Unlocking our Kids’ Potential: Teachers of the Year Mandy Manning & Sydney Chaffee

Episode 05

We’re wrapping up the Back to School series as we celebrate the heart of our nation’s classrooms: our teachers. There are so many inspiring teachers that we couldn’t narrow down our conversation to just one guest. We had to talk to two very special teachers: the National Teachers of the Year for 2017 and 2018, Sydney Chaffee and Mandy Manning. Mandy’s classroom is in Spokane, WA, where she teaches immigrants and refugees to the US, and Sydney teaches students in Codman, MA, who find themselves in a minority population. Both teachers guide us through typical days in their classroom, tell us about the teachers who inspired them along the way, and give us a peek at the big and small things their kids share (Fortnite!). We’re so inspired by the way Mandy and Sydney infuse courage and wisdom into hard truths their pupils are learning about the world, and they remind us that every kid has the potential to be amazing—we just have to believe in them.

Episode Transcript

Narrator:  Hi everybody, my name is Remy. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast, with your host Jen Hatmaker, my mom. She writes books and speaks to crowds. But she mostly loves talking to amazing people every week on this podcast. Thanks for listening! We hope you enjoy the show.

Jen: Hey, guys. Jen Hatmaker here, your host of the For the Love Podcast. Welcome to the show. So glad you’re here every week, this week and forever.

I sure hope, and I think I know, that you’ve been enjoying our For the Love of Back to School series. I definitely have. It’s been a delight, honestly, to bring you the college edition with my two college kids, Gavin and Sydneythe high school edition with my high schoolers, Ben and Calebthe middle school edition with my middle schooler Remy and her best friend Ella, like a bonus kid, outstanding elementary student from last week, Ryan Hickman. Just fun, just great. It’s great to hear from the kids, you guys. It’s great to hear from the students. It’s great to hear what they’re working through and how smart they are, how capable, how promising.

So today, we are wrapping up the Back to School series with two very remarkable teachers, and that is no joke. Every single day, these women are doing the inspiring, courageous work of leading kids in the classroom, working with students from all walks of life. You’ll see what I mean in just a minute. So, I am delighted to bring you today the 2017 and the 2018 National Teachers of the Year. Yeah, baby! Let me tell you who they are.

So the 2017 Teacher of the Year is Sydney Chaffee. Sydney is a 9th grade Humanities teacher at Codman Academy, which is a public charter school near Boston. So Codman’s a very diverse school where 98% of the kids are students of color from all walks of life, and 100% of their graduates are accepted to college. So definitely talking about that. Sydney teaches her kids about the history of people who’ve been oppressed and marginalized, specifically, and how those people have fought for justice through all sorts of peaceful means like resistance movements. And she asks her students to relate those events to how they can be used today. Such important teaching. Ultimately, she says she wants to teach her kids that they are people who absolutely can use their agency to be a force in the world. So no shocker why I’m excited here.

And then the 2018 Teacher of the Year is Mandy Manning. Mandy—also yay, yay, yay—teaches English to newly arrived refugee and immigrant students at the Newcomer Center at Ferris High School in Spokane, Washington. She draws on her experience, which we’ll talk about, in the Peace Corps, where she was a newcomer and how to help her students to feel welcome and thrive in a new place. And so, in her classroom, Mandy uses very experiential projects to help her students process trauma and to celebrate their home countries and culture and learn about their new communities.

I mean, these are absolute game changers. I am so honored to have them on the show today. If you’ve been around me for three minutes, you know already how I feel about teachers, all of them. So to be able to have such outstanding, exceptional teachers on the show today who are using their expertise, and their knowledge, their experience with such important communities and in such important ways, you know that this was just an absolute delight to record.

So I am absolutely pleased to share my conversation with National Teachers of the Year for 2017 and 2018, Sydney Chaffee and Mandy Manning.

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Jen: Mandy and Sydney, welcome, welcome, welcome to the For the Love Podcast. I cannot tell you how flattered and honored I am to have you both on today. Thank you for your time so very much.

Sydney: Thanks for having us.

Mandy: Yeah, this is really fun. Thanks.

Jen: Okay. Really quickly, I’ve introduced you already, but if you could introduce yourselves so my listeners can know which voice goes with which teacher, that would be awesome.

Sydney: Okay so, I’m Sydney Chaffee. And I’m the 2017 National Teacher of the Year.

Jen: Awesome.

Mandy: And I’m Mandy Manning, the 2018 National Teacher of the Year.

Jen: Great, fabulous. We’re going to talk about all of that in spades.

I actually used to be a teacher before I do whatever it is that I do now. I taught 4th grade for a few years and 1st grade for one. And so, I feel incredibly devoted to the community of teachers and what it is you do. I feel like I understand your life, and I understand the pressures and the thrills and the struggles. And so I have been a long-time fan of teachers. And so having two of the nation’s literally premier teachers on the show is just really, really special to me.

So okay, like I said, I filled our listeners in with a little bit about who you are, but I would kind of love to roll it back just a hair when you two were sitting at desks instead of standing in front of them, like you do now. So when you were growing up, I am curious if you knew then that you wanted to be a teacher.

Mandy, can we start with you?

Mandy: Sure. So I didn’t know that I wanted to be a teacher actually.When I was growing up, I loved to play school, but I also loved to play office. I’ve always had an affinity for school supplies. I always loved going back to school shopping, getting the clothes, getting the supplies, all the stuff. So, I guess I should have known at that time how much I loved being at school and being in the classroom, but I really didn’t. I didn’t know. I knew I loved my teachers.

Jen: Yes.

Mandy: I knew that there was no other place that I wanted to be in the whole wide world than at school. I was one of those kids that I couldn’t wait for summer to end, so I could go back to school.

Jen: That’s awesome.

Mandy: So yeah, I should have known, but I didn’t. I didn’t know.

Jen: That’s so great.

Sydney: I didn’t either. It’s really similar for me. I should have realized. All the signs and symptoms were there, but I always wanted to be a writer. And I would come home from school, and I would grab my mom’s typewriter, and I would type stories. But then what I did with those stories is I took them into school. I made a magazine. I didn’t think there was enough stuff for students to read in my 5th grade classroom, and so I made a magazine that’s really nerdily entitled Kid Talk.

Jen: Ooh, nice.

Sydney: The writer and editor-in-chief was the same person: me. And I also illustrated the front covers. And then there were also other signs, like my mom was a professor, and she brought home this big, thick, spiral-bound grammar workbook one time. And I just did all the exercises in it for fun. So yeah, I didn’t figure it out, but I probably should have.

Jen: Right. Oh my gosh. That’s so funny. I’m still in some ways a teacher. I just teach kind of in a different context. But yeah, I ran so many classrooms growing up as a kid. I was always the teacher, and if need be, the principal. And so, yeah, same—extra workbooks, completely identify with.

I am curious, looking back on your experience, really from beginning to end, be it kinder all the way through college, who was the teacher that meant the very most to you, maybe one that you point to and say, “I don’t know. I want to do what you do. I want to impact students the way you impacted me?”

Sydney, why don’t you start?

Sydney: Yeah. So for me it has to be my professor Lyde Cullen Sizer. She is a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, and she was my Women’s History professor. And by the time I met her, I was starting to figure it out a little bit that maybe this is what I wanted to do.

And she . . . it’s hard to describe, but she was the best teacher I’ve ever had because she really helped me learn how to think. She helped me learn how to write, and she was sort of simultaneously terrifyingly brilliant and astute and able to just sort of cut through whatever it was that I was trying to say and get to the point. She was so incisive in her thinking and also just such a wonderful, lovely, caring, supportive human being.

And that balance is something that I’m always striving for, and I’m not her. I haven’t gotten it, but she’s definitely the teacher that I want to be. And when you talk to anyone who’s taken classes, they talk about her the same way. She has this big following of people who just, you bring up her name, and everyone’s like, “Oh, Lyde!”

Jen: Oh, I love it. What a nice tribute. Oh my gosh. I hope somebody will send her this podcast, so she can hear what you just said. Thank you for that.

How about you, Mandy?

Mandy: Well, my teacher was Mrs. Baker. She was my 7th grade English Language Arts teacher. And I still, I can’t say that I knew I wanted to be a teacher at the time. But she’s the teacher that I always think about now that I am a teacher.

So that was a really rough time. Middle school is always a rough time, but compounding that, I’d moved to a new state. I moved from Washington state down to California, to a new city, Sacramento. And I was just starting middle school. So I didn’t have any friends. I had this terrible haircut perm thing. I had braces. I mean, you couldn’t get more awkward.

Jen: Relatable.

Mandy: Yeah. You could not get more awkward. I was riding the school bus for the first time. I mean how many things? How many things? And she was my first period teacher, and she was the first teacher that I walked into her room. And from that moment, I still remember it so crystal clear walking into her classroom and how she greeted me with this huge smile and telling me how happy she was that I was there. And I just knew in that moment that everything was going to be okay.

Jen: Oh my gosh. That’s giving me a lump in my throat. It’s so dear.

Mandy: Yeah. It was just amazing. She was amazing. And so, I teach new immigrant and refugee students. And so, just that whole idea of feeling welcome from the moment that a kid walks into your classroom is something that I strive to do every single moment in my room and in my classroom. And so, that’s thanks to Mrs. Baker. She was amazing.

Jen: Oh. I love to hear about Ms. Baker. I have five kids, you guys. And my youngest is in 8th grade. So, I have been in 7th grade now five times with my own kids, and I’ve said a thousand times that in my experience, I think 7th grade is the hardest year of all the years. I’m 45. Thus far, I can point to 7th grade as my hardest year. And any teacher who can cut through the fog and the fear and make a 7th grade kid feel loved and welcomed, hero status for me. I mean, they’re all just so wobbly like baby giraffes everywhere. And so I love that you selected that year and that teacher. I hope she hears this too. Thank you for sharing that.

Obviously you both took really different paths to the teaching world. Mandy up through the Peace Corps, and then Sydney as a poet. So this is amazing different paths here.

So, Mandy, I wonder first if you can for us trace your path from Peace Corps to classroom. And then, Sydney, can you tell us how a poet finds herself teaching at a charter school?

Mandy: Sure. So, my pathway is just kind of this roundabout way that I got into the classroom because, like I said, I never saw the signs, even though they were all there.

So my undergraduate degree is in filmmaking. And so, I thought for sure I was going to be a filmmaker. I was going to change the world with my amazing documentary films. But then, I realized as soon as I graduated, literally walked across the stage and was like, Yeah, I don’t want to do this. And so, I didn’t know what to do.

And I had a friend who was working in a special education classroom as a paraeducator. And he told me that they had a position open and that he really thought that I might enjoy it. And so I applied, and I became a paraeducator, working specifically with kids in a designed instruction special education classroom. So these are kids with profound, profound developmental challenges. And so, I worked for an entire year with these kids, and it was so amazing sitting side by side with them.

And then I also had the chance to coach Special Olympics basketball that year. And so I was coaching this amazing team of young men who had the best attitudes and worked so hard, and I never had to yell at them or make them run lines. They were right there every day wanting to practice. And so, I had this magical year as a paraeducator.

And in the Peace Corps, I taught as well. But I still, when I came back from the Peace Corps, I didn’t know that teaching was going to be the thing for me, mostly because I thought, Well, that’s a pretty heavy lift. I have a degree in filmmaking. I don’t have a teaching certificate.

And I found my way down to Texas because that’s where my aunt was living, and she happens to be a theater teacher. And she was running a little theater down there. And so I went down there to help her, and she saw me working with kids at the theater camp that summer. And she’s like, “Mandy, you need to be a teacher.”

And I said, “How? How can I possibly be a teacher? I don’t want to go back and get another bachelor’s degree.”

And she goes, “Well, we have a lot of schools in Texas that need educators. You should just apply.”

And I did, and I got a teaching job teaching Theater and Speech and Debate and Communications.

And from there, I just did what I needed to do to get my certification. And I’ve been teaching ever since, and it was the best decision I ever made.

Jen: Obviously. You picked right. You did the right thing. National Teacher of the Year, I’ll say.

Okay, Sydney, how about you?

Sydney: Yeah, so, you are being generous in saying that I was a poet. I went to college to be a poet, to be a writer. And I was in this first year studies class for poetry, and this was all of the students who had signed up who said, “I want to be a poet, and this is my path.” And we were matched with a faculty advisor who’s a poet, this wonderful man. He’s won a Pulitzer for his poetry.

Jen: Wow.

Sydney: And so, I spent my first year being 18 and writing sort of tortured poems and working with him and imagining like Mandy, “I’m going to change the world with my torture.”

At the end of the year, and he and I are meeting, and we’re sort of talking about how the year has gone and what I’m going to do next year. And he leans back in his chair. He has this way of leaning back in his chair very slowly and deliberately and stretching his arms out and putting them behind his head. And he says, “Yeah, you know, I don’t think you’re meant to be a poet.”

Jen: Oh man. Oh, dang it.

Sydney: Yeah. I had to agree with him. I was like, “No, you’re right. I’m meant to be a fiction writer.” So I spent a few more years writing fiction.

And then, I had this epiphany that I really, really, really loved being in school. I loved college. I loved picking what I was learning about and learning in this interdisciplinary way and diving really deeply into the things that I wanted to know more about. And so I came up with this master plan, which was that I would become a college professor at Sarah Lawrence, so I would never have to leave. And I would just get to do that all the time. And I would just become one of my professors that I loved and admired so much.

And so, this brings me into my professor Lyde’s office, and I say, “Okay, well, I’ve figured it out. I’m going to just be you.”

And she pulls this little book off of her shelf, this little blue book. And she says, “Okay, I want you to read this book. And come back next week, and let’s talk.”

So the book is written by her father. It’s called Horace’s Compromise, and her father is a man named Ted Sizer, who’s a very famous education reform guy. And her mom is also Nancy Sizer, really famous in the education world. I, of course, had heard nothing of them because I had studied Creative Writing and Women’s History and that’s it. But this sets me on this path of learning about education and thinking about education. And then she sends me to go do an internship at one of the schools that her father had helped to open. And then I spent that summer working at Summer Bridge, it’s now called Breakthrough, with rising 7th graders, who I was terrified of.

Jen: Sure.

Sydney: Seventh grade, you’re right, it’s the most awful—

Jen: Rough, it’s rough out there.

Sydney: And so, I was like, “I don’t want to go work with those kids. They’re going to be mean. I don’t want to relive 7th grade.” But you know, of course what turned out to happen is that I loved those kids. I was like, “These kids are funny. They are amazing. They have great ideas.”

So I went back to school in the fall, and I said, “That’s it. I’m going to work with middle schoolers. I don’t want to be a college professor. I’m going to go work with these kids.” And so, yeah, I haven’t studied education. I didn’t have a degree in education. I had to figure out how I was going to make this thing work, and I got a fellowship right after college to learn to be a teacher. And now I’m a teacher.

Jen: It’s so interesting that both of you took sort of alternative paths into teaching where you thought you were going a different direction. I hope that’s inspiring for some people that are listening who maybe didn’t come up through the gullet of getting their bachelor’s in education but have this real draw potentially to teaching that there are ways in still. And you are two marvelous examples.

Jen:  Obviously so, you guys teach on two different coasts. Mandy, you’re in Spokane, and Sydney, you’re in Boston. Of course, I’m in Texas, so I’m kind of middle down. And so, I’d like to see how your students are alike and different from each other on opposite ends of the country, and then I’m going to weigh in here from the Deep South. I’d love to hear from both of you what your kids are enjoying right now, what they’re into. What are they just so yammering about all the time, and what are they finding the most challenging?

So what would you say, Sydney?

Sydney: Yeah, I mean Fortnite is still a thing.

Jen: Gosh.

Sydney: So there’s a lot of talk about that in the 9th grade.

Jen: Yeah, there is.

Sydney: It’s funny because I have them do journals every week, and I’ll ask them these questions that sort of invite them to think deep thoughts—or not, because I’ll get the range of responses from kids who are thinking these deep thoughts about life, and they’re wondering things. And they have all these big questions and ideas, and they’re grappling. And then I’ll go to the next journal, and they’ll be a kid like, “Yeah, I’m just really thinking a lot about Fortnite and how I can beat this kind of person.”

And it’s like, “Okay.”

But the thing that I am most excited that my kids are excited about right now is we are learning—we are re-learning the story of Christopher Columbus right now. We are challenging the traditional narrative of Columbus in class, and it’s bringing out all of these questions that kids have that are just so fascinating and wonderful to watch them have. So they’re asking questions like, “Well, wait. Why did Europeans at that time think that they could just go to someone else’s land and take it?

Jen: That’s good.

Sydney: And so I love watching kids think, and I love watching kids get excited about thinking. And I love watching kids do that nerdy thing that we do when we are truly learning, which is just ask questions and ask questions and ask questions. So that’s what they are excited by.

And so I asked them in their journals, “What’s an example of justice or injustice happening right now that you can think of?” And a number of students wrote that they were worried about and they considered it unjust to hear about the current administration’s policies regarding immigration and that some kids had some really personal connections where they were saying, “Well, here’s what I’m worried about. I’m worried about how this policy or this proposal will impact my family. I’m afraid. I’m worried that the president doesn’t treat people who are coming from other places with respect.”

Jen: Wow.

Sydney: And so to read those thoughts from them and just remember that as much as [kids] are thinking and worrying about Fortnite, they’re also thinking and worrying about real things that are happening in our country that are affecting them and their communities. [That’s] really important for us to remember as adults.

Jen: I think what this comes down to is you also are trusting your students to be able to confront really, really hard history and that they can both understand it and handle it and change it.

And that was of course, I don’t know about for you, but for me, that was never the narrative I was taught growing up. Everything was incredibly whitewashed, literally, and it was the work of my adult life to re-understand what actual world history looked like and then certainly U.S. history. And so I really commend you for teaching historically accurate things that are hard and trusting your students to do the heavy lifting for it. Well, well done.

How about you, Mandy?

Mandy: Well, I teach a very different population of students. So my kids are brand-new immigrant and refugee students to our nation. So I’m their first teacher, and my classroom is their first classroom here in the United States.

So, I mean, it’s interesting, though, to think about the social things that they’re into because it’s actually quite similar. They’re teenagers. I mean regardless of where they come from, they’re teenagers. So they do still talk about Fortnite. And they are constantly listening to music, and that’s really important to them. I had one student the other day tell me her favorite thing to do was to take selfies. So, I mean, there’s still all of these things that are going on. They all have phones. They all do those types of things.

But the challenges are very different for my kids. And part of that is because they’re learning to live and study in the United States. And so that in and of itself is a huge challenge.

And then I’m glad Sydney mentioned the situation in our nation in terms of immigration. I’ve seen a huge shift in my population. I was concerned about my numbers at the beginning of the year because I only had 4 students, but I’m now up to 19. But the difference between what I was seeing previously and what we’re seeing now in our programs is that previously about 85% of my kids were refugees, and now it’s totally swapped. Like 15% of my kids are refugees. And so we’re seeing a totally different circumstance and situation for the kids because their support system is a lot different outside of school than it is if I have majority refugee students because they have a built-in support system through the system, through the avenues that they are coming into the nation.

And so, there’s so much. I mean, this is the thing that I really talk a lot about is immigration and the situation in our nation around incarcerating immigrant youths and things like that. And so, my students’ fears and concerns and challenges are very, very, very real right now.

Jen: Yeah, they are.

Mandy: There’s increased racism and xenophobia in our hallways. So, kids are often hearing things like, “Go back to your country.” There’s . . . every single day in the news, there’s something else about immigrants’ rights being removed or . . . or infringed upon in very real horrific ways. So all of my families are concerned, even the ones who’ve been here for a while and have now gained citizenship because I, of course, stay in contact with the majority of my families.

It really is real, and it’s not just our immigrant and refugee kids. I think that a lot of young people live in fear right now.

Jen: Oh well, I can tell you right now my youngest two kids are adopted. They’re Ethiopian. And so, they are absolute U.S. citizens through adoption. And in the last two years is the first time that they have been told repeatedly that they are going to be deported, that they can go back to their country, that America doesn’t stand for that anymore. And we’ve had to pull out our paperwork and say, “Here’s your social security card. You’re a citizen. You cannot . . .” But it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying to them and feels very real.

We’re in a . . . the majority of our school district is Mexican. And so, their classmates are being deported, or their parents are. And so, yeah, I hear you saying this, and this is exactly our experience right now. This is not imagined. It is not inflated, and it is not exaggerated. It’s real.

I think having teachers like both of you in the system who are such good hope and reassurance for your students is just maybe more important than ever.

Let me ask you this. This is hard to pick. This is like asking, “What’s your favorite kid?” Maybe even just right now, maybe you can just say currently. What do you find most rewarding about your job right now?

Sydney, let’s hear from you and then Mandy.

Sydney: Oh man. That’s such a hard question. I mean, I think it goes along with what we’ve just been talking about. It’s these moments where you know that you can connect with a young person, and you can maybe be the Ms. Baker for them, right? You can maybe be someone else in their life saying to them, “I’m glad you’re here. I see you. I appreciate you.” You can be another member of that support system that they have, whatever that support system looks like.

And I think the moments where—and it doesn’t always happen, right?—but the moments where we actually know that we have played some part of that role in a kid’s life are just incredibly rewarding. It’s really rewarding for me to watch my kids have big ideas, but it’s also just so rewarding to see moments where my kids, as human beings, feel safe and valued and honored and impacted.

Jen: I love that answer.

Sydney: Yeah.

Jen: I love that so much. How about you, Mandy?

Mandy: Well, the most rewarding thing for me is just being with kids. Because, and again, I am in a unique position in my classroom. But I have taught several things over the years. I started out as a Theater and Speech and Debate and Communications teacher. I’ve taught English Language Arts. I’ve taught in different nations. And then the last eight years, I’ve been working with brand new immigrant and refugee kids.

And so, it’s so clear to me that just being in the presence of so much potential is just really incredible. To be able to be right there with kids who have their entire life in front of them and just that energy and that hope and to see that it doesn’t matter what’s happening in the world, they still believe that they can achieve anything, and I love that. I get so much from that. And I think a lot of times, when they do move forward and they move out into the community and become productive and happy members of our community, I can’t honestly say that I had anything to do with it. But I definitely got to be there, and that’s awesome.

Jen: Oh my gosh. That is so great, and of course you had something to do with it. It’ll be so fun to hear the stories that your students, both of you, tell about you for decades and the impact that you had on their lives.

Jen:  I know, as a teacher, and I remember this too that there are just days when you feel like you’re simply trying to hold up the sky so it does not come crashing down on your kids, on yourself, on your families. It’s a lot, and parts of your work are just hard, plain and simple. And education has changed so much in the last 20 years, even 10 years. Expectations are different, and some of the systems are different. And so, I’d like to hear from each of you what you consider the most challenging part of your job right now. Whoever wants to take that first can go.

Mandy: Every single student is different. So each year, I start with a different group of kids that have different needs. Yet there’s this inflexible system that is trying to dictate what I’m supposed to do for these kids within this community. And then on top of all of that is this just . . . It seems like, and I can’t say this for 100% sure, but it seems like there’s this unwillingness to really challenge that system, so that it can become more flexible or just change it altogether. Break it down, rebuild, make a new one that really does have what we need in order to meet the needs of every single kid. And I find that to be really exhausting. It’s not the kids. It’s not the shifting socio-economics or the shifting this or the shifting that. It’s the inflexibility of a system that was created in the 19th century.

Jen: That’s right. That’s right. You explained it perfectly.

Sydney: Yeah, I mean I’ll second that answer, and then I’ll sort of give you a different . . . So, Mandy, I feel like zoomed us out to look at the system as a whole and think about how that impacts the work that we do every day with kids. I’ll give you a more sort of local thing that’s hard right now, which is just as a teacher/leader, as someone who’s been at the school for a while and as someone who really wants everybody in the school to do as well as they can and be as supported as they can. I’m just finding it really challenging to keep all the balls in the air. And I’m trying to be the best possible teacher I can be.

Sydney: And I’m also trying to be a good mom and a good person. And so, sometimes it’s just really hard to do all of those things.

Jen: Sure is. That feels so relatable to me, and it’s so real. And there’s just never enough slices of the pie, it feels like. I completely understand really both of what you just said.

Let me ask you guys this because winning National Teacher of the Year, this is just a huge freaking deal. And so, I am sure that it comes with all kinds of new and interesting and exciting experiences, obviously. I wonder if you can tell us about some of them. What has it been like to carry that mantle in 2017 and 2018?

How about you go first, Sydney?

Sydney: Yeah. It has been an incredible experience. I have always taught in the same school. Once I became a teacher, I’ve always taught the same class. And so, my understanding of education was very narrow and very specific.

And so becoming Teacher of the Year meant that I got to really expand my understanding of what education looks like and what all the layers are in this sort of ecosystem of education that surround me and my kids. And that’s a really incredible experience that a lot of teachers don’t get to have.

And so I feel like when something is happening in my school in terms of a policy or even just a situation that we’re encountering, I have this perspective of being able to sort of step back and understand that situation in context of sort of education as a whole.

And then I guess the other thing I’ll just throw out is the opportunity to travel and to see what’s happening in different states, in different countries, and to learn about what education looks like in different places has been really incredible.

Jen: Where was your favorite place to go?

Sydney: I got to visit Palestine, and that was really amazing. I learned a lot.

Jen: I bet. Oh my gosh. That’s an amazing trip.

Okay, Mandy, you?

Mandy: Before any of us are presented with or selected as a Teacher of the Year, whether it’s as a Regional Teacher of the Year or a finalist or a State Teacher of the Year or ultimately National Teacher of the Year, prior to any of that we have this same level of expertise, right? But as soon as we’re given this title—or I shouldn’t say given, but as soon as we’re, I don’t know, honored with the title—all of a sudden all of that expertise matters. People are reaching out. They’re wanting to talk to you. They’re wanting your opinion on things, and you have an opportunity to speak in front of huge groups of people who affect change in our system.

And so, there’s all of a sudden all of this . . . Your words matter. And so, you have to be very careful about how you’re speaking and what you’re speaking to. And so, it’s this weird position to be in where you haven’t changed, but your title has. And so, that’s changed how people view you.

So that was a very interesting transition and one that is difficult, but I tried very hard to embrace because I knew that this is this moment in time. And I have this opportunity to say hard things to people who need to hear them. And so I tried to capitalize on that and really say things that needed to be said and tried to move the needle a little bit. And I don’t know that . . . you don’t really know your impact, but I know that Sydney made a big impact. And I hope that I made a big impact and just an opportunity to do something big, but I tried to.

I created an organization called Teachers Against Child Detention to bring educators together to speak out on behalf of immigrant children being incarcerated because they weren’t born in the United States. And so we don’t often have an opportunity to do that when we’re in our classrooms, but once honored with this title, it does provide this opportunity that it feels . . . now that I’m in my classroom again, I’m like, “Wow, did that really happen?”

Jen: I’m sure. That was a pretty big stage and a pretty big microphone.

Mandy: Right.

Jen: And you both used it really, really well, and you should be really proud.

I would love to hear what each of you want the world to know right now about your students.

Sydney: I want people to know that my kids are brilliant and powerful and capable of changing the world, and I want people to know that they’re going to change the world. So don’t count them out.

Mandy: And I want people to know that my kids in particular, they’re here in the United States because it’s an opportunity at life, plain and simple. It’s an opportunity at life, and that every single kid that I’ve ever come across has the potential to be productive, happy community members. And they might come at in different ways. They might take a little longer or be faster. There’s so many different things, but every single one of them can. Every kid, every kid, whether they are born here in the United States, born in another nation, have different abilities. Every kid has the potential to be amazing. We just have to believe in them.

Jen: Thank you for saying that. I just love to hear that. Just particularly with your community, Mandy, we are just getting such consistent messaging right now from the top down on how we are supposed to be perceiving immigrants and refugees, and it’s almost all negative press. And I just thank you for being a boots on the ground, truthful and honest voice and advocate for this community, who is just nothing but potential and hope in front of them.

As we have discussed, being a teacher is just a challenge. The end. I don’t think most people have even really a full concept of all the stuff that teachers do—not just the stuff in the classroom, but the billions of things outside of it. Evenings, weekends, summer, I mean it just never ends. When people used to tell me, “Oh well, you’re so lucky that you teach because you get three months off a year,” I mean, I would just lay on the ground and laugh. I mean you don’t know anything.

And so, I would love . . . I’m always thinking through ways that I and my listeners can show appreciation to the teachers in our lives that we love. How would you advise us? What are your suggestions? What’s meaningful to you? How can we thank and love and encourage and support our teachers? What is the stuff that you hope to have? Maybe Mandy, you go first.

Mandy: I think every community member, whether they have kids in the education system or don’t, should support funding their schools by voting “yes” on school levies and school bonds, so that we can have the buildings that we need, and we can have everything inside those buildings that we need.

I think community members should go to school board meetings and see what’s actually happening. It’s not necessarily about the stuff, like people will often want to donate things, but it’s not always about stuff. It’s often about presence and really understanding and visiting and seeing what’s going on in school because once you go into a school, it’s a little bit of magic. A[1] nd it’s so much easier to support schools and support teachers and in the end, by doing so, supporting students and our communities, it’s so much easier when you actually see it in action.

Jen: Love it. Love it. How about you, Sydney?

Sydney: Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean, I think that making sure that you know what’s happening in the school is a hugely important thing. And I think supporting schools, supporting teachers, supporting kids with your presence and your time can be incredibly important.

And then I think if you’re in a position, if you’ve got listeners who are in positions to help influence decision-making about schools, it’s incredibly important to actually know what’s happening in those schools.

But then I guess the other thing I’ll just say is if you’re a parent, and you’re just wondering, Am I supposed to get a present for the teacher? Those little things, right, that as parents we sometimes wonder. I will say as a teacher, it would mean so much more to me and has meant so much more to me to get an email or a little note from a family member that just says, “Hey, thanks for introducing my kid to this book. It meant a lot. Hey, just know last night, my kid told me about this thing that you were doing in class, and I think that’s really cool.” Hearing those stories from family members is incredibly impactful. It costs you nothing.[1] You don’t have to worry about going out and getting us a gift card. So, that’s just like yeah, if you’re wondering how to show appreciation for your kid’s teacher, it’s a lot simpler than you might think.

Jen: Oh, that’s so great. You are saying the God’s truth right there. I remember getting really pointed and specific feedback from parents. I remember it to this day. It’s been 25 years. So, you could not be more correct. So, everybody listening, go through your mental Rolodex right now. Think about the teachers that have mattered to your kids. I mean, just fire off a little email. This does not have to be fancy. That means so much. It’s so much fuel in the tank, and our teachers need fuel in the tank to do the incredible hard work that they are doing every day.

Jen: Okay, here’s what I want to do as we wrap it up. These are kind of like rapid fire questions we asked the students that we also had in this series. It will be interesting to see the difference between the teen sector and the grown up sector. So, Mandy, on all these we’ll start with you. And then, Sydney, you chime in next. Just top of your head. Here’s the first one. What are you watching?

Mandy: This is hilarious, and I’m a little embarrassed, but I’m watching Gilmore Girls.

Jen: That’s not embarrassing. I respect, mad respect. Is this your first time through?

Mandy: Yes, I started watching it because the world gets me down a little bit, and Stars Hollow is totally not real world at all.

Jen: It’s magic. It’s absolute magic. I powered through Gilmore Girls two years ago for the first time. I missed it during the first round because I was just busy having babies. And so, somehow I missed the magic of Stars Hollow. I think in three months, I watched the whole thing. And you know how many episodes there are. That should tell you my level of productivity. Magic. I approve of that. I approve.

Okay, how about you, Sydney?

Sydney: Well, if you want to go just the completely other end of the spectrum, I’ve been watching The Handmaid’s Tale.

Jen: Dark. So dark. Oh my goodness. I know, right? It has a lot going on, but you can’t tear your eyes away. So, I’m watching that also.

Okay. Back to you, Mandy. What’s on your Spotify playlist?

Mandy: I actually just watched the movie Rocketman. So, I’ve been listening to Elton John nonstop.

Jen: Cannot go wrong there. Absolutely cannot go wrong. Sydney?

Sydney: Beyoncé’s Lemonade album.

Jen: Oh my gosh. Oh, so, you’re getting the girl power. You’re going straight to girl power.

Sydney: Yeah.

Jen: That album makes me want to run laps around my house.

Okay. Mandy, what are you reading right now? Do you have time to read? You don’t have time to read.

Mandy: Oh no. I read. I read every night. And so, I’m actually reading two things right now. I’m reading the Justin Cronin Passage trilogy, which is about a government experiment gone wrong, of course. And along The Handmaid’s Tale because The Handmaid’s Tale is my favorite book of all time by Margaret Atwood. Her sequel just came out last week. I immediately got a copy, so I’m reading The Testaments.

Jen: How about you, Sydney?

Sydney: I’m also reading two things. So, I’m reading Tar Baby by Toni Morrison, and I’m reading a book called The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys, which is really, really good.

Jen: Whoa. Nice. Okay, by the way, listeners, we will link to all this, everything they are suggesting, in case you’d like to take a peek.

Okay so, Mandy, what is the most useful app, the one that you are so happy that you have most on your phone?

Mandy: It’s actually a new app for me, and it’s Hopper because it helps you find and track and follow flights, like, inexpensive flights.

Jen: Oh. Like, “You have a flight that just popped up for $70.” Is that what you mean?

Mandy: Well yeah, kind of. So, you can put it in the dates and the location where you’re trying to go, and it will tell you if you should buy it now or wait or yeah. So, it’s called Hopper. It’s really good.

Jen: Awesome. Okay. Sydney?

Sydney: I, at the end of every day when I’m trying to turn my brain off, do the New York Times crossword. And Monday is really great because I fly through that thing, and I feel so good about myself. And then I get to Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and I’m getting really bogged down. But yeah, that’s I would say, it’s nothing fancy, but that’s the app that I use every single day.

Jen: Love it. I’m embedded in a crossword puzzle family. So, that’s very, very real.

Okay, Mandy, what is your favorite form of social media?

Mandy: Twitter.

Jen: Ah, yes.

Mandy: Twitter is my favorite because Facebook makes me super depressed. But Twitter moves a lot faster, and I can really focus on certain topics sometimes, which is really nice. And so I love the speed of Twitter. I love the brevity of Twitter, and I love that it’s such a breadth of information. And I can dive deep if I want. Otherwise, I can just get a smattering of stuff, and I like it. Yeah.

Jen: Great point. How about you, Sydney?

Sydney: Yeah. So, I sort of hate social media because it just activates my anxiety in very specific ways. I would agree that Twitter’s my favorite right now, mostly because if I don’t want to feel really angry about the state of things, I’ll just find some ridiculous thread where people are sharing funny GIFs and just follow that forever.

Jen: I live for humor on the Internet. Everything is such a Dumpster fire right now. And so, I also love that about Twitter where you can find an incredible thread, and it’ll just entertain you.

Okay, how about this? Just if you have to high level it off the top of your head, what’s the number-one piece of advice you give your students?

Mandy: “Go for it.” That’s mine. Mine is go for it because we spend a lot of time in education convincing people they can’t do things. It’s like our whole model, right? Deficit mindset, where we’re expecting kids to come in behind. And I’m like, “No, no. No, no, no. We’re just at different places. Just go for it. You’re going to fail. You’re going to succeed. So just go for it, and seek opportunities to challenge everything you think about life and about other people.”

Jen: That’s perfect. How about you, Sydney?

Sydney: I think the two things that I say to kids most often, at least in the last few weeks are, “Trust your instinct.” Because they’re always second-guessing their answers on things, but I think “trust your instinct” is also just really important life advice. And be nice. That’s one. With 9th graders, I’m just often like, “Hey, be nice. Remember. Be nice.”

Jen: I just saw a pre-screening of the Mister Rogers movie that comes out on Thanksgiving. And that message goes a long way. It’s pretty powerful. That’s not lightweight stuff, the “Be Nice” movement. I’m thrilled to hear you say that.

Here’s my last question for you. And girls, we ask every single guest we have in every single series this question. It’s from an author that I love, and her name’s Barbara Brown Taylor, and I love this question. And it can be whatever you want it to be. The answers run the gamut from homemade pickles to the most serious, poignant thing you’ve ever heard. But her question’s this: what is saving your life right now? Mandy?

Mandy: What is saving my life right now? You know what? Just being back in the classroom. That’s saving my life right now. Yep.

Jen: That’s great. Sydney?

Sydney: My daughter.

Jen: Aw. Tell us about her.

Sydney: She’s amazing. She just turned five last week, and she’s just incredible.

Jen: That’s magic. Is she in kinder?

Sydney: No, she missed the cutoff.

Jen: Next year?

Sydney: Yeah, she’s in preschool, and she’s just amazing. And she’s funny, and when we get off of this call, I’m going to go upstairs and hear from her what the joke of the day was at school. When the day is a lot, which it often is, I know that at the end of that day, she’s at home. And we’re going to get silly.

Jen: I love it, and I cannot tell you how much I appreciate it, how much I respect and admire you both. You both teach in such incredibly important communities, and what you are building and investing into your students, your legacy is going to extend for decades and decades and decades. It’s just a real honor to have met you both.

And so, thank you for what you do. Thank you for the work that you are doing. You touched on so many important themes that I want my listeners to hear so much, and I’m really proud. I’m proud of both of you. And so, thanks for coming on today.

Sydney: Thank you.

Mandy: Yeah, thank you so much. It was, I have to say, one of the highlights was that I got to be on here with Sydney.

Sydney: Yeah because I didn’t know that was going to happen until I checked my email, and I was like, “Fun!”

Mandy: Super fun. Thanks.

Jen: So two of the greats, you guys, Sydney and Mandy, thanks for being on.

Mandy: Thank you.

Jen: Aren’t they amazing? Just absolutely amazing. There is a real reason these two women were selected as the greatest in the nation for the last two years. I mean I am so flattered that they were both on. I loved that conversation, and I love the way that they advocate for their students. And I wish I could duplicate 1000 of these teachers, just disperse them into all of our communities.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed that, and I really hope that you walked away remembering to just send a quick email to the teachers that are impacting your kids, or the ones that impacted you or are impacting you now, if you’re a student. My kids talked a lot about the teachers that matter to them too. And this is such good and important work at such formative time in their lives. And so it’s my privilege to get to highlight these women and the work that they do. And so, Sydney and Mandy, so, so, so grateful. This wraps up our back to school series, guys.

Big fun coming up next week. I’m going to tell you right now what we’re doing. We’re moving into a new series called For the Love of Podcasts: podcasts that you know and love, hosts that you know and love. Some of them that are going to be new to you, and I cannot wait to introduce you. But this is a fun one, guys. We’re going to dig deep into the genre that we have all fallen madly for and talk about what makes us tick and why we have our shows and what we love about them and what we’re trying to bring to our audiences. And so, For the Love of Podcasts is up next. You are not going to want to miss it.

So, subscribe right this very minute to the For the Love Podcast, and it will just show up for you. And you’re going to love it, you guys. These interviews are amazing.

So, okay. On behalf of my producer Laura and her entire team, and my assistant Amanda, we are delighted to bring you this show week in and week out. It’s our great joy.

See you next week!

Narrator: That’s it for today’s show. Hope you enjoyed this chat. Be sure to subscribe to my mom’s podcast and give it a “thumbs up” rating if you like it. From the whole Hatmaker family, hope you have a great week and see you next time!

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