Unsolicited Advice: Getting Everyday Teachers Into Education Stories*

Education loses veteran journalists all the time — WSJ’s Stephanie Banchero, Politico’s Stephanie Simon, EdWeek’s Michelle McNeil come to mind as recent examples — but their departures sometimes provide a good opportunity to glean their thoughts and insights on the beat and media coverage in general. 

That’s the silver lining that accompanies the news that Melissa Bailey (@mmbaily) has followed Stephanie Simon into health care coverage for the Boston Globe, leaving the education beat where she wrote most recently for the New Haven Independent. As of this week, Bailey writes about the Longwood medical area for the Globe’s life-science publication.

In the interview below, Bailey describes her favorite (and least favorite) parts of covering education in New Haven, dishes on her favorite books and writers (Sarah Carr among others), and tells us what she wishes she’d known and done earlier to make her reporting as good as possible (including getting “everyday” teachers into stories).

Bailey first appeared on my radar for her coverage of New Haven’s fascinating education dynamics in about 2011. She covered the union-management cooperation over issues that divide many other districts, and also pushed for unfettered access to schools (including one infamous 2011 confrontation with an upset school press officer that was caught on video). This past year, she was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

AnoaZWiICatch us up a bit — what if anything ed-related did you do with your fellowship year?

MB: I joined Jill Abramson’s nonfiction narrative writing class, a small seminar for undergrads. I was the teaching assistant and also did the work. I wrote two long feature stories, one of an undocumented immigrant Harvard student, and another about a group of students who dropped out of traditional colleges and are now meeting at a Panera bakery in a strip mall in Dorchester and taking online classes together. It was great to have so much time to interview and think and write.

The Nieman year was also a great chance to learn about different things, like stem cells and social movements and how to look at art. We spent a ton of time examining how journalism is changing, and learning new skills to keep up.

How long did you cover education, and what were your favorite and least favorite parts of the job?

MB: I spent eight years covering education, most intensely for the last five. I loved the great variety: in the morning, interviewing 4-year-olds about a new pile of dirt in the playground; by night, combing through audits for scoops. I always had the feeling that the work really mattered, that people really cared. On the downside: the public debate around charter schools and testing has become so polarized that I sometimes felt that no matter what I wrote, our comments section would reprise the same futile shouting match. 

What was your biggest/favorite education story to do?

MB: I followed two low-income students — an undocumented immigrant from Colombia and a young woman from Puerto Rico — through their transition from high school to college. I spent a whole day with them at a Jesuit university in suburban Connecticut. At one point, one of them discovered she had lost the key to the car she used to commute to college from New Haven. I followed her for four hours as she scoured the entire campus for the key. I was exhausted! She didn’t complain once. It probably sounds like a small story, but it put on display the fierce perseverance and problem-solving skills that have helped her defy the odds stacked against low-income kids when they get to college.

Download (1)Do you have any regrets or missed opportunities from your time writing about education?

MB: When I started reporting, I had trouble reaching everyday teachers. Some were directly threatened by a principal never to talk to the press; others were afraid to talk for other reasons. I eventually found ways around those barriers — including teaming up with some teachers to form an under-the-radar ed-themed book club. I wish I had done that earlier, so my stories could have included more voices from the classroom. 

Who’s your favorite education writer out there, or your favorite two or three?

MB: I can’t pick a favorite, but here are two books I loved: Susan Eaton’s “The Children in Room E4”; Sarah Carr’s “Hope Against Hope.” They did a great job mixing human stories with the wonky policy stuff.

How did your coverage change over time, in terms of what you focused on or how you reported or wrote?

MB: I started covering the beat daily during a mayoral primary and a kickoff to a school change campaign. There were a lot of press conference stories. Over time, I got a lot deeper into the schools and into the lives of parents, educators and kids. I started picking a different school every year to work as an embedded reporter, showing up every week to watch a class or tag along with a student. Of course that took some key approvals from the school district. I think the result was a much more nuanced and human look at what “reform” meant day-to-day. [You can read a compilation of her New Haven school stories in School Reform City.]

What do you wish someone had told you when you started covering education?

MB: Find ways to get everyday teachers’ voices in the stories.

MB: If you could wave a magic wand, what would education coverage look like (locally or nationally)?

More human faces on national policy stories. More deep reporting in schools. More investment in local reporting, period.

What do other reporters and non-journalists generally not “get” about being an education reporter?

MB: I’m not sure. Perhaps they think it’s a “soft” beat? But it’s full of politics and money and controversy and a huge range of human experience. It’s a great, important beat. Now you’re making me miss it, Russo!

Related posts: Two Journos Win Nieman FellowshipsMeet New Haven’s “Phosphorescent” Dave LowNew Haven Press Officer Confronts Reporter — Resigns.

*By request, I’ve taken down the link to the video showing the confrontation over school access.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.