We should place students at the center of teaching and education policymaking

We should place students at the center of teaching and education policymaking
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Serving as the 2018 National Teacher of the Year has been a tremendous experience. I’ve traveled the country as an ambassador for the profession I love and, more importantly, as a representative for my students and fellow educators. The challenges we face are similar, whether in small rural districts or large urban ones. The opportunities are even greater.

My focus has been to engage the nation in a conversation about how we can encourage students to experience things outside their understanding. This is the first step in creating a more hopeful, safer and kinder society where everyone can be productive, global citizens.

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It is vital that we encourage exploration, fearlessness and a willingness to embrace new experiences with compassion. Students, educators and policymakers alike must see potential in every voice and opportunity in every classroom.

I have been inspired in just this way by my students in the Newcomer Center at Joel E. Ferris High School in Spokane, Wash.. Students who are refugees and immigrants from all over the world. From Syria to Sudan, Guatemala to Tanzania, Mexico to Myanmar.

They come to my classroom with limited English skills, but with the hope of better lives. Most of them arrive here seeking safety, but in our highly partisan climate, they don’t always feel safe here. My most essential responsibility as an educator is to advocate for them. To help them understand current events, know their rights, and provide a safe and welcoming environment.

Student-centered teaching is essential to any educator’s success in the classroom. It has been for me. The same can be said for policymakers designing policies to support students and educators. They must seek to build those policies with us, not at us. Policies that truly prioritize educational equity.

When we move out of our comfort zones, listen to others’ thoughts and share our own opinions, we become compassionate and open. That is what our education policy-making needs, and what we need our education policymakers to prioritize.

I’m encouraged by education advocacy groups that are asking important questions based on actual research. The Aspen Institute is one such organization. Through its Education & Society Program, it has created new resources for policymakers that ask deep questions to help them create policies that advance equity and help all students achieve their full potential.

These tools include issue briefs, rubrics and policy checklists that were created by a diverse group of education organizations and stakeholders - including students, parent organizers, educators, and workforce leaders -  that came together to share ideas, research and best practices. I’m especially intrigued by the School Safety & Student Discipline brief.

Perhaps no education issue has been pushed to the forefront of our national consciousness more than school safety —in large part because of the highly partisan conversations over race, gun access and personal freedom that often accompany school safety conversations. From school shootings to bullying —and a multitude of issues in between —state policymakers have a critical role to play, but they need to navigate complex decisions around local control, school safety and student discipline.

School safety and student discipline are separate issues, but policymakers should consider how they are related and how policies that address one may impact the other. While school safety and student discipline are among the more politically divisive issues in education, the Aspen Institute’s issue brief was produced with feedback from organizations on both sides of the aisle.

Perhaps more than any other group, policymakers should be talking directly to students about how they experience school. I know this from my work in helping to re-evaluate my own school’s discipline plan.

I led a committee of all stakeholders within our building. Together, we adopted an evidence-based behavioral intervention plan that prioritized enhanced academic and social behavior outcomes over punishment, and clarified processes and responsibilities.

We implemented the new plan two years ago and it led to a 74 percent decrease in suspensions in the first year. The key to this success is the collaboration in the creation and implementation of the plan, putting students at its center, and opening the conversation to include student voice  as it develops and changes each year.

If my experience teaching internationally and here in the United States has taught me anything, it’s that when we are committed to working together, to listening to one another, and to putting students at the center of every policy and decision, we can change lives.

Mandy Manning is the  2018 CCSSO National Teacher of the Year. She teaches at Joel E. Ferris H.S., Spokane, Wash.