UNA-USA Speaks with Mandy Manning, 2018 Teacher of the Year

When high school teacher Mandy Manning was handed the National Teacher of the Year award from President Trump in the East Room of the White House this past spring, she had something to hand him in exchange: A stack of letters written by the refugee and immigrant students she teaches at Joel E Ferris high school in Spokane, Washington.

The world knows Mandy Manning as a devoted educator, a champion for equality in the classroom, and a fierce advocate for the infinite potential in all children. But we also know her as a fearless leader for Sustainable Development Goal #4: Quality Education.

As we recognize education excellence on World Teachers’ Day, October 5th, 2018, UNA-USA Education & Learning had a chance to speak with Mandy Manning. Read our interview below—there’s a lot to learn from the 2018 Teacher of the Year.

The National Teacher of the Year is recognized for excellence in teaching. What is it about your current project that caught the attention of the Council of Chief State School Officers and demonstrated innovation and excellence?

Mandy Manning: The Newcomer Center is a unique program in and of itself. It’s a specialized English language development program for brand new immigrant and refugee students. Students who attend the program are of high school, have not attended school in the U.S. previously, and also know little English. The program is housed in a comprehensive high school, which is essential. While we teach students foundational language so they can be successful after they move on from the Newcomer Center, our most important purpose is to welcome students, connect with them, and ease their transition to studying and living in the United States.

My focus on my students, on connecting with them, and helping them connect with their peers, with their school community, and with the community beyond Ferris High School could have also caught the attention of CCSSO. I live this focus every day in my classroom. I recognize that relationships are paramount in a classroom and that, as educators, our impact comes from our connections with our students. I am innovative in my dedication to knowing my students both as learners and as individual human beings.

As the National Teacher of the Year, you are provided access to a platform to guide and influence fellow educators. What opportunities exist for you to use that platform to empower communities and inform educational policy?

Mandy Manning: Throughout my year as the National Teacher of the Year, I have been and will continue to travel throughout the United States and possibly abroad to meet and speak with educators, administrators, education advocacy groups, and policy makers. Universities, advocacy groups, organizations, state departments of education, and school districts invite me to speak and experience their communities. Each of these experiences is an opportunity to empower fellow educators and to inform decision makers.

Most recently, I went to the small town of Alpine in West Texas to speak at an event at Sul Ross University. In addition to being the lecturer for their Poindexter series, I also had the chance to visit various schools in both Alpine and Marfa. This experience both informed my speech at Sul Ross, but also impacted me. I learned much about the challenges and the beauty of rural school. That’s the true gift of my position – Yes, I have the opportunity to empower and inform, but more importantly, I have the opportunity to learn from the people I meet and contexts I observe. I grow with every new experience, which in turn, influences my message.

How do you think education transforms lives? How has the UN’s work helped in this transformation, and how are you, as an educator, working to advance SDG 4: Quality Education?

Mandy Manning: Education transforms life in one of two ways – it has the potential to propel a student forward or to hold a student back. It is true that teaching is the most impactful career, because educators directly influence the future through their students. This means we can either help a student believe in themselves or we can do the opposite. If we focus on students first, on being open to who they are, and meeting them where they are when they walk through our door, we can empower students to be or do anything their heart desires.

The United Nations stands as an example to every educator and every student of the importance of collaboration, mutual respect, and the need to work to one another’s strengths in order to be the very best community we can be. A wonderful example of that is the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Every educator should be sharing this with their students as a model for how we should interact with and honor one another.

Personally, I am working to advance SDG 4: Quality Education, by always putting my students first. This means that I call out oppression, racism, and sexism within our systems, that I refuse to participate in systems which rob students of potential, and that I put students at the center of every decision I make both inside and outside of my classroom. I must listen, I must observe, and I must adjust based on the needs of my students, not on the requirements of my content.

This year’s World Teachers Day theme, “The right to education means the right to a qualified teacher,” has been chosen to remind the global community that the right to education cannot be achieved without the right to trained and qualified teachers. What challenges do you see for teachers in our world today and how does your work attempt to address them?

Mandy Manning:The main challenge for educators today is that our education systems do not meet the needs of all of our students. Moreover, our system actively diminishes the potential of many of our students, through systemic oppression, sexism, and racism. We are forced to limit our students potential simply because we have been conditioned to do so. We are operating within a system which sometimes prevents us from meeting the individual needs of many of our students, and often, we don’t even realize that.

We also encounter the obstacle of society’s perception of our profession. We are both honored and vilified. It is widely recognized that teaching is difficult. We are tasked with the responsibility of teaching a room full of individuals with different needs and different personalities. We are honored for this. At the same time, we are vilified, treated as glorified babysitters and our credentials are often called into questioned. Moreover, we are usually the last to be consulted in making decisions which directly impact our classrooms, despite our experience and expertise. To simplify, we are confronted with a lack of respect, both from those outside of our profession and from within.

In my work, I am tackling these challenges by, first, empowering my colleagues. We have to believe in our own expertise in order to assert it when necessary. I encourage educators to be familiar with education policy and to assert their knowledge and experience at the local level to ensure policies are implemented to positively impact their classrooms. I also speak openly about systemic oppression in all of its forms. Only when we are open to different ways of thinking, being, and doing, can we truly meet the needs of our students.

Therefore, I encourage educators to always put students first. I encourage decision-makers and administrators to allow their teachers the latitude to make instructional decisions based, not on a curriculum, but on the needs of the students they have in their classrooms. Finally, I encourage policy-makers to involve educators in decision-making, to invite them to the table, not only to hear their stories, but to be active participants in developing policy. Most of all, I hold myself and my colleagues accountable for ensuring equity in our districts, schools, and classrooms, and to always view students through their strengths.

To reach the 2030 Education Goals of universal primary and secondary education, the world needs to recruit almost 69 million new teachers. What do you think global thought leaders and world leaders can do to address this issue?

Mandy Manning: In order to attract 69 million new educators, we must ensure our systems are open to a variety of ways of thinking, being, and doing. We must be honest in teaching our histories and learning from them, particularly how those histories influence our students lived experiences. Thought and world leaders must critically look at what we value in our education system and ensure that it honors the variety of cultures in our classrooms. Students learn in an environment in which they feel represented, cared for, engaged, and in which they feel they belong. The same can be said for teachers.

Finally, schools must become the centers of our communities. That means they need to be afforded the latitude to meet the needs of the community through content, modes of instruction, programs, teaching and learning styles. We must honor our educators and our building administrators, and encourage them to design schools which put their communities needs first, and allow individual teachers the right to teach in a manner best suited to their individual styles and based on the needs of the students in their classrooms.

What inspires you to change lives and be a teacher by profession?

Mandy Manning: Students embody hope. Every year when I open my classroom to a new group of students, I am gifted a room full of eager, nervous students who have endless potential. It is my absolute honor to open that potential to them, to build their confidence, and to help them believe in themselves as much as I believe in them. I am privileged to show them their voice matters and to give them the tools and skills to use their voice to better their lives, and our world.

Learn more about Mandy Manning here.


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