Melanie Wright’s story as told to Susan Volbrecht
I ran as a state representative because of the education policy changes that are happening. It’s not really something I imagined myself doing, until there was no other choice.
This was during the general assembly session of 2011, and a bill came up that tied student test scores to teacher evaluation. This pays no mind to students’ needs, no mind to the devastating impacts of generational poverty, and no mind to broken testing policies. At the same time, Senate Bill 575 was introduced, which stripped away collective bargaining except for matters of wages and benefits. This de-professionalizes teachers, who care about so much more than their paycheck.
I wrote to the governor. I wrote to my state senator, who was a freshman at the time, and I wrote to my state representative. The senator actually came and met with me, in my classroom, on a Saturday morning, along with 14 other teachers. He could see we were concerned about what was happening. It went beyond the assessment–my students’ anxieties were manifesting themselves as behavioral and social issues as well.
He kept me in the dialogue, but never voted for change.
My state representative sent me a form letter in June, though the session had ended back in March. The email I had sent him was not canned–I had sources, there was research, and my students’ futures were contained in that letter. When I took the form letter out of the mailbox, I made the decision:
I’m running against you.
I knew at that point and time there was no other answer.
I quickly found myself in a world of politics, which is not like teaching—in teaching everyone is collaborative and helps one another. During campaigning, it can be very mean and competitive.
The first time I ran, I lost by 444 votes. But I could see so clearly myself doing it! I could envision it, and it felt like it was meant to be. I wanted to bring the voices of my students into the conversations that governed their education. They needed an advocate on location, where the future of their schooling is decided.
So I ran again. I won by 206 votes.
I’m aware of only one other democrat that won on a state level in Indiana in that election, which was 2014. It’s affected a lot by the redistricting that happens after a census is taken. Some of them are just not winnable.
Part of it was my work ethic. I wasn’t used to being able to go out and say, I need you to vote for me and here’s what I am bringing to the table. But I did it. I knocked on doors, and I showed people that I was a multi-dimensional candidate, but that I believe in public education. I remember how great my public education was, and I felt so prepared for college. And I was the first in my family to go to college.
I had to prepare my high school students for what the campaign might bring. I told them, “When we get closer to election, there is going to be mail that comes out against me.” I told them to ask any questions because I didn’t know what that was going to look like. One girl (a second grader) came up and said, “My mailbox told me I couldn’t trust you.” I said, “When you believe in something and you stand up for it, sometimes people will say things about you and that’s what is happening now.”
I am still fighting for better assessment legislation. At this moment, we’ve totally moved away from hands-on learning. Some kids do really well at testing, and some don’t. Some kids can sit down at a computer and show you what they know, and some can’t. We are also shutting down creativity entirely. We stop creative thought early, because of testing. We are training them like puppies—pick the one right answer, not multiple correct answers, not many possible solutions, and these are our future doctors and lawyers. We’ve ended imagination, and taken away creative play time, an important developmental stage.
I miss the days when we would wrap around a child, and support them in their struggles. Now, they bring that baggage with them to school, sometimes it comes out as a behavioral issue or shutting down, a noncompliance issue. We used to take time and find the cause of the misbehavior, to help them overcome their challenges.
Today, everything is very focused on academics—language arts and math. As a fine arts teacher, it isn’t coming locally, it’s a national shift where the arts are less important. If you look back at our great artists, composers, and architects, these are the people who had the most ups and downs in their lives and they harnessed that and used it to create. Some struggled in school, whereas some had a teacher who helped them to tap into their struggles to develop their talent. How do those students fare during the current standardized assessment battery?
The state might not look at each of my students as artists. But to me, they are each a unique work of art. To me they are each a Picasso.
Susan Polcz Volbrecht is a Muncie native, who returned home after teaching 11 years on Chicago’s south side. She is currently a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Lunsford, and is active with Friends of Muncie Public Education, The Facing Project, amongst other volunteer organizations.
This story originally appeared in Facing Teaching, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.