Day 26: Teaching Good

My highest aspiration in the classroom is to teach good. I first came across this grammatically disillusioning concept when I read a close friend’s thesis at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and it has always stuck with me. Early in my career, when I was still learning the craft, I focused almost exclusively on teaching well.

I had little formal training in pedagogy when I first started out, but I was a quick study. That said, I was mainly focused on sponging up teaching techniques and methods from more experienced educators. My co-teacher at my first full-time teaching gig at an international school in the UAE had been at it for 10+ years. He was a fifth-grade specialist and a proselytizer for the importance of mental math. I learned so much that year, but it primarily consisted of learning the tools of the trade, rather than its purpose.

For example, I was blown away by a simple method he taught to multiply two numbers in your head. Take 87 x 6, for example. The only technique I knew was to do it out by hand. My co-teacher taught you could just multiply the 6 times 80 (480), then multiply the 6 times 7 (42), and finally add the two products together (480 + 42 = 522). So simple. And also a great party trick if you want people to overestimate your intelligence. Once a week, in a precursor to Minute to Win It, he would give the students a sheet with 60 multiplication problems. It was pretty much impossible to finish the whole page, but he turned it into a competition to beat your personal best. With each passing test, I could see my students’ confidence grow. I used to get in on the fun and do the math minute alongside them. Unlike the students, I would share my total with the class, and some would erupt in jubilation that they learned that they had beaten a Harvard grad.

I learned so much from this simple exercise: competition can be a powerful motivator, but it works best when you compete against only yourself. When a teacher works alongside his students and transparently shares his mixed results, it creates a rapport and an environment of mutual respect. Meanwhile, I was in charge of the English and history curricula where I achieved far fewer breakthroughs. I was fixated on content and would spend late nights designing new material that often landed with a thud. I created complicated behavior charts that tended to rile up the students rather than redirect their conduct.

More than anything, however, I felt like my teaching lacked soul. Here I had come to a Muslim country to teach predominantly Muslim children, but I was almost never able to carve out a space to engage in authentic conversations about our shared faith. My lessons focused on the what and the how and rarely touched on the why. I had not yet developed a teaching philosophy of my own. All this changed when I arrived at the School for International Training (SIT) in Brattleboro, VT as detailed on Day 24.

It was during this time that I came across that thesis title, which crystallized what I came to see as my mission in the classroom: Teaching Good. My highest priority is to teach students moral principles that will allow them to lead upright lives. One of my favorite scenes in To Kill a Mockingbird is when Miss Maudie tells Scout and Jem that their father Atticus is “the same in the house as he is on the public streets.” This congruence between our public and private lives is the gold standard that we should all strive for. So many students flip on their “Islam” switch when they step into school and gleefully shut it off when they walk out the door. This incongruence between stated beliefs and actual practices leads to cognitive dissonance. I try to teach them that “honesty is the fastest way to prevent a mistake from turning into a failure,” and that “being honest may not get you a lot of friends, but it’ll always get you the right ones.” When they inevitably cheat or plagiarize, I call them out on it and give them a zero, but I only lose respect for them when they dig in on denial and refuse to own their mistake.

While I believe in challenging my students, and my tests are universally considered to be beasts, I always try to focus on the moral implications of whatever we are learning. Whether it’s breaking down the “green-eyed monster” of jealousy in Othello, considering the missteps that led Adnan Syed to jail in the Serial podcast, or extracting spiritual paradigms from Seamus Heaney’s Scaffolding poem, my goal always remains to teach whatever moral lessons we can uncover and apply to our own lives. Some students call me a grammar Nazi, and many have PTSD from sentence diagramming and SAT prep, but even in this driest of subjects, I try to connect concepts to Islamic frameworks. The Oxford comma is mubah (permissible) while having a dependent clause on either side of a semicolon is haraam (forbidden).

Teaching good frees me from a strict adherence to a curriculum, allowing me the flexibility to share whatever I am passionate about (currently stoicism and the “barakah” mindset of productivity). Teaching good allows me to frame my entire profession as a form of worship. Teaching good is good for the soul. One of my biggest regrets is that the career changes I’m considering will likely take me out of the classroom. But, inshAllah, nothing can ever keep me from teaching good.

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