training. She did have a voice coach once who told she sang so incorrectly it was virtually impossible to correct her. It's the unique voice that has won the hearts of her fans around the world.

Knowing what she does today about surviving in an arts related business and coping with being self employed, Molly is very focused on making sure her two sons receive the best education possible.

Her boys' first exposure to school started with "the Jane Jacobs of Early Childhood Education - Helen Comway - a terrific nursery school teacher at the Downtown JCC." 

"Since when are you Jewish?" I ask.

"I'm not." She laughs, telling me how proud she is that her boys know about Jewish traditions. "It's important when you live in a multi cultural city like Toronto" she explains.

Next stop was King Edward Public school - until Otis' perceptivie teacher noticed a discrepancy between his wonderful vocabulary and his struggle to read and spell. Diagnosed with learning challenges, Molly found tutors to help her son cope with school. One of these tutors went on to opent the Willow School. Molly signed up her boys - and so ended the relationship with the public school system for her family.

"The TDSB is very badly run," she rants. "There are incredible teachers and good principals but their hands are tied. The formula is all wrong. They're losing kids. It broke my heart to have to pull them out of the public system."

When her kids outgrew the facilities at Willow, Molly was on a hunt again for just right educational environment for the boys. When she met the headmaster at Royal St George, a small private boys school in her area , she felt an immediate connection. For starters, his office washroom was papered with images of famous blues musicians - quite unusual in the typically straight laced world of private schools. The songwriter in the mom felt at home here.

After a few months attending class at RSG, Molly's positive gut feeling proved right. The school informed her they believed Otis' diagnosis of a learning disability was just part of being a boy. 

And Molly does emphasize the importantance of teaching boys differently. She believes the eighties were the turning point - when girl power reached its zenith. Girls excelled and boys faded into the academic background. Choosing a boys school was a very concious decision for her. 

She credits this school for changing their lives. "Our son went from hating school to loving it."

At home Molly doesn't try to take over their teachers' job when it comes to homework. Both boys are expected to do their work independantly. Only after their studies are done will she try and help them if something isn't making sense to them - except for math - a subject Molly never excelled at. That's when she sends a note to the teacher to help.

Developing a strong relationship with the school staff as well a strong parental network is critcal. Being able to call up other parents for back up, combined with the genuine dedication she feels from the school has made a world of difference in raising her boys. 

Molly cannot say enough about her admiration for teachers. "It's a calling," she says. "They are some of my favorite people". 

"In a way, I regret not going to university." she admits. "I often wonder what would have happened if I went to a better school. Would I have become a lawyer? Would I know how to type..."

I'm sure her fans are happy with Molly just the way she is. A mom with a voice and a mission.


Erica Ehm has gone from rock'n roll to rocking the cradle. After a decade starring on MuchMusic, she had kids and is the founder of and the Ehm & Co, a digital agency focused on moms. Erica's two teens Josh and Jessie, and hubby Terry help her put life into perspective.