An amazing thing happened in my classroom this year, and it had nothing to do with me. I was blessed with both a remarkable student teacher and one of the most impressive and—she would demand I use the word—fabulous students I’ve ever been lucky enough to have. The amazing thing was not that either of them were in my room. The really remarkable thing this year was not either one of these wonderful people, but, really, both of them together. So, some introductions are in order. Please introduce yourselves.
Faaya: Well, my name is Faaya obviously. Both of my parents are refugees from [the Oromia region of] Ethiopia. If you ever wanted to find me in a crowd, I'll probably be yelling and wearing cat ears. I also have a knack for writing poetry. Most of my inspiration comes from the news and the music I listen to. Ninety-nine percent of the time I act like a butt, but everyone still loves me.
Amal: My name is Amal Younis, and I had the pleasure of student teaching with Mr. Rad and meeting Faaya this past school year! My family is originally from Somalia, and I have lived in the Twin Cities for the majority of my life. During my free time I love traveling, taking photos, hanging out with friends, etc.
Let's Talk Teacher Diversity
Tom: Ok, so Faaya, in the fall, I remember a day in class where we were talking about how to make schools better. One student said that we needed less White teachers, and I asked students to raise their hands if they had never had a teacher of color. Am I wrong, or were you one of those students? Can you talk a bit about the teachers you’ve had?
Faaya: Out of all the years I've been going to school, I only had one Black teacher back in fourth grade. I feel like with her, she kind of understood what it was to be a Black student in a mostly White grade. I don't think a lot of my other teachers could really sympathize with me whenever I got insulted because of my race or religion. They just didn't understand.
Tom: So, what was it like when you met Ms. Younis as a teacher?
Faaya: It was exciting, really exciting. It’s one thing to have a Black teacher, but it was a whole different story to have a Black and Muslim teacher. To me, she was more than a teacher. She was my friend, someone who actually listened and knew the hardship of being a Muslim-American in modern day America.
Tom: You’d had some issues with wearing a hijab in the weeks right before she started, right?
Faaya: Two weeks before Ms. Younis started teaching us every day, three different guys pulled off my hijab in the span of a week. I felt humiliated to be exposed in such a way. It’s weird because the only punishments they got were my friend Willow yelling at them and threats from eighth graders. The school didn't give a crap about what happened.
Tom: So, Ms. Younis, can you talk a little about your history in schools, both as a student and a staff member?
Amal: Growing up, I had the same experiences as Faaya and struggled to find teachers that represented my identity as a young Black Muslim woman. I really didn’t see any representation until I started college when I had my first African-American professor.
[pullquote position="left"]It’s really important for students to see teachers of color inside the classroom, but unfortunately things haven’t changed much.
Tom: It’s been an awful year in so many ways for Muslim-Americans. What was that like in a building with a small Muslim community? What did it mean to have Faaya as a student?
Amal: It’s been a really interesting year to say the least. I am always aware of the fact that I am the only person of color and Muslim woman in most spaces, so I didn’t feel any different while student teaching. However, having Faaya as a student and developing a close relationship with her was the best part of my experience. She embodies all the qualities and characteristics that I wish I had had in middle school; I can’t wait to see all the amazing things she accomplishes in the next few years.
Tom: Do you have any questions you want to ask each other?
Faaya: Why did Ms. Younis want to be a teacher out of all the jobs in the world?
Amal: To be honest, life never really works out according to plan. I’ve always loved the education field, but I had my mind set on law school because I wanted to help out my community. It took a year of law school and an amazing internship to make me realize that I wanted more out of my life. My mother is an educator for almost 20 years, and I’ve always admired the impact she had on the lives of countless individuals. I applied for a master’s program, got accepted, and the rest is history!
Amal (to Faaya): Do you ever plan on publishing your amazing poems? You must share this gift with the world!
Faaya: The first poem I wrote this school year is getting published in December, so there's that. One day, for sure, I'll publish my poems if I ever get the chance. Although I should get rid of the high standards I have for myself and learn that anything I write that comes from my heart is perfect in its own way.
We White Dudes Can't Meet Our Students' Needs Alone
As full as they may be with well-meaning White people, and I the well-meaningest and Whitest of them, our teaching ranks will grow more strongly the more they represent our students. As much as it meant for Faaya to have Ms. Younis this year, there was not a student in our classroom that did not benefit from knowing and learning from her, not just because she is a young Muslim woman, but because she is a great teacher who is also a young Muslim woman. And yeah, I felt like I was doing a pretty good job teaching Faaya (even though she’s way smarter and more talented than I am—seriously, keep an eye out for her poetry!), but as one of a long line of White dudes at the front of the room, there was just some things I could not offer. Anyone who is unconvinced that teacher diversity should be a priority has not witnessed its real power like I did this year.
Tom Rademacher (Mr. Rad to his students) is an English teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2014 he was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He teaches writing and writes about teaching on his blog. His book, published by University of Minnesota Press, is called "IT WON’T BE EASY: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching."