After discussing the two fundamental innate characteristics: “Student Oriented,” and “Flexibility,” in Part 1 of our “I.S. Teacher’s Got Talent,” this second installment will focus on the many acquired characteristics that a teacher must develop over time for spiritual, mental and professional success. As always the point of this blog is to get teachers, parents and all who are interested thinking, sharing and implementing.
To simplify this post, I will divide these characteristics into three main sections: “Spiritual,” “Mental,” and “Professional.” Each section will contain numerous sub-characteristics worth noting. For the sake of reader engagement, I will alternate between personal narratives and simple explanations.
Patience – In my opinion, I place this characteristic above love. I prefer this because no teacher will ever tell you that they love every single student alike. There are some students that extremely difficult to deal with. However, patience is the first step you must develop before you learn to love all students. Patience is about delaying what your anger tells you to do. It is not equivalent to silence. Rather, it is about not letting yourself “completely lose it.” Every single teacher has “lost it” once or twice in an academic year. Fine. However, when a teacher always yells for the silliest things and sends people out unable to deal with the slightest aspect of disorder, this teacher needs to sit down and reevaluate priorities. Looking back at the the Prophet’s (pbuh) example, you all know of the stories and examples detailing the immense trials he faced. We can easily talk about Bilal bin Rabah’s patience and passionately detail the suffering endured by the Meccan Muslims when they faced social and economic boycott. But why is it that we can not implement patience in our teaching? Exercising patience is not only beautiful but it is the Prophetic example. The verse, “For patience is beautiful,” teach us this noble characteristic, Quran 12:18. The background story of this verse is important. Despite his objections, Jacob (pbuh) allowed his sons to take Joseph (pbuh). When his sons left Joseph for dead in the well and brought back a shirt stained with lamb’s blood as evidence that Joseph was accidentally devoured by a wolf, Jacob’s reaction demonstrates complete equanimity. He could have shouted. He could have “lost it.” After all, it is his son’s alleged death. Instead, he demonstrates patience. A teacher who completely loses it in front of the class for the silliest things loses the respect of the class. Remember that anger is one thing you can not get rid of by losing it. Worse, anger inculcates into students a negative feeling towards the subject.
Love – Once you have learned to be patient, you must develop love for all students. Even by a little, having compassion will take your iman, or, faith, to a higher level. If you are having trouble with this aspect, practice saying it to your students. It is not my nature to tell students that I love them. But, I force myself to say it. Students will appreciate you more when you tell them that you love them. Say it sincerely. Say it out loud. Hear what you say. Soon, you will love them a little by little. Love is especially powerful when I am talking to a student privately to correct them. I start off by saying, “You know that I love you, right? You know that I am here for your good and to help you?” Once you establish the rule of love, students are more receptive to hearing what you have to say. The most common description that I hear from students about me is, “Brother Chao is really strict at first but once you get to know him you really enjoy his class.” The underlying tone of this statement is love. Because they know that I am there for them, they overlook my firmness because they know that I love them. To tell those whom you love that you love them is from the Prophetic example. A man was once with the Prophet (pbuh). A person walked by and the man [next to the Prophet] said, “Messenger of God, I love this [unnamed] person.” The Prophet (pbuh) replied, “Did you inform him of that?” “No,” he said. So he caught up with him and told him that he loved him. The man replied, “May He whose sake you love me for love you,” Narrated in Sunan Abī Dāwūd. Here this hadith shows that the love that is needed between fellow Muslim community members is important. Expressing one’s love is commendable and beautiful.
Good Assumption – It is easy for a frustrated teacher to judge a student for life. Do not judge a student by what they are doing at the moment. Look ahead and be hopeful. Assuming the best of your students is key to winning their trust. If you always assume that they cheat, lie, steal, misbehave, disobey and slack off, then some of your students will live up to that name. They will seek your attention in that manner, albeit manipulative. Every child is born on the natural instinct to do good. No one is born to commit evil. Hence, it is unacceptable for teachers to call their students shayātīn, or, devils.” Allah did not create them as demons. I once had a student who was extremely arrogant and rude. Years later, I found this student pleasant and changed. Conversely, I have some students who are extremely smart and well behaved, or, so it seemed. Years later, these students completely changed for the worse. In either case, assuming the best of your students is incumbent upon you. Thinking of them negatively will only bring the worst out of you. Even when you do assume the best of them, you might find some students who project their insecurities by blaming you for assuming the worst of them. Therefore, whenever something comes up, do not automatically think of the worst scenario. Don’t allow their history with you from a previous year blind you. Deal with facts, exercise caution, and assume the best. This takes practice, patience and forgiveness.
Vision – You’ve probably heard the saying, “A sage on the stage.” At this time and age, we cannot assume that students will be eager to learn from you. Be that you are a student of knowledge, parent, volunteer, shaykh, imam or leader, do not come with the attitude, “I am the teacher and therefore you will sit quietly and respect me for who I am.” In a utopian scenario, students should respect the teacher. We want our students to respect teachers. But is respect the end goal? Knowing the end goal of Islamic Studies is key to success. Therefore, what is your vision? Is it to only teach and move along? Or is it to pass a legacy onto them even after you graduate? Do you want them to remember you for your knowledge? Do you want them to remember you for the lessons and reflections you had with them to make their faith more meaningful? For myself, my vision is to prepare future leaders through critical thinking. What is yours?
Lead – Do you think of yourself as a teacher or as a leader? If you have a leadership mentality students will learn through your example. Leadership is about influence. It’s not about sitting at the front and giving orders. If what they see is that you treat the subject as a dry intellectual vomit session, then they will treat it as such. Inspire them by leading them. Let them come up with assignments from time to time and give positive reinforcements and suggestions for improvement. Giving them a level of control and say in their grade will make them want to learn it even more. Some activities, I do envision a set standard of what learning points they must demonstrate, but the details of how they demonstrate it is completely up to them. I let their creativity flow forth. I let their enthusiasm flow from within. Let students take charge of certain responsibilities. This is especially important for those students who have a lot of influence over others. Win them over by giving them some positions of responsibilities and leadership and you win over the rest. This way you earn their respect and let those student leaders influence others.
Sacrifice – Your job as a teacher is synonymous to sacrifice. You chose this career because the students’ happiness and success brings you joy. Therefore, a teacher’s reward is what comes later in life. They see the fruit of their results in the students they mentored. When you have careers better paying than teaching, why else would you teach? This is because you are selflessly generous. This also requires the community and the school to value their teachers more by paying them more. As a teacher, you will sit there thinking multiple ways on how to make this assignment fun. The very thought of incorporating a new technique to change up your routine excites you. That is sacrifice. If you want to be a successful teacher, you will have to sacrifice some parts of your life to move from being just a teacher to being The Teacher. Therefore, don’t bemoan students when they don’t appreciate you. You’ve already sacrificed this much. Don’t let their unappreciative moments define you.
Education – Many people differ over what level of education is required for an Islamic Studies teacher. The answer is different depending on the teacher and background. In a perfect scenario, I believe that a successful Islamic Studies should have a degree in non-religious studies as well as a degree in Islamic Studies. I know for a fact that had I not been blessed to go to the University of Medina, some parents would be uneasy about me teaching their kids. Conversely, I know some parents who are only at ease with me because they know that I obtained a Masters of Theological Studies at Vanderbilt University. Hence, they feel that I am “in touch” with their kids. But what if you don’t have access to an Islamic Studies program? What if you are a homeschooling parent? What if you are parent at home with kids in public school? Here is a simple breakdown of what you can do. I will discuss it in detail in a future post but for now, this will suffice as food for thought.
What to teach – If you have kids at home, a firm grasp of theology and basic fiqh is required. Focusing on akhlaq, seerah, Quran memorization and its implementation, developing a healthy view point of Islam, encouraging critical thinking are all important to your child’s Islamic education. Stick with the basics and avoid technical and scholarly debates. There is no need for it.
Making Sense of it – More importantly, discussing real issues with your kids is what connects them to the outside world. Parents need to be extra connected with the morals and values their kids are exposed to. Discussing with them on an intelligent level without getting angry is key. It’s not just about drugs and boyfriend and girlfriend. Don’t teach issues. Teach parameters. If you are afraid to talk about sex in a mature and respectful way to your kids, then expect them to learn it from the internet and other kids. Threats don’t teach. Know who they hang out with.
Plan of Action – But where can you get classes on theology and basic fiqh? You can enroll in weekend seminars. Having a systemic study plan for yourself will keep you on track. Talk to your local homeschooling support group or other parents to attend study circles. Demand your local masjid to provide enrichment adult classes for parents wanting to teach their kids Islam. Reading a few books here and there will be a hit or a miss. Make learning a family affair. Set up Quran memorization plans for them. Don’t tell them to memorize only. You memorize as well. There is nothing more contemptuous then a parent who sits around ordering their kids to be “good Muslims” but not practicing it themselves. Implement the verses, think about them. It’s not about how much they memorize but how much you practice as a team.
Connectivity – There is nothing more critical than being connected with what your students know, hear and see and related it with what you are teaching. Listening to what they are interested in will help tremendously. Knowing the latest scoop in technology, music, movies and sports will win you extra points. Just because you don’t listen to Justin Bieber doesn’t mean that you can’t know something about it. There is nothing more disastrous than to have a teacher disconnected from the students’ reality. That is why I am extremely emphatic about this. The biggest complaint from students about all Islamic Studies teacher is that they are too uptight. They mean that you are in another galaxy. Too many Islamic Studies teachers, parents and volunteers are thinking back to what their learned in their home countries. Times have changed. People have changed. If you don’t want to deal with the issues students face at this time and age, then you should seek another career. It’s not about me being rude. It’s about being real. Parents crave a connection with their kids and bemoan the distance. But many parents make no effort to bridge that gap and really get to know their kids better. Use these opportunities to let them think. Lecture less and connect more.
Hard Work – As obvious as it sounds, Islamic Studies is hard work. You must be able to teach multiple subjects while connecting it to their reality. In the few Islamic schools that I’ve visited, unfortunately, I find the Islamic Studies department the least hard working. If you don’t put effort in planning your lesson, you have lost the audience. For some, science is naturally fun with all those experiments. But what is fun about Islamic Studies? I’ve noticed that kids think Islamic Studies is fun because they “know things.” I want to change that. But that will be at later post. Work hard. Make your own lesson plans. Stop reusing others. Stop trying to make copies of other worksheets from other teachers found from a foreign country. Make your own. Focus on what you want to teach and develop them yourself. Don’t push the responsibility to another person. What others do is only supplemental. Practice and learn. Over time, you will get better. See what other teaching strategies there are from other subjects and develop your own routine. Be creative!
In this post we examined three general aspects of acquired characteristics a teacher must embody. These three are spiritual, mental and professional. Under each category are three characteristics. These nine characteristics can be learned and polished. You might not have the talent for every one of these. But you can develop them over time. Every teacher must learn to demonstrate patience, love and good assumption. Without these, teaching Islam loses its objective. Teachers also need to learn to develop a vision through leadership and sacrifice. Knowing what your end goal is critical to your success. Knowing when to lead and when to let students lead is also important. Self-sacrifice is what will take you to a higher level of teaching. Finally, to be a successful teacher, one must have certain guidelines of what to teach, connect with students and work hard. I believe all of these 9 characteristics, in addition to the 2 mentioned in the previous post, totaling 11, are the most important characteristics a teacher must embody.