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For teachers, every year and every child should represent a fresh start

By Omaira Alam –

I went to two teachers’ colleges, one for undergrad and one for my master’s degree. Both of them were reputable and high-ranking. The first taught me the much-needed basics of teaching and learning, and the second taught me the intricacies of special education over the course of two years.

I can honestly say that what I learned benefitted me in immeasurable ways. I have applied the lessons learned in a myriad of ways throughout my teaching career.

So what did I learn?

1) Assume nothing.

Working with the population of students that our cohort did – at-risk, secondary students with learning and emotional disabilities – Dr. Bello, my adviser and mentor, insisted on us assuming nothing about our students. While this meant that at the beginning of each year – and throughout the year – we read the nine-inch-thick file on the student, that overflowing manila folder was not the means by which we would define the student. They are in need and we are there to facilitate fulfillment of that need within the context of school.

Do not assume that they are going to be horrible or difficult or ADHD or bipolar or any of those ailments simply based on the other teachers’ interactions with the students. Make sure you determine what your interaction is going to be based on this new opportunity for a mutually transformative relationship. Let their file inform your interaction, but not define your relationship

2) Change begins with you.

In the classroom management class that we took, we were introduced to many profound concepts and ideas, most of which were surprisingly easy to implement. Our first lesson for the class that has stuck with me through all these years was the idea that if you want your students to behave a certain way, make sure you model that behavior, believe that behavior is the best way to be, and give ample opportunity for the students to learn it from you.

This particular point really resonated with me and I was compelled to reference a verse from the Qur’an in my midterm exam:

“Verily, God will not change the condition of the people, until they change what’s in themselves.” (13:11)

It highlighted for me the need to really ensure that if my students aren’t behaving in a way that promotes learning, is my behavior reflecting one who is ready to learn myself?

3) People-first definitions.

Dr. Bello insisted on this and I will forever be grateful for this particular lesson. When speaking about a student with a learning disability, we were taught to never say the deaf person, or the blind person, or the handicapped person. This is larger than political correctness. It is larger than being polite.

When you refer to a person as someone who has a visual impairment or the student who has learning disabilities, then you choose to define the person by their human-ness and not by their disability. You are forced to look first at what makes them human and then address their disability as one component of their human-ness, not the full package.

This simple act helped me see my students for more than what they or anyone saw them as: beyond labels and disabilities into a realm of potential and ability.

As teachers in Islamic schools and as we gear up to begin a new school year, we need to reflect on these lessons taught years ago. See each child as an opportunity not just for your student, but for you the teacher. May God bless you to inspire every student who graces your classroom with amazing and beautiful things.

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