by Sabrina Holcomb
Virginia teacher Afreen Yusuf Gootee has the typical all-American family. Her eldest, a daughter, works for AmeriCorps; her son, serving his first year in the Marine Corps, loves driving around in his pickup truck with an American flag on the back; and her youngest son will probably follow his brother into the military. “My children are all about the USA,” says Gootee.
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Yet Gootee, and her U.S. born children, have been called terrorists and told to go back where they came from. So when Gootee heard Gold Star father Kazir Khan talking about his son’s patriotism, she got it.
When she and her children are called the “t” word, “my first reaction is sadness,” says Gootee, “but my second is that I am a teacher and this is a teachable moment.”
Gootee teaches history and math at an alternative middle/high school with a student population of mostly white and black students and a small number of Hispanics.
Gootee’s had students yell out “Be careful or she’ll blow us up” and make bomb noises as she walks past their desks. She’s had parents suddenly move their children out of her class and been told by an administrator after one job interview, “We don’t want your kind in the building.”
Gootee says she and other educators believe they’re seeing a rise in bullying language during the 2016 election cycle, with educators around the country reporting that kids are picking up on anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
To counter this trend, Gootee teaches her students that the actions of a small group of people who call themselves Muslims don’t reflect the beliefs of the greater number of Muslims who live in this country and the world.
“Teaching my students about the diverse cultures that make up America helps them see our shared humanity,” says Gootee, whose family is of Bangladeshi heritage.
Gootee hasn’t stopped with the kids in her classroom. Muslim holidays are now recognized on the Virginia Education Association’s school calendar, and in her district, Gootee led a winning 10-year campaign to allow Muslim students, and students of all faiths, to take religious holidays off from school without being penalized for perfect attendance.
She’s currently working with a supportive school superintendent to broaden the language in the school code of conduct to include religious tolerance. And she hopes to be at the table when the code of conduct is rewritten next year.
Gootee works within her community to educate others about her culture and her faith, frequently speaking to church groups, Girl Scout troops, and other civic organizations. In past years, she and her daughter gave the first-ever presentations on Islam for a school’s International Day event.
Gootee is also reaching out to other educators. As president of the Hanover Education Association and a member of NEA’s Diversity Cadre, Gootee stood up in front of 8,000 educators at NEA’s annual meeting and asked them to keep an open mind about other faiths and customs and an open heart for children and fellow educators. Following Gootee’s speech, a Wisconsin delegate approached her to discuss strategies for countering anti-Islamic rhetoric and the bullying of Muslim students on a national level.
As happy as Gootee was to get such a quick response from educators, she says there’s nothing more satisfying for a teacher than seeing your lessons bear fruit with your students.
The last time Gootee was called the “t” word, some of her students sprang to her defense, speaking out on behalf of tolerance and acceptance.
“I’m proud of them,” says Gootee. “Taking a stand against intolerance—in front of other students—is a brave and honorable achievement.”