As a teacher of Muslim-American students, the recent attacks in Paris; San Bernardino, Calif.; and numerous other places, present a particularly complex set of pedagogical challenges. While questions pertaining to the general role of educators in the wake of such events are relevant and necessary in our public discourse, I choose instead to ask myself a fundamentally different question: What is my responsibility to my Muslim students? This may seem an odd, perhaps even biased, inquiry to pose to oneself. After all, teachers are trained to address the needs of all of their students, regardless of background. While believing firmly in this principle, I would also argue that our Muslim students occupy a unique cultural, social, and political space—one that demands unique pedagogical focus.
Our Muslim students exist in a societal and educational zeitgeist in which the tenants of their faith are often perceived as inherently violent. The cultural interpretations of the Muslim faith (e.g., veiling practices) are oftentimes perceived as repressive and backwards by the uninformed, and a simple Google search of their ancestral countries yields pages of results that begin with words like ‘terror.’ It is precisely at moments following a national or global tragedy that we, as educators, must be self-reflective in a way that mirrors what we uphold as an essential value, and examine what we transmit to our Muslim students.
The best teachers react to the failures in their classrooms with an honest inquiry into what they could have done better, if only they could go back and do it all again. We must apply such thinking to our treatment of Muslim students, because the damage of these experiences cannot be easily quantified by any statistical metric, nor is it clearly visible. We must reflect, for example, on how our use of pronouns and language—not just pedagogical technique—could be significant to our students. Within the classroom, we transmit our true educational values to our Muslim students with every use of the unqualified pronoun of “they” or pejorative construction “those people” when attempting to confront the causes of these attacks, every implicit conflation of Islamists with Muslims, every demand that so-called ‘moderate’ Muslims decry these atrocities, and every selective focus on attacks in western countries over those in Muslim-majority countries.
A 2011 Pew Center Report noted that the majority of Muslims in America are well-adjusted and well-connected to the fabric of the United States. As educators, we must do everything within our power to ensure that this remains true for successive generations of our Muslim students. We do this not only though managing harassing or bullying student behavior, but also through examinations of our own implicit biases. It is our duty and our role to do so. We must ensure that in the immediate aftermath of atrocities committed by those who have appropriated our students’ faith, so that our Muslim students do not become the collateral damage within spaces we purport to be safe.
Christopher Nelson is an eighth-year social studies educator at a public high school in Nassau County, N.Y.
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