Melanie Buchanan is a math teacher at Harpeth Middle School in Cheatham County, Tennessee. She has been politically active through her association for more than a decade, connecting with policymakers by sharing her experiences as an educator. Now, she is encouraging other educators to do the same.
NEA TODAY: How have you used your personal story to advocate for public schools?
Melanie Buchanan: In February, I used my story to explain what our schools don’t need: high-stakes, standardized testing. I told my legislator about a student whose father passed away a day or two before we started standardized testing. We place so much importance on those standardized tests, but she came into my classroom with this heavy emotional baggage and needed a different kind of support from me.
Sitting down to take this test two days after losing her dad would ensure she couldn’t do her best. And as a teacher, I would be evaluated according to her test score. That legislator then understood how there are so many things that tests can’t see.
What is your advice to other educators who want to connect with education decision-makers using their personal stories?
MB: It’s really important when educators talk to legislators at the local, state, or national level that they bring their classroom experience into that discussion. When you relay your personal story and experiences, they tend to listen more. If you throw a bunch of numbers and statistics at them, you run the risk of losing the human connection.
Everyone can think back to their own education and remember a teacher who inspired them. We draw on those moments to connect with legislators and ask for help getting what we need for our classrooms.
What have you told your legislators about your experience of teaching during the coronavirus pandemic?
MB: After the building was closed, I didn’t hear from six of my students for nine straight weeks. I couldn’t get the communication lines open. Parents weren’t returning calls. I’m trying to get them access and materials, but it’s been a struggle.
We’ve got to keep as much funding as we can in schools. Instead of cuts, we need more resources. We’ve got to take into account the mental toll—not just the academic one— that the pandemic has taken on our students.
We’ve got to keep making the connection with elected leaders by telling the stories that show how we connect with students on a personal level. We need the resources to get our schools re-opened safely and do the best work we can do for these students.
How to craft your story (and inspire others to act!)
Melanie Buchanan offers these tips for sharing who you are and what you value most—the keys to connecting with others for a cause:
• Sit down and consider those “headline moments” in your life. What compelled you to get involved in advocacy on behalf of public schools? What are your top concerns for the students you see every day? What are some of the things you’ve learned from students?
• Write the first draft without self-editing. Let the story form naturally.
• Now edit. Work the story down to something you can convey in just a few minutes. Read it out loud until it sounds “like you.”
• Be prepared to tweak your story based on your audience. The parts of your story you share will depend on who you are talking to and what you need them to do. Offer a picture of the better future you envision.
• End by making an ask. If you’re talking to a decision-maker, tell them which policies you support. If you’re organizing for Election 2020, ask listeners to vote for your candidate and invite them to get involved in the campaign.