Debbie Almontaser the author of Leading While Muslim talks about leadership, education, and inclusive culture. Here she reflects on her first year of teaching, the lessons learned and key takeaways.

My First Year of Teaching: Fouls and Fumbles

Teaching is one of the most difficult jobs in the world because of the multiple stakeholders a teacher has to work with including students, parents, colleagues and school administration.  

My first year was filled with fouls and fumbles because I was unprepared for the real world. Public relations and conflict resolution skills are a must for this job.  As are effective communication skills and leadership qualities.

I learned this my first year as a teacher on the job, not from my university or my student teaching program.  These skills have helped me become who I am today dealing with all ages in educational settings. 

Personal Story: Fails and Fumbles

Leading up to my first year,  I spent the summer preparing my curriculum, reading books, making decorations for my classroom; little trinkets and thinking of games for my students, and absolutely gave no thought on how to engage the parents I will be dealing with. I wasn’t prepared for anything regarding this huge aspect of my job for the entire school year except for the welcome letter with their child’s school supply list.  

It was only four days into the school year that one of my students, Danny lead me to a world I had not been fully prepared to deal with.

Danny was a child who did everything he can to bother his peers and try to press my buttons.  He was the first student I had to call his parents to express my concerns. I had no idea what I was going to be up against when making that call until I got on the phone.  

I immediately began the conversation with the concerns and the parent fired back at me defending her son.  I was taken aback and was speechless for a few seconds.  

I then responded to her that we need to work together to make sure Danny has a good school year.  After hanging up with her I was in a daze. All I could think about at that moment was, did I handle this well or have I just earned myself an enemy within. 

I spent the weekend wondering about this dilemma. On Monday, I went to the library and borrowed books on parental engagement.  I also signed up to teacher workshops focusing on classroom management and conflict resolution.  

These workshops made a big difference in my life beyond just teaching.  They helped me understand the social and emotional needs of our inner-city students and how to address them and get my job of teaching them done.  

By the end of the year, I felt much better and at the same time exhausted by the job.

What Research says about K-12 Schools in the USA

Recent research conducted among teachers in the K-12 educational setting adds to the previous notion that teachers’ performance and their role in refining student conduct improves for the first three years of their career. 

The new studies suggest that the improvement continues for at least a decade (and not just three years) along with a decrease in absenteeism and an increase in the overall performance of students. It also suggests that teachers undergo high-quality coaching and professional development to improve teaching effectiveness and students’ achievements. 

According to data derived from studies in 2017, the majority of teaching force in America is mostly White and female. While the teaching force is gradually growing more diverse, there is also a pattern of certain demographics that can be seen among teachers; they tend to be white, female, and have almost a decade and a half of experience in education

When speaking on the state of racial diversity among students and teachers, former Education Secretary John B. King, Jr., states,

“Without question, when the majority of students in public schools are students of color and only 18 percent of our teachers are teachers of color, we have an urgent need to act. We’ve got to understand that all students benefit from teacher diversity. We have strong evidence that students of color benefit from having teachers and leaders who look like them as role models and also benefit from the classroom dynamics that diversity creates. But it is also important for our white students to see teachers of color in leadership roles in their classrooms and communities.” 

Building on the findings of this research paper published in 2016, we need all stakeholders to play their part in diversifying the educational workplace by adding more students of color in postsecondary education level and recruiting more teachers from different racial backgrounds. 

In addition to this, support must be provided to the teachers and students of color so they can come forward with their concerns regarding the barriers of inclusion.

I discuss the same dilemma in my book Leading While Muslim, [buy the complete book over here, use promo code “6S19LWM” to avail 30% discount]. I’ve accumulated the lived experiences of fourteen American Muslim School Principals in public education of which I only found 20 nationally, but only 14 participated. 

SOLD OUT! Debbie Almontaser launches her new book at the Brooklyn Historical Society

I also offer my insight on what needs to be done for a diversified workplace. It’s a great place to start studying for aspiring teachers!

Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion, puts forth a much needed suggestion; 

Teachers are hungry for help in mastering the techniques of their craft

First off, there aren’t enough preparatory resources out there for teachers to take guidance from. A completely clueless teacher, in her first year of teaching, goes through numerous challenges that he or she might not know how to tackle. 

While experience makes us wise and mistakes teach us valuable lessons, we need to equip our teachers and school leaders with enough resources on how to handle obvious disputes. 

Conflict resolution, effective communication skills, child psychology, how to build the parent-teacher relationship, and how to exert authority are some top of the line basic things that a teacher should know, they are not addressed in many teacher programs. 

Read this research to access the [critical] importance of well-prepared teachers for student learning and achievement. 

Need for Support Systems for Muslim Teachers in USA

First year of teaching is already difficult but Muslim educators and teachers face double the amount of pressure due to the politically charged environment post 9/11. One study conducted in the UK, finds that Islamophobia hold back Muslims in the workplace. 

Imagine you are sitting in the conference room with teachers of various backgrounds. The television screen flashes out breaking news about Islam being the religion of murderers. Who wouldn’t flinch and look at you? And would you blame them?

Muslim educators constitute an adequate part of the education system in America. It the responsibility of the state to introduce support systems for teachers in this dilemma of racism and Islamophobia. 

I discussed this at length in my book presentation hosted by the AFT.org in DC that Muslim teachers experience a certain fear towards self-identify and expanding their leadership. 

One amazing effort to beat Islamophobia in the workplace is the resolution passed by the AFT Executive Council on Opposition to anti-Muslim Bigotry, Discrimination and Violence. 

What I wish I’d Known Back Then

What I wish I had known back then is I wasn’t alone.  Many new teachers experience the newness of the job and challenges of the unknown.  I wish I had reached out to fellow teachers, to other new teachers in my school building to build a support group for each other.  

I wish I would have reached out to seasoned teachers for help.  Sadly, what stopped me was being embarrassed and self-conscious to share with them my novice abilities with parents. I also wish I had reached out to my supervisor for support vs. seeing them as my rating officer, a mistake many teachers make. 

All of these inadequacies stemmed from lack of confidence as a first-year teacher who did not want to appear unconfident to her peers or supervisors.  This is even the case in other professions and is a huge disservice to our professional growth. 

New teachers should not bear the burden that they should know everything and should be forgiving to themselves that they don’t and feel comfortable to ask for help.

Advice from Expert Educators

Experts believe in sharing their experiences with aspiring teachers to help them learn stuff they would otherwise do in five or so years. 

There is a lot of material uploaded on the internet. Blog posts on the Do’s and Don’ts of teaching, podcasts, Youtube videos, and whatnot. You can always learn and grow by applying actionable tips published online to help your career. 

Here is an amazing resource on how to impart the importance of cultural diversity, tolerance, and dealing with [smart] student logic.

All teachers agree that positive reinforcement and offering praise to the students work like a charm. Low-self esteem can result in absenteeism, decreased performance, bad grades and discipline issues, which I learned was Danny’s biggest challenge biggest issue. 

Realizing that every student is unique and has their own way of interacting in a classroom environment helps teachers dive into the individual psychology of each student.

There is no one rule to rule them all. What may work with one student, may not work with the others. Imagine your favorite teacher from childhood and reflect on what qualities s/he/she had. I guess she must be lenient, polite, interactive, approachable, and considerate. 

You don’t need to be an expert to develop these qualities. All you need is to practice tolerance and patience. Even if that doesn’t come naturally to you.

My Advice to New Age Educators and School Leaders

While the above-mentioned qualities will help teachers shape the character of their students, we are in dire need of teacher development programs and helping teachers deal with faculty conflicts and workplace stressors. Here is my advice to new age educators and school leaders:

Teachers:

  • Know you are not alone. Every new teacher goes through the same highs and lows in their first year of teaching.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help from your colleagues. You are new. You are not supposed to magically know everything. Reach out for support from experienced teachers. Reflect on their advice and do what you think is best for you and your students. At the end of the day, it’s you who is responsible.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for support from your supervisor. Learn to communicate your concerns effectively. Understand that your supervisor has a lot on their plate so choose a wise time and place to voice out your concerns.
  • Expand your knowledge by attending workshops for new teachers. Learning never ends, even if you think you know it all, trust me you don’t!

For school leaders:

  • When hiring new teachers, ask them what areas would they like you to support them? Take their feedback and make sure everyone is on the same page as you are.
  • Create learning opportunities for them to learn from seasoned teachers. Arrange inter-visitations and ask experienced teachers to share best practices. 
  • Mentoring is one of the best opportunities you can provide. Pair up new teachers with a seasoned teacher to mentor them. 
  • Provide or send them for professional development. Adequate training goes a long way. 

On a lighter note, here are some interesting facts about different schools which I bet you didn’t know! You can even share them with your students in your next school year!

Conclusion

Teaching is an underrated and unrecognized profession. Outsiders think it is an easy job. All you have to do is show up in the classroom. Teachers are misunderstood. 

They not only have the responsibility to have students perform great in studies, but also help them carve out their careers, aid in character personality building, communication skills, and teach them about all those opportunities life has to offer. 

Muslim educator often faces a lack of understanding from their supervisor and peers on what it means to be a Muslim. This lack of understanding often leads to workplace bias and discrimination  The need for proper support for Muslim educators and teachers remains to be my number one concern. I will be going live on Facebook to discuss more on this In Shaa Allah very soon. 

For all the aspiring teachers out there, I would conclude by saying that remember, you are not alone. All the teachers, even those who look pretty confident experience pitfalls sooner or later. Take each experience as a learning opportunity and tackle each challenge with confidence. While you may be lacking in experience, you exceed in your capacity to grow, learn, and advocate. 

When preparing for your first year of teaching, don’t just focus on what goes inside the classroom. A lot of your experience as a teacher will constitute what goes on beyond the four walls of the classroom as well. 

You must prepare for communicating effectively with parents, your supervisors, and the faculty as well. Learning conflict resolution techniques can go a long way.

Good luck to all  new teachers!

Do let me know in the comments down below what challenges you faced in your first year of teaching and if you have any valuable insight to offer to our new teachers!

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