Mandy Manning asked people in the crowd to think back, to remember when they were in school.
“Visualize an educator you really felt connected to,” said Manning, the 2018 National Teacher of the Year. “Now turn to people next to you and tell them about that teacher.”
I thought about my favorite English teacher at Spokane’s Joel E. Ferris High School. Divvying up parts of Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,” that teacher had us play-acting in her classroom.
On stage in South Whidbey’s auditorium, Manning talked Monday about her students at Ferris. Yes, the National Teacher of the Year is from my alma mater.
The school has seen big changes since I graduated in 1972. What’s new goes well beyond a major renovation project, completed at Ferris in 2014.
Manning’s students come from all over the world. She teaches in the English Language Development Newcomer Center at Ferris. The center serves immigrant and refugee students, of high school age, from throughout the Spokane district. They spend a semester or more in the center before moving on to high school classes.
When I was at Ferris, the kids all were from Spokane’s south side. And then there’s the Ferris mascot — Saxons, an ancient Germanic people — which some have criticized.
Hearing stories of her students, it’s clear that Manning’s devotion to her work and those kids involves so much more than language instruction. And it’s easy to see why the Council of Chief State School Officers chose her for National Teacher of the Year.
Monday night, the charismatic teacher shared experiences of some of her students.
Two siblings from Syria, both with profound deafness, “were not hearing anything and had no language,” said Manning. “I always go and visit students’ families,” she said while showing a photo of the Syrian students’ large family at a dinner table.
Manning joined the family in taking sign-language classes. She helped them find resources, and the students had cochlear implants for hearing.
Telling about a gregarious Iraqi student named Hussein, Manning said he had cut hair for U.S. soldiers in his homeland. He was 20 when he arrived at the Newcomer Center. Along with helping him enter a cosmetology program, she helped teach him to drive.
A girl from Sudan, who had a fourth-grade education when she came to the Newcomer Center at 15, is now at Eastern Washington University studying to teach elementary school.
“I have had students from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Uganda, Sudan, Kenya, Nepal, Micronesia, Malaysia, the Marshall Islands, Ukraine, Russia, and Myanmar which was Burma — really all over the world,” she said. “In Spokane, we serve 77 language groups.”
The Newcomer Center has had 25 or more students in the past, but now has just nine. Passionate in her belief that “every single person, every human being alive, deserves an education and a happy life,” Manning said “there are 68 million refugees worldwide seeking a permanent place.”
The Trump administration announced last month that it plans to admit a maximum of 30,000 refugees in 2019, the lowest refugee cap in U.S. history. Refugees are recognized by the United Nations as being threatened by violence and persecution, Manning said.
At the end of the program, she was joined onstage by Robert Hand, the 2019 Washington state Teacher of the Year. He teaches family and consumer sciences at Mount Vernon High School.
Manning, who’s spending this year traveling, plans to return to the Newcomer Center. She took a nontraditional route to the classroom.
“I was going to be a filmmaker,” said Manning, who has an undergraduate degree in film. She began as a paraeducator at Shelton High School, and coached a Special Olympics basketball team. After two years in the Peace Corps in Armenia, she taught in Texas and Japan.
When she met President Donald Trump in May, and on Monday, Manning wore badges and pins she said stood for her students’ diversity. “I was representing all my students in that house,” she said of the White House.
Students, rather than academic subjects, come first.
“I love to get to know my students,” she said. “What we need to do is welcome them and help them believe in their potential. To feel they belong, that’s my first priority.”