When the 19-year-old Iraqi refugee walked into a Ferris High School classroom in 2012, he knew no one and couldn’t speak the language. The few English words and phrases he dimly remembered from his truncated education were essentially useless.
The man had fled Iraq, on his own, and only recently resettled in Spokane.
Luckily for Hussein Alkhazraji, the class he walked into was taught by Mandy Manning.
“She made me feel like I was home,” Alkhazraji said.
Manning was named the 2018 Washington state teacher of the year in September. At Ferris, Manning teaches English and math to refugee and immigrant students.
Now, five years later, Alkhazraji is a stylist at Studio 1. He writes and performs music, in English. And he’s confident and secure in his new home, he said.
“It literally changed my life. I’m pretty successful right now,” Alkhazraji said, in nearly accentless English. “I wouldn’t be where I am if it were not for Mandy.”
Manning’s challenges are unlike those of most teaching jobs, said Heather Richardson, the director of Spokane Public Schools English Language Development. Manning’s students come from all over the world. Some are immigrants coming to the U.S. for work or study. Others are fleeing war-ravaged countries and suffer from complex trauma.
Students’ educational backgrounds vary tremendously. Some have had extensive schooling in their home countries and their mother tongues; others, none.
These variables demand a teacher who can balance multiple perspectives and tasks, and who can respond appropriately and individually to every student’s unique needs.
“She has a little United Nations,” Richardson said.
That work doesn’t end when the bell rings. Manning often visits her students’ homes to meet their parents. She’s even learning sign language to help two deaf refugees acclimate and learn.
“I can’t speak highly enough about the work she does with the kids and the families,” Richardson said.
Despite the complexities, Manning said, teaching immigrant and refugee students has its perks.
“The biggest difference is these kids are very, very excited to be here and to be in my class and are highly motivated to learn everything they can,” Manning said.
“They are just thankful and excited and they don’t want to pass up an opportunity,” she added.
This year, Manning has about 13 students, although that number likely will grow. Last year, at points, she had more than 30.
As the teacher of the year, Manning will tour the state starting next semester giving talks and presentations. Manning will also be considered for national teacher of the year. President Donald Trump will announce the national teacher of the year in the spring at the White House.
Manning said if she is selected as the national teacher of the year and is invited to the White House, she will attend.
“I would welcome the opportunity to share my kids’ stories,” Manning said. “I would welcome the opportunity to provide a little bit of insight into the human beings that are affected.”
Trump’s presidency, however, has been stressful for Manning and her students, she said.
“The day after the election it was a very, very emotional day for all of our families because part of the message was that (there would be) no more immigrants and refugees in the United States,” Manning said. “So they were convinced that they would have to pack and leave.”
She wonders if her message and the types of students she teaches helped her get the award, although she’s quick to point out that the nomination and selection process is not political.
“My message is to be fearless and to get to know people and put yourself in experiences that are counter to what you personally have experienced in your life,” Manning said. “I think we tend to forget that we all have beating hearts.”
Manning said she was impressed by the skill and passion of the other Washington teachers nominated to be the state teacher of the year.
“The other teachers of the year are mind-blowingly awesome,” she said.
Manning first started teaching in Spokane Public Schools 10 years ago at Lewis and Clark High School. She’s taught English language development at Ferris for the past six years.
Manning also coaches fast-pitch softball and girls basketball, advises the writing club and co-advises the Gay-Straight Alliance.
Alkhazraji was not surprised to learn that Manning was the teacher of the year. Her dedication and commitment, he said, propelled him into his new life.
“She made sure I was on track,” he said. “She went above and beyond trying to do that. She went out of her way like she wasn’t only a teacher. She was a teacher and a mentor.”