RPCV Mandy Manning Honored for Working with Refugees
By Patricia Nyhan
Mandy Manning’s choice as 2018 National Teacher of the Year came as thrilling news last April to former Peace Corps volunteers who support refugees in the United States. The Spokane, WA, teacher works with refugee and immigrant students, inspiring them with her message of hope.
“I’m very excited for this opportunity to tell about my students, and to give some perspective,” Manning told members of our Peace Corps Community for Refugees in a meeting in Washington D.C. Sunday in advance of meeting with federal officials this week. As she sets off on a year-long advocacy as Teacher of the Year, she can become a powerful spokesperson for a more tolerant and positive approach toward refugees and immigration.
“My students are brilliant!” said Manning, who believes her role advocating for refugees and immigrants is to “create a space for people to tell their own stories.”
Manning cited her Peace Corps experience in Armenia in 1999-2001 as helping prepare her for teaching at Joel E. Ferris High School in a Newcomers Center where students learn about American culture along with academics. A former filmmaker, she had never considered teaching until she found herself in an Armenian classroom.
“Meeting Mandy can bring tears to your eyes— for her dedication to and love of her students and for her great skill and commitment as a teacher. It makes us proud as Peace Corps alumni to hear her credit her volunteer experience with helping prepare her for this work,” said PCC4Refugees leader, Barbara Busch. (Of the more than 230,000 Americans who have joined the Peace Corps since 1961, more than a third have gone into education after their Peace Corps service, according to the National Peace Corps Association.)
"The Peace Corps Community for Refugees strongly supports Mandy's efforts to make the public and elected leaders aware of the many immigrant and refugee students who have succeeded in school and later in life. These are stories that need to be told," Busch said.
Pictured top row (left to right): Jean Aden, Valerie Kurka, Manning, Barbara Busch, Pat Nyhan, Colleen Conroy and Don Drach. Bottom row (l-r): Meisha Robinson and Anne Baker.
Some of those stories are told in letters Manning’s students wrote to President Trump for her White House visit this week. She chooses to let her students speak for themselves; while all were respectful, a female student from Rwanda challenged Trump on his derogatory remark about African countries: “You can’t say things like that. Since you said that, more people are being mean to me, telling me to go back to Africa. People from my country are beautiful.”
Administered by the Council of Chief State School Officers, the teacher’s award is given annually to shine a national spotlight on excellence in teaching. In selecting Manning, it also highlights success in meeting the particular challenge of preparing refugee and immigrant students for life in America.
In Manning’s school district, officials were overwhelmed when refugee and immigrant students first started arriving in the 1980s and 1990s. “The district was struggling to serve them,” said Manning. Eventually, they set up a district-funded Newcomers Center, in which Manning has taught for the past seven years. Students spend five periods a day with her and one elsewhere in the school, and are gradually mainstreamed into the school population, usually after about a semester.
Manning builds a community in the classroom where students share experiences and map out their high school to familiarize themselves with it and the 26 cultures represented there. They tour the school, making connections with other English language learners and getting used to American high school culture.
“Our program came out of discomfort. [The district] didn’t know what to do. In creating the program, they ended up helping a lot of people,” said Manning, whose experience in public education has taught her that administrators are well-meaning, but often just need a teacher to point out a problem and ask for help. “I always get support when I ask for it,” she said, adding that teachers themselves often think no one is going to listen to them. Manning’s approach is direct and positive:
“Look at these kids, how well they’re doing. All we need is support.”
For RPCVs wishing to become part of that support in their local communities, Manning has advice: Focus on female refugees or immigrants at home, and men in the 18-21 age bracket; they are especially in need of help. Offer in-class volunteering, driving lessons, social visits, lessons in how to ride the bus, job interview prep or intensive language practice. In particular, elementary level schools could use more help.
“It has to be active help. So often help is passive, collecting clothes, etc. But interacting with refugees is important, Manning said. “Ask them, What do you need?”
“It’s not our responsibility to save them. It’s our responsibility to help them become the best they can be,” Manning said.
“Students are at the heart of everything I do,” said Manning, who prefers to focus on them than on national policy. She points out that a common thread among Teacher of the Year teachers is their focus on students, rather than standardization, yet “What we see in policy is standardization.”
National policy on refugees and immigrants affects her program, of course. With the Trump administration’s cutbacks in refugee admissions to the lowest level in decades, her once-full classroom is down to just five students this year. However, even among those students, there are different challenges. For instance, the Spanish-speaking immigrants have a tougher time economically in some respects than the refugee kids, who receive services from resettlement agencies for at least a period of a few months.
To Manning, all of her students are “brilliant”-- highly motivated, skilled, and fluent in several languages. Most graduate in four years, a short time for English language learners. What accounts for their high success rate? Manning cites all they have gone through just to get to her classroom, including the horrors of war. “They’ve gone through so much and they come here and say, ‘Oh, I can do THIS!’ “
Join us as we support Mandy Manning during her year of advocacy throughout the nation. We will keep you posted on her schedule of appearances and speaking engagements so you can find an opportunity to meet her in person.
You can be very effective in helping spread her message of hope by writing a letter to the editor of your local paper. Contact your local NPCA affiliate or teachers’ association to invite others to join you in meeting Manning at an event, where you can offer to be interviewed by a TV news outlet. If you teach refugee and immigrant students, tell their stories, too!