The question, “Does a successful teacher require natural talent?” is a tricky one. In some ways a teacher must have certain innate attributes. Yet, in other ways teachers can also learn new skills to augment his or her abilities. In Part 1 of this post, I aim to present and explain the most fundamental innate characteristics a teacher must embody. In Part 2, I will explore 9 other characteristics that can be learned over time through practice and hard work.
Innate Characteristics: This section can be defined as those characteristics all teachers must have. If any of these are missing, teaching can become significantly difficult, frustrating and yield dismal results. In fact, a person should not teach if these innate characteristics are lacking
Student Oriented – In terms of personality no two people are created the same. Some people are social while others are reserved. But if one wants to be in the field of teaching, with particular emphasis on Islamic Studies, one must not be averse to dealing with students. Being around them at school should be within one’s comfort zone. If one have a low threshold with crowds and young students, then this career is not suitable. One does not need to love being around them all the time. In fact, I am awkward around students outside of the school. However, in class, I enjoy their presence. Given that some people prefer to teach younger and not older students, this does not mean that these teachers are not student oriented. One can prefer an age group. However, whatever age group one teaches, those students must not make one feel uncomfortable and hinder one’s teaching responsibility. Being around them entails being able to deal with students across the spectrum is difficult. Once I was asked by a former colleague, “How do you manage your classes so well? I can manage the high school students. I love them! But middle school is not possible.” I said, “Any teacher who can manage middle school is a “star teacher.” All teachers agree that middle school is the most challenging. At that age group, students are just beginning to transition from childhood to adulthood. They are at a time where they are finding their own confidence and identity. This innate characteristic is not only required of all teachers, but it was the way of all the messengers and prophets. The Prohet (pbuh) was not a hermit after given the revelation, or, al-wahy. Because his job was to teach, instruct, lead and guide, he engaged with the public. In one’s role as an Islamic Studies teacher, be that a teacher, parent, volunteer or camp counselor, the role is extremely demanding of one to be student oriented. One’s demeanor in the class will shape the way how students view the religion and its practice.
Flexibility – As easy as it sounds, this characteristic is critical to teaching and in all other careers. Flexibility requires one to not be stubborn mentally, behaviorally and professionally. Do not confuse this with being lax. This characteristic is difficult to put into practice. In essence, this characteristic puts the teacher center stage and under the spot light. It requires the teacher to reach into their personality and conscience by reevaluating themselves. At this moment, it’s not about the student or the parents. It is about the teacher.
Being mentally flexible is the root of teaching. This characteristic can be applied to so many aspects; how one thinks, view one’s students, view oneself, develop spiritual and religious growth are all aspects interconnected with mental flexibility. For example, teaching requires one to not assume that everything one teaches in the way that one believes is effective and of one’s liking is the best way. One must be flexible enough to accept that all students learn in different ways. I also must be flexible enough to be able to take students’ family issues into consideration and not apply an iron law to every circumstance. Additionally, flexibility helps one feel better when a lesson isn’t going so well. Not all lessons are as stellar and effective as others that are fun and interacting. Being able to accept that fact will help a teacher get through “slow days.” In a future post, I will give tips on how to deal with it.
Being flexible in one’s behavior can be applied to so many aspects of teaching because it requires one to constantly improve oneself. One must not assume that their role grants them a license to do whatever they want. Teachers must improve their moral standards. For example, one must acknowledge one’s own mistakes in front of the class. It’s easy to be set into one style of behavior and not realize it being counterproductive. If one automatically shouts and kicks out a student whenever something goes wrong, then have they done their job properly? Did one try every method? Is one following the Prophetic method? Or is one too stubborn to accept their inability to deal with this problem by projecting their own frustration onto others and sending the problem away to the principal? Being flexible in one’s behavior means that one exercise patience, kindness and love at a higher degree.
Finally, being flexible professionally requires one to accept that teaching is not about coming to work from 7:30 till 4:30 and not do anything school-related outside of these time frames. Teaching requires one to grade, plan one’s lessons, follow up with parents, tutoring, mentoring, reviewing and many other tasks. Being an Islamic Studies teacher requires one to hold oneself to higher standards because the Quran, Sunnah, its application and life in general are being discussed. If I speak without knowledge, I will be held accountable. The verse states, “And do not pursue that of which you have no knowledge. Indeed, the hearing, the sight and the heart – about all those [one] will be questioned,” Quran 17:36. This verse teaches us to watch what we say and to speak only with knowledge. This verse is a general order. But it must be taken more seriously when the deen is being discussed. I cannot just speak about something being halal or haram and forget about my audience. I might have a student who comes from a family that sells haram goods. However, I can state that that mode of money making is haram without bashing, demonizing and mocking.
In this post, we discussed whether teaching Islamic Studies requires innate or acquired talent. I argue that teachers must have both. Some talents must be within the self. Other talents, as we will discuss in Part 2, will cover the talents or characteristics that can be learned.* But in this post, I examine the two most critically innate talents a teacher must have. First, one must be comfortable around students. Without this, one should consider another field. Second, a teacher should be flexible. Flexibility reminds a teacher to continue to improve on oneself before expecting it from others. This characteristic is what distinguishes between the 7:30-4:30 teacher and the transcendent teacher. This characteristic is what keeps a teacher from getting too stuck in their own ways. Importantly this is what makes a teacher a teacher.
*Some will argue that having qualifications in Islamic Studies is a requirement. Not all parents who homeschool or have kids in public school are qualified to teach. But does this mean they can’t teach? I argue, in Part 2, that while some basic aspects and fundamental parameters a teacher should have, being a scholar is not necessary at all times.