Muslim American educators driving change in the classroom, across the country

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Image: Nagla Bedir, left, and Luma Hasan

Nagla Bedir and Luma Hasan, both social studies teachers in New Jersey, co-founded Teaching While Muslim to help address some of the challenges and frustrations they experienced as students growing up as Muslim Americans.

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Trying to articulate a complex identity when faced with peers and educators who have a limited understanding of what it means to be Muslim often left Nagla and Luma on the defensive, responding to micro-aggressive questions and bigoted accusations that would not be necessary if school curricula were fully inclusive. Now as educators, they are driving the change to address this lack of inclusion. The Teaching While Muslim site is a space intended to deepen understanding of the complicated identities of Muslims in the United States, including the diverse experiences of Muslim educators. It is also a platform for resources and tools.

Bedir and Hasan took a few minutes to talk about their efforts and where they see their work headed.

What prompted you to start this effort?

As negative experiences in our workplace directly related to our identities increased, we decided it was time to address these issues head on. There is a lack of resources, training and support available to Muslim educators, so we began to give workshops at our local conferences to help promote understanding and prevent and address more negative experiences in schools.  We want to create a more fully representative conversation within the education system for students, teachers and families.

What do you think educators need most urgently right now?

Educators require a redefinition of what it means to integrate social justice into the curriculum and the resources, training and support that will allow them to bring it into their classrooms. The concept of “neutrality,” is not only unsatisfactory but damaging. Identities are political, as are the books we read, the history we analyze and the environment of our schools. Classrooms need to reflect the level of equity we hope to create within society.

How can your union support educators to combat Islamophobia and institutional racism?

Be intentional in the type of professional development educators are offered, and who leads these workshops. It is important that legitimate and reliable resources are provided to educators and that the presenters are a reflection of the issues that are being discussed.

What are your key areas of focus in this work?

Our main focus is to create a space for ourselves as Muslim educators in the education world. The Muslim identity is often left out of spaces where “diversity” is discussed. We created a blog that amplifies the voices of public school Muslim educators, Muslim students that attend the public schools and Muslim parents that have children in the public schools.

In addition we provide resources for educators who wish to be more culturally responsive, anti-Islamophobic, and anti-racist, and we have workshops for organizations and schools that wish to have deeper and more meaningful learning experiences about issues surrounding Muslims in the United States. We also create a safe network for Muslim educators.

What has been the reaction from educators and students?

The reaction from everyone has been heart-warming and phenomenal. We have support from people of all backgrounds, educators and students alike. Our own students have been incredibly supportive, and educators of all backgrounds have expressed the urgent need for this type of organization to exist.

Where do you think your efforts go from here?

Thus far, our effort has been mostly New Jersey based but we are engaging educators nationally through social media as well as connections through our Teaching While Muslim team. Our dream is to expand our reach, but we’re starting at home first.

Reader Comments

  1. I have to smile when my comment that folks ought to look into Churchill’s commentary on Islam gets a thumbs down. What part of looking into another historical perspective gets a thumbs down? Churchill, Ike, and many others who saw what WWII did to the world were shockingly prophetic.

  2. Let’s try espousing other non-muslim view points in the countries that you came from and see how well that goes over. Physician, heal yourself first.

    1. Seeing as one of the founders was my teacher, I can put your worries at rest and let you know… her country is the USA! She’s more American than me! But to an ignorant bystander, I may seem more “American” than her… perhaps because of her hijab or her beliefs.

  3. I am a retired public school teacher and administrator. After attending a recent eight week class titled “Understanding the World of Islam,” offered through my church, I was especially interested in your efforts. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you identify a need/or service I might be able to help you with. I am going to forward this article to various individuals in the St. Louis Community who are currently working to support Muslim refugees who have come to live in our midst as they seek to establish roots and survive while living in a strange and foreign culture. Perhaps some of the resources that you can identify will be helpful to our efforts.

  4. This is definitely the time and schools are a vital place to have study of Muslim faith, customs, and practice as part of an inclusive curriculum.

  5. What about our American students religions? What about separation of church and state?
    Teach about all religions AND the Constitution.
    We are a country of MANY, no one religion, race, or nationality deserves more than the other. When you choose to live in the United States of America YOU are AMERICAN.
    T. Roosevelt stated clearly “No one can be loyal to two Flags.”
    Teaching While American
    Perhaps, THAT should be the direction of your efforts.

    1. “What about our American students religions?” Being Muslim does NOT replace the fact that they are American. It is a religion not an ethnicity or race. That’s number one. You are asking for separation of church and state, yet asking for all religions to be taught or focused on? Hmm. You seem a bit confused Carolyn. Being Muslim and American does not make you loyal to two flags. Maybe you should gather your thoughts and opinions about what an American ‘should’ be.

      Also, not one race or religion deserves more than another yet white Christians seem to be getting a lot more than others. Oops.

      This comes from a white Christian by the way.

      Connect to your God. Maybe he’ll guide your path to a world of acceptance of others’ differences.

      I’ll pray for you Carolyn.

    2. Some of these comments reveal the NEED for the important you are all doing in and beyond the classroom.

      From one young educator of color that you have inspired — peace, love, and solidarity!

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