Interview with Melvina Jones

Presidential Award for Elementary Science Teaching, 2004

Melvina Jones is the science resource teacher at John Burroughs Elementary in Washington, D.C. She teaches students in Head Start through grade 6. She is also an adjunct professor at American University in D.C., where she instructs undergraduate and graduate students in Methods of Elementary Science. She served on a panel for the U.S. House of Representatives’ Advancing Women in Science forum, and on a U.S. Department of Education broadcast called “Education News Parents Can Use.”

How did you get started in giving presentations?

I had been involved in events at my school but nothing as formal as the Advancing Women in Science forum I was invited to join. The organizers in Washington found out about my Presidential Award and called my school, also in D.C. (I had no idea that receiving the Presidential Award would get my name out there.) I had no previous experience doing this kind of thing. I was scared at first, but my principal encouraged me and came with me. When we arrived, I felt intimidated because there were five presenters—a real rocket scientist, a head of a corporation, other Ph.D. women, and myself. Just looking at the nametags in front of the seats made me feel they had made a mistake inviting me. However, when the discussion and presentations began, I knew they had not made a mistake. All of the other presenters and congresspersons there were so interested in how I am able to connect with all my students, especially girls. It felt good to speak about what I do every day in the trenches to make science fun and real for my students and to have such a prestigious audience show genuine interest. The applause made me feel better. People asked questions. At the end, three congresspersons wanted to meet me. I’ll never forget that feeling. I am now more confident to do presentations again if called on.

What advice would you give a teacher who wants to get involved in giving presentations?

Teachers need to realize that they are already used to speaking in front of people, but in front of an audience of adults, especially professionals, we get nervous. We have to realize we have the ability and experience. All we have to do is be prepared for the occasion. I asked the people who invited me to say exactly what they expected me to share. Usually they want us to draw on our personal experiences. I have the ability to speak, but the situation was way out of my usual realm. As my principal said, “You speak every day. These people want to know what you have to say. That’s why they asked you. ”

How do you make yourself more comfortable and confident before giving a presentation?

In the case of the television broadcast, the people sent me questions to think about ahead of time. I wrote answers so I would have something to say, just in case. Those notes would get me started, if I needed them, and I would elaborate when I could.

How do you juggle your teaching responsibilities with making presentations?

My principal is very encouraging and flexible when it comes to accepting these opportunities. Public presentations put the school and district in peoples’ minds. They also put you into contact with resource people who might be willing to visit and talk at the school.

What different audiences have you had to appear before, and how did you prepare?

The school district sponsored a recruitment event for an audience of newly certified teachers who were deciding on which school system to apply for employment. Principals and other administrators presented, but I was the only teacher to do so. Also, I recently participated in a travel fellowship program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I traveled to South Africa and presented on that experience before an audience consisting of all the teachers who went to various countries under the program and representatives from the host countries. The entire experience took me out of my personal comfort zone and helped me appreciate the frame of mind of students who come to our school from other countries. Another audience has been parents, for whom I have had to present our schoolyard habitat program, conduct workshops, and arrange open houses.

How do you think your experiences in making presentations contribute to the advancement of science reform?

Of all the venues in which I have presented, the teacher perspective so often has been missing; yet the teacher is expected to implement the decisions that get made. By being a contributor, the teacher has an opportunity to be sure his or her voice is heard. Very often teachers perceive the profession as being spoken of poorly. However, when you talk to other professionals (lawyers, business chiefs, etc.), you realize that respect for the profession is still there. Being in situations with an invitation to speak, teachers can enhance the reputation of the teaching field and will encounter people inclined to give it respect.

If you have questions you would like to ask Melvina Jones about her experiences in making presentations, contact her at mjteachme@aol.com

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