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Walden Magazine // Jan 16, 2019

From the Field: A Teachable Moment

How a run for president made this grad a better teacher

Ben Hartnell
Dr. Benjamin Hartnell ’11.

I’m known for two things as a teacher—the period outfits I dress up in for class (imagine a suit of chain mail armor) and my beard. Now I’m known for another: I was a write-in candidate in 26 states during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

This started as a class project to spice up the ho-hum 2012 presidential election. When 2016 rolled around, the seniors who had been in that history class said, “You should run again—but for real this time.”

I told them I was game, but they had to be my campaign managers. They researched requirements to get on the ballot in all the states we ran in, made lawn signs, set up and ran our social media, and even helped develop our platform. We created a section on the campaign website where people could vote for what issues they wanted me to focus on and what my stance should be.

That sparked an amazing dialogue among these teenagers. I’d never seen students come to class this excited. Every day, they’d walk in, drop their books, and say, “Let’s talk.” That excitement and engagement are pretty rare. And it was contagious. I’d been teaching for 16 years and had gotten stuck in my comfort zone. This shook things up and made me a better teacher. I now run classroom discussions differently, include more current events, and give more context about what was going on in the average person’s life during the time periods we study. This project reminded me of what I love about teaching and the impact I can have.

We all learned a lot—how important it is to get involved in the political process rather than sitting on the sidelines and complaining, how we’re all part of a much bigger world and can have a positive impact on the lives of others, and how to have a passionate but civil conversation about issues and ideas that matter to us. And we helped make some real changes. Write-in candidates aren’t allowed in South Carolina, but as a result of our campaign, a bill has been introduced to change that. My students also found incorrect information and broken links on several state election board websites that are being fixed since they pointed them out. They were empowered by what they learned and did, and they walk a little taller because of that.
— As told to Susan Walker

Dr. Benjamin Hartnell ’11 is a Doctor of Education graduate and a 2018 Outstanding Alumni Award nominee. He teaches history at Westerville North High School in Ohio, the same high school he graduated from. He got 721 votes in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.