“Education is power that no one can take away from you, because it is ingrained in you where it cannot be touched, but only seen through your actions.” An old friend once said to me, “Education is power that no one can take away from you, because it is ingrained in you where it cannot be touched, but only seen through your actions.” Twenty-six years ago, these words became a reality for me as I forged ahead to become an educator. As far back as I can remember, I loved going to school, learning new things, and teaching them to others. Me becoming an educator was no coincidence; it was something I was destined to be from an early age.
I was the first woman in my tight-knit Yemeni community to attend college, and perhaps the first to wear a hijab to attend St. Francis College in Brooklyn. In the late 1980s, I volunteered to be in the PTA at my children’s school, which was very common for women with children in the school. But, for me it was a unique experience. With my ability to straddle two identities, I was able to culturally connect with members of my ethnic community and the broader Brooklyn community as well. I became the school’s go-to person for Arab and Muslim relations. My eagerness to assist and support made it very easy for teachers and parents to approach me on matters, big and small. The school administration valued my willingness to help students and their families. By the end of the year, the principal asked me to join the school staff as a paraprofessional.
During my years as a paraprofessional, I worked closely with a little girl who only spoke Arabic and began to see the world in her eyes. I was able to connect with her in a way and understood her struggle of feeling like an outsider, where everything was unfamiliar and foreign. I wondered what if I wasn’t there to help her through this journey, what type of obstacles or experiences would she go through, and how will it impact her view of education and educators as a whole. Being in that classroom with her opened my eyes and made me realize this is the direction I want to take, it is where I can make a difference, and bridge two different cultures together. That experience inspired me to become a teacher and became the stepping stone of my career.
As an Arab-American Muslim, my experiences were vast as a Brooklyn resident. I knew how important it was to draw on multicultural education theory and practice to meet the needs of our diverse communities. I attended every professional development opportunity offered after school and on the weekends. I felt passionately about and was enthralled with innovative ways to teach reading and writing. As a result, after several years of teaching elementary school I became a literacy staff developer, to help schools improve the way they taught reading and writing in District 15. I was placed in a school where most of the staff had been teaching for over twenty-five years. Having someone the age of their daughter or son coming to teach them the art of reading and writing was not something everyone welcomed. I worked very hard to win the trust of veteran teachers, and expressed a desire to learn from their wealth of experience on the job. Halfway through the first semester, they were requesting I model and co-teach with them. This very challenging experience turned out to be the most rewarding experience at the end of the school year, when the school superintendent showcased our work to neighboring elementary schools. Two of the teachers I mentored, in turn, became literacy staff developers, and I am pleased that they continue to keep in close contact with me, seeking advice and letting me know about developments in their work.
I believe the teaching practices I acquired in the New York City public school system, and my ability to motivate and inspire people, helped cultivate my capacity to connect with others in profound ways. Strong communication practices, such effective, careful listening and ensuring that everyone’s opinions count, are critical to building relationships and strong teams. These kinds of practices helped me become the best teacher I could possibly be, and afforded me the opportunity to teach both to youth of all ages in the NYC public school system, and to graduate students at the university level. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to touch the lives of so many amazing young men and women.
As someone who has dedicated over twenty-five years of her life to Public Education, I remain relentlessly devoted to advocating for just and equitable education. As an educator who worked in the largest Public School System in the country, my cause has been working with school communities to embrace the great diversity in
our school system and to provide students the best education possible. The ultimate goal for education should be for all to rally around the idea that every child can learn if the appropriate elements for learning are in place. The elements I believe we need are as follows: creating a learning environment that is academically challenging, with curriculum that is meaningful and relevant to students’ cultural upbringing and experience; creating a learning environment that is nurturing and safe, one that values and celebrates every child regardless of their race, culture, faith or socioeconomic status; creating a learning environment that encourages student voice, and allows students to explore their ideas and aspirations so they may acquire the necessary skills to become well-educated and balanced adults. We can do this and do it well if we free ourselves from the invisible barriers that exist in our communities.