Common Ground: Our country is built on strong communities

Caleb Walsh illustration
Caleb Walsh illustration

The first thing I woke to on Friday, May 25, 2018, was live coverage on my Facebook feed about another school shooting. This one at a middle school in Noblesville, Indiana. Only a week prior, I woke to a different shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas. That one resulting in the deaths of 10 students and teachers. As an educator, school shootings are my greatest fear and my biggest heartbreak.

Immediately following these tragedies, the debate roars again, with little actual outcome. Should we have more guns? Should we have fewer guns? Should we arm teachers? Did the shooter struggle from mental health problems? These are all valid discussions that need to be had and acted upon, but what this debate ignores is the most important factor: our connections with one another.

click to enlarge Mandy Manning - COURTESY OF OSPI
Courtesy of OSPI
Mandy Manning

A strong country is built on strong communities. If we want to create a country that is understanding, empathetic and compassionate, we must first begin in our own community — and that begins within our schools and within our homes where we prepare children to succeed in the world.

As people, we must prepare our children to be fearless, to be kind, and to connect with one another. Young people should not be afraid to get to know their neighbors or even their peers across the classroom. When we have a personal connection with each other, see each other as human beings, and accept one another as we are, we are less likely to perpetrate acts of violence against one another.

Recently, I have personally encountered how easy it is for people to demonize and hate those they do not personally know based on false information. Since my visit to the White House, where I handed President Trump gracious, kind, and hopeful letters from my immigrant and refugee students, some websites spread incorrect information about my interactions with the president. In reality, I believe our interaction was gracious and polite. But based on the false information, I have received hate mail in various forms, including death threats. This personal example shows how easy it is to divide us, especially when we are not connected.

I am a teacher, a wife, a mother, a friend. I go to work every day and support several of our most vulnerable populations. If those spreading hate about me, really knew me, they would see I live in service of others and lead with my heart. Yet, false assumptions about me and the innate need to "other" those whom we do not know and perceive as different or who reject our personal way of thinking, has instead led some to foster hate toward me and even threaten violence.

So, how do we address this? How do we help one another make connections? By providing children with opportunities to experience that which is outside of their understanding.

I teach at the Newcomer Center, which is housed within Joel E. Ferris High School, a comprehensive high school here in Spokane. I work to make connections every day among my students and the larger community. My students are immigrants and refugees, and I am their first teacher when they arrive in the United States. Most have experienced extreme trauma or war prior to coming to the United States legally and being designated as refugees. It's my job to ensure they not only learn the basics of English and math, but also how to succeed in an American high school. To do this, we have to find common ground and build connections.

One way I do this is through introducing my immigrant and refugee students to those students born here in the United States. A project-based learning class was studying modern migrations. They didn't realize that a majority of the cultures they were studying were represented within the English language learner population at our own school. We were able to connect the project-based class with mine, so they could personally meet individuals from the groups they were studying. It was powerful.

All of this work to create connections begins in our communities, in our homes, and in our classrooms. From there it spreads into other parts of our lives. Every day I open my doors to parents, community members, school board members, legislators and other community leaders. When we don't understand something, we must seek experiences which will lead to understanding and common ground.

Along with addressing mental health and access to guns, we must focus on building relationships both at school and at home. This is the only way to continue to foster strong, safe communities and schools across our state and our country.

As human beings we should be open, empathetic, and compassionate, and model this for our children so they do the same. ♦

Mandy Manning, the 2018 National Teacher of the Year, met with President Trump on May 2.