The Impact of Having a Muslim Teacher
I have always said exposure is everything— but I couldn’t have known just how powerful it could be. The impact of having a Muslim teacher is different depending on the school. If there are any Muslim students, then that Muslim teacher gives students hope and someone to look up to that shares a similar identity. It would give those Muslim students an example of a Muslim person establishing themselves as a pillar of American society, something the media and bigots work hard to prevent. But I teach in a school where I can count the Muslim students in the entire district on one hand. For my students, it is an entirely different experience to have me as a teacher. I am the only existing woman that wears hijab in the entire district, from staff to students, and although that might seem intimidating (sometimes it is), it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
I work in an urban district with an overwhelmingly Latinx and Christian student body. For most of my students, I am the first woman who wears hijab that they have ever interacted with. Once they get comfortable with me, they ask me a thousand questions.
“Miss, do you wear that in the shower?”
“Miss, what do you wear when you go the beach?”
“Miss, do you have to take it off when you get married?”
They ask me questions about hijab, my culture, and my religion but also about my personal life, my family, my dreams, and my goals. I have had countless conversations with my students over the years, answering all of their questions and holding nothing back. Through their questions they get to see how similar I am to them, but they also get to understand the struggles I face as a Muslim and Arab woman in the United States.
My students and I form connections that often amaze me and warm my heart. I am often times their “second mom”, older sister, or a shoulder to lean on. For me, my students are the children I didn’t give birth to but that I love as if I did. Their love has been a pillar in my life since I first started student teaching six years ago. This bond has made my students incredibly protective of me, my identity, and my religion. When they hear anyone talking negatively about Islam, they jump to defend it and cite me as a reason why. I have never asked my students to defend me or any aspect of my identity, but because of our bonds, they feel passionately about fighting people’s bigotry. They are personally offended by the bigotry because of their exposure to a Muslim woman.
One year, a student came to school on a Monday excited to tell me a story about what happened at her job over the weekend. She worked at the mall at a froyo place and she told me that she heard two people talking in her store about what was going on in the world. Apparently the son was looking at his phone about something that happened and the woman starts going off on a rant telling her son to stay away from "people like that" in his school and telling him not to be friends with Muslims and that "even if they are nice, the children, their parents, and their whole families are terrorists.” At this point my student was overwhelmed with anger and she proceeded to firmly tell these people that what they said was "very disrespectful" and that "just because some terrorists are Muslim doesn't mean all Muslims are terrorists and I personally know someone who isn't.” Another kid chimed in saying "Miss, see! What I sent you the other day about teenagers knowing better than adults that not all Muslims are terrorists! It's true!" They are so proud of themselves when they stand up for what’s right.
It fills me with hope.
One of my former students is currently in her sophomore year at Kean University. In one of her classes, she had to choose a topic to research and do a presentation on it. She decided to work on Islamophobia in the United States. Her professor wanted her to change her topic to how Muslims contribute to terrorist attacks and she was livid. She argued with the professor until he agreed on her original topic. I was so proud of her for putting her foot down and proceeding to create an amazing presentation that discredited any link between Islam and terrorism. This was an exchange after she finished telling me about her presentation:
Another year, two students came running to me after one of their teachers (as in, one of my coworkers) told the class that "Muslim women shouldn't be able to wear hijabs and burkas for safety reasons." And when the students argued with her about the absurdity of her statement, she argued back and stood her ground. The next day they were so excited to show me posts they made on social media:
These are just a handful of encounters I have had with my students. The impact of my identity on my students is not lost on me. I do not share these stories for praise or to give myself any props. I have had amazing human beings as students for years, and their hearts and open minds are what led to them reacting so passionately. But I had no idea that they would build empathy so powerful that it would lead to them standing up and speaking out in concrete ways. In our collective fight against racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, etc., people have suggested many different avenues, methods, and strategies. Exposure is most definitely not always enough. But for many of my students, that is all it took. I’m arguing that if the students in our schools had more Muslim teachers, more black and Latino and LGBTQ teachers, then maybe - just maybe - they’ll build a different, more accepting world than the one that we currently live in. Teaching while Muslim has been one hell of an experience and this is just the beginning.
Nagla Bedir holds a Bachelor’s Degree in History and Psychology from Rutgers University-New Brunswick and a Master’s Degree in Social Studies Education from the Graduate School of Education-Rutgers University. She is currently a high school social studies teacher in an urban district in New Jersey.