by Wynne Kontos
Mandy Manning, the 2018 National Teacher of the Year, is perhaps most famous for the moment during the awards ceremony at the White House when she gave President Donald Trump a stack of letters written by her students, who are immigrants and refugees new to the United States. At a time when teaching and education are under onslaught from divisive government leadership and a chronic lack of funding, Manning’s quiet but determined protest shined a light on the educators leading the battle to protect children and families. Wynne Kontos spoke with Manning for Teachers & Writers Magazine.
Interviewer’s Note: Mandy Manning has taught English and math to refugee and immigrant students in the Newcomer Center at Joel E. Ferris High School in Spokane, Washington, since 2011. She has developed critical literacy engagements for students who are at their most vulnerable, and also played a role redefining her school’s behavior and intervention platforms. By allowing her students to share the depth and beauty of their culture and engage in their community, Manning has proven herself an educator steeped in understanding, rather than test scores or data. Which is why, rather than talk about the media storm surrounding her of late, I asked her about her roots—how she came to the classroom and the passion she applies to teaching every day. “I make it clear that I’m so happy [our students] are with us in our classroom and that I have the pleasure of learning next to them and with them,” Manning told me from her home in Spokane. “No matter what they fear here, there are people who love them unconditionally and want them to be our neighbors.”
Wynne Kontos (WK): Your previous degrees are in fiction writing, communications, and media arts. What brought you into teaching? Was there a specific moment or experience that drew you into education?
Mandy Manning (MM): After I was through with film school, I decided I didn’t really want to pursue that as a career. One of my friends was a para-educator and told me there was an opening he thought would really suit me. I applied and worked for that first year as a para-educator in a special education classroom, and that was the first inkling I had that teachers make a difference in students’ lives and have a strong impact.
Then I went into the Peace Corps, and that solidified that perception even more. Plus, it helped me understand the importance of community and connections. When I came back to the United States after serving a few years in Armenia, my aunt encouraged me to become a teacher based on my experience. So I went ahead and applied, even though I didn’t have a teaching certificate. I thought, why not? And then I got a job teaching in Texas.
That first day looking out at my classroom was very powerful for me, because they were all looking to me for what comes next. Just to see that potential and know that I was going to have a hand in helping them to grow and believe in themselves and achieve whatever it was that they wanted to achieve was quite impactful to me, so I’ve been teaching ever since. I didn’t really search for teaching, teaching kind of found me.
WK: You also taught in Japan. How did your time in Armenia and Japan shape your current classroom and your student to teacher and student to student relationships?
MM: The Peace Corps was the first time I left the comfort of my own environment. I’d left home here and there, but not permanently and certainly not halfway around the world. Everything was different, all the way down to the toilets. We had outhouses! There were all these general comfort challenges, as well as relational challenges because I was living within a culture unlike my own. I had to learn how to adjust and adapt and to be open to different ways of thinking, and to learn how to live in discomfort until it become comfortable.
I carried that with me, especially in the last ten years of my career when I’ve been working directly with immigrant and refugee students. No matter what you teach or who you are, or where you are, every single kid that comes into your classroom is going to have different experiences than you as the educator. It’s your responsibility as the educator to understand yourself enough to set aside your own perceptions and biases and be open to all these individuals in your classroom.
WK: Can you share more about the culturally responsive classroom management training program that you are a part of? Do you see that classroom transfer happening? If yes, what does that look like, and if not, what goals are you striving to meet?
MM: I’m a trainer of culturally responsive classroom management, or CRCM. [CRCM is a pedagogical approach guiding classroom management decisions educators make in a culturally responsive way.] It’s something I’ve always been interested in and I did spearhead a change in my school around our practices in discipline. Our school was already transitioning to positive behavioral intervention and supports, or PBIS. [PBIS is a US Department of Education-funded initiative that encourages a multi-tiered approach to social, emotional, and behavior support.] When I started to do the culturally responsive classroom management training, I realized the relationship between the two and I brought it to the school.
I encouraged my administration to consider this training because it directly impacts how we interact with our students. It encourages connections and really getting to know students. It also looks at classroom management in a more productive, socially responsive way, and includes that social justice piece about equity and being able to self-reflect, to know where you come from so you can be more open for your students.
I happen to work in a very open environment in which the administration really takes to heart what the teachers and staff say. We created this community within our school where every voice mattered, and we approached discipline in a very positive way instead of a negative, punitive way. The outcomes of that were pretty tremendous—we had significantly fewer suspensions. Another strong part of the culturally responsive classroom management training is that it’s ongoing, which is important with professional development. In school we often do one-and-done; you do one training on something and never hear about it again. This is not like that; it’s intended to be sustained, practiced, and reflected upon.
I was only in the classroom last year for a semester because I’ve been the state teacher of the year and now I’m onto national teacher of the year, so as of yet I haven’t observed classroom implementation. But thus far, we have a really healthy classroom environment at Ferris, so I think that that speaks to the whole idea that we not only respect each other as colleagues, we also respect students.
WK: My understanding of PBIS is that the classroom teacher has a lot of control over how successful the implementation might be with their students. It sounds like your teaching culture is very receptive and open to that, and would make it more likely to be more to be successful with students.
MM: Yes, I mean anything you’re trying to implement in schools, if teachers buy into it with a positive attitude and they have a voice in how it’s how it’s implemented, then the more likely it is to have a positive impact and positive output for students.
The other piece to it is that PBIS and the social justice component are all very theory based. It’s hard to implement theory-based practices, so that’s when culturally responsive classroom management comes in because it provides the strategies. The social justice piece and the PBIS provide the overarching goal, but the culturally responsive classroom management is the practical application, it kind of closes the circle.
WK: What student demographics does the Newcomer Center typically see? What populations do you serve in your classroom most often? Are ages varied?
MM: All students in the Newcomer Center at Ferris High School are between the ages of 14 and 20. There is also a middle school newcomer center, which serves our brand new middle school English language learners. We’ve had students from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Karen State in Myanmar, Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Chuuk in Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Congo, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico. This is not an exhaustive list. We literally serve students from around the world. Historically, we serve 15 to 25 students and 8 to 13 language groups each semester.
WK: There are complexities when it comes to discussing race, cultural experiences, trauma, and the definition of home in the context of writing, reading, or language. How do you honor the integrity of your students’ primary language and culture while also helping them to adapt to their new country?
MM: This year’s a little bit different because we have significantly fewer numbers, but previously we would have anywhere between 15 and 25 students at the Newcomers Center. The cause of the enrollment decline is linked to the refugee ceiling set by the federal government. In the past we have invited 85,000 refugees into our nation yearly, but the ceiling was re-set at 45,000 as a limit, not a goal, unlike previous years. That is the smallest number since the program started in 1980 and impacts our numbers dramatically.
This current academic year we have 8 students in the center. We were usually serving between 8 and 11 languages. Utilizing language in class, if we can, is usually done by putting the language groups together so they can discuss what we’re doing, because I obviously don’t speak 8 to 11 languages. Then beyond that, we do share certain things like the kids working together to make a poster of all the greetings in their languages, so there’s some exposure to each other’s languages.
We don’t assign homework, because for newcomers to spend all day immersed in English and then be expected to go home and do homework in English is overwhelming. We really encourage them to focus on their home language, whatever their native language is or whatever language it is they speak in their home. Sometimes my kids are multilingual, with three to four languages already, and we really encourage that. Plus, we talk to the families and express how important literacy is in their first language, and how that directly links to literacy in the second, third, or fourth language.
WK: Also, the map-making lesson you’ve formulated allows students to create and share from a familiar place.
MM: The whole idea behind the map-making lesson is talking about community. Community is an overarching theme throughout our time together. The academic part focuses on the target languages, giving and receiving directions, conversing about neighborhoods, and learning about the different vocabulary related to neighborhoods and language constructs and phrasing.
But the community part is that we want them to have an opportunity to share about themselves in a very positive way. Because the students are coming directly to the Newcomer Center from whatever happened in their life before in their home country, we want the focus on their home country to be positive so that we’re not expecting them to relive any type of trauma. And also to have pride and to understand that where they come from is a very important piece of who they are.
I have them first draw their neighborhood and their home country with the houses and stuff. That’s always interesting because it shows me a lot about spatial thinking. Here in the United States, we have a grid of streets and it’s very linear, and in some countries and cultures it’s not; they think more pictorially. Everyone gets to see a totally different way of viewing and perceiving the world. Then we leave the classroom and get out into Spokane on foot and draw a map. So I usually have them working together and they’re drawing a map and they’re asking people directions in the street. We’re determining which businesses need to be on the map, and then we bring those maps back to the classroom and make one big classroom map, and then we use that for the rest of the unit. With anything that I can make a connection to their previous experience in as positive a way as possible, that’s what we do. Making a map is such a tangible thing, it’s just such an easy thing to talk about.
WK: Do you have translators in the classroom? Students can speak to each other if two or three students speak the same language, but how does the lesson get communicated to everyone in the room?
MM: We do not have interpreters. I work with a teaching partner who is a bilingual specialist, so her native language is Spanish. Sometimes her language is useful if we happen to have several Spanish-speaking students, but generally speaking that’s not our largest population here in Spokane. When the kids come to the Newcomers Center they have to test at a Level 1, which is “little to no English” according to our state assessment. The Newcomers Center is dedicated specifically to providing that foundational language, so I have the flexibility to start with the very basics of language which are: ABC, 123, Hello, How are you, My name is…. And then we build from there. It’s amazing, because we end up doing leaps and bounds. Because we get to start at that very beginning, the kids are confident and they’re willing to take risks because it’s a very safe environment. We do a lot of gestures, and a lot of pictures, and a lot of animated speaking, and it just works. And their common language is English, so they have an intrinsic motivation to learn.
WK: In your Teacher of the Year application you say: I needed my students to understand the world is not scary and that our connections with one another make life meaningful. Hope was paramount to this message.
So much has changed in our world even since you wrote these words in 2017, and I imagine the world does feel very scary for many of your students whose lives will be or have been directly impacted by the social and political climate of late. Do you stand by these words? Has anything changed in your classroom and has your method of focusing outward been altered at all? How do you honor the fear your students might feel?
MM: We do absolutely honor the fear and make sure that they know that it’s okay to feel that way. The kids are scared, I mean, there’s no getting around it. They’re scared for their families; some are scared they’ll never see their family because half their family is still in their home country waiting to [immigrate] and the bureaucracy has just increased to the point that there’s the possibility they won’t get to come. Some are afraid they’ll get deported.
But my original sentiment has not changed. Just because we believe the world is scary doesn’t mean that it is. There is a lot of fear right now, which is our whole problem. It is unfounded fear on the belief that there are limited resources and if we open our borders then whatever resources we have will go to “them” and not to “us,” and that’s just not real. It’s a tool that people are using in order to have power. For me, that means I have to be even more intentional about being outward because it’s more important now than ever, not just that my students see and value one another, but that community members outside of my classroom see and value my kids. Because we do bring beauty, all of us together, and the world would not be interesting or kind without diversity of thinking, being, and doing.
WK: What’s the lasting legacy you hope to leave your students with?
MM: Number one, that they are powerful and important, that they matter, that they’re enough and that they should believe in themselves because they can achieve anything that they dream to achieve. That they’re worthy of that achievement. Number two, that there’s value in every other human being outside of ourselves and that we have to be open to new experiences and to new people in order to have connections and be part of our communities. When we know each other and are willing to get to know each other, we are safer and stronger.
And I think we hear this all the time, but we don’t believe it in our hearts, but in our classrooms connections are paramount. Knowing our kids is the foundation, even if we’re writing about education. It’s the knowledge of the kids in our classroom that really makes it possible to learn. It really is that simple, but we don’t think so. We think you have to be an expert in content, you have to be able to make beautiful lessons, but really at the heart of it is just the connections we make with kids, and their knowledge that we love and care about them.
Wynne Kontos’ writing is featured in Love Sick: Growing Up with a Parent Who Has Cancer, Moonlit Wing. and The Inquisitive Eater, with interviews in Brooklyn Magazine, Teachers & Writers Magazine, Critical Mass, The New School Blog, and the One Story blog. She has performed her work with the writing collective Lost Lit and at the 25 East Gallery in Manhattan. She has an LMSW in social work and an MFA in fiction from The New School. She lives in New York City.
Photo (top) via New York Times