“We All Think You’re a Terrorist” is Not Okay to Say to a 12-Year Old Student

If you are a minority, and you went to school here, there may be a chance that you were exposed to two different types of teachers: the ones who made you feel welcome in the classroom; and, the ones who made you feel singled out because you were not part of the majority. We hope you never experienced the latter, but if you did, you may be able to understand the emotions felt in the following story:
Recently, a 12-year-old student from Fort Bend County, Texas was called a terrorist by his teacher in front of his classmates.

“We were in the class watching a movie,” the student said, “and I was just laughing at the movie and the teacher said, ‘I wouldn’t be laughing if I was you.’ And I said why? She said, ‘because we all think you’re a terrorist.’”

He was then ridiculed by his peers after the teacher made the horrifying remarks. Thankfully the teacher was removed and the incident is being investigated.
The incident reminds me of two different classroom situations I experienced while growing up; both examples emphasizing the impact a teacher can make on their students:
The positive way…
When I was in third grade, my teacher, who knew I spoke Arabic, asked me if I knew how to write in Arabic. I told her I knew some words.
“Why don’t you write all of your classmates’ names in Arabic. Then we can have each classmate write their own name in Arabic. We will make a giant paper quilt on the wall?” she told me.
I went home that night and told my parents how the teacher wanted me to write my classmates’ names in Arabic. She made me feel special because I could speak a different language.
The students were amazed at how their names looked written in Arabic. They practiced writing it themselves until they were able to perfect their names on a sheet in order to hang it on the paper quilt. The activity that my teacher had incorporated in order to include me into the classroom culture was simple, yet powerful. I will always remember her for valuing diversity, and for making a shy daughter of Egyptian immigrants feel welcomed.
The negative way…
Fast forward a couple of years later – I was in a different school and in the sixth grade. I was the only Muslim in my classroom in a small town in Ohio. During a lesson, my teacher made some disturbing remarks about Muslims, which made me feel uncomfortable. When I got home I told my parents about it, and the following day they had a conference with the principal. My father was invited to give a short presentation on Islam to  my class. The teacher apologized. But even with the apology, I will always remember her as the racist teacher who did not make an effort to make me feel safe or appreciated.
We can create a positive learning environment for our students
As educators, we have the ability to make a difference in our students’ lives.

By teaching about pluralism, creating a safe place for everyone, and incorporating diversity-based lesson plans, we can enhance our students’ learning experience so that we are creating an inclusive environment, rather than exclusive one.

Here are some ways you can create a positive learning environment:

  1. Learn about your students’ holidays and include them in your lesson plans, depending on the grade level. Whether that means reading a Ramadan book and making crafts for kindergarten students, or watching a short video in middle school.
  2. Value their culture and language and invite them to share with the classroom, just like my sweet third grade teacher did. They will remember it forever, and the rest of the students will learn a valuable lesson.
  3. Avoid media, learning material, and books that show negative images of Muslims or other groups (especially those groups represented in your classromm.) Rather, focus on and highlight on leaders, athletes, etc. who share the faith or background of students under-represented in your classroom.
  4. Include books by Muslim authors, for example, in your classroom libraries and encourage your students to explore them.
  5. Never tolerate racist remarks from students; and if you hear any, address it immediately. I once heard one of my students say “my dad told me not to play with black kids,” to a black classmate. It was immediately addressed (and yes his dad was informed). Had it been ignored, the student would’ve thought that it was an acceptable thing to say. Make sure to let the student know that your classroom will not tolerate insensitive and racist remarks and that your classroom is a safe, friendly, and welcoming learning environment.
  6. Invite parents to come talk to your classroom about their culture and traditions. Students love guests in the classroom and will have a chance to ask questions.
  7. If your school allows (usually not in public schools, however), plan a field trip to a local mosque, synagogue, or temple. We had a school visit one of our local mosques a couple of years ago and it was such a wonderful learning experience for the students. There was a short presentation on Islam, crafts, and snacks.
  8. When appropriate, and depending on the age group, be open and honest in the classroom about Islamophobia, racism, and discriminatin – and promote cultural awareness.
  9. Encourage the administration to hold diversity training throughout the year to promote inclusivity.
  10. Ask your students if they would like to stay in your classroom and finish work at lunch time during Ramadan if they are fasting.

The list could go on, but these are just a few ideas and tips that can get you started on building a long lasting relationship with students who depend on you, not only to learn from, but to feel safe with away from home.
When I graduated with my master’s degree in Education a couple of years ago, I reflected on my own experiences as a Muslim student growing up in America. It made me think of how we, as educators, must always strive to create an inclusive classroom for all students. May you always strive to create positive memories in your students’ lives, and may you continue to love working with children who rely on your guidance.