For the Inaugural "Transformative Teacher" Series Feature, it only made sense for me to start with the one with whom I am most familiar (well, besides myself, of course). I'm talking about my incomparable big sister and educator extraordinaire, Ruba Al-Serhan. Read along as she shares her reflections on identity, transitioning to teaching high school after 16 years in early childhood classrooms, teaching in "The Bible Belt" as a Muslim-American woman, and more. I am fairly certain you'll love her as much as I do!
Hi there! Please introduce yourself.
Who are you (I’d like to invite you to think about your own multi-layered identity)?
Hello! I am Ruba Al-Serhan, an American born, Palestinian Muslim Woman. Some might say I have a pretty heavy southern accent from my 38 years in Arkansas, but currently I live and teach in the Cincinnati area. I am a wife, a proud educator and an even prouder mama! I would say growing up in Arkansas and trying to conform to society’s expectations of me (e.g.-what seemed to be more acceptable) hurt my identity for many years. Like any other human being, you want to experience a sense of belonging and acceptance and, unfortunately, sometimes you lose yourself along that journey. I have, over the last decade, more firmly embraced my identity as a practicing Muslim and as a Palestinian.
What is the purpose or function of education in society?
I think that many people would answer this in the mere terms of preparation for the future…preparing a child for college, for the workforce, for a skill or trade or the global market. I think education must be about preparing the child for their future selves as individuals. I think social emotional skills are incredibly important and often overlooked in a time when all instructional arrows point to test taking and assessment proficiency. I think education in society should focus on children becoming socially and emotionally competent, with a strong sense of self and empathy for others. Yes, I am aware education must teach reading, writing and other core content; however, in addition to those skills, a successful future must include one’s ability to collaborate and communicate. Education should teach children how to become critical thinkers, it should equip children to form their own thoughts and ideas and teach them how to use their voices, it should teach them how to become social justice participants and functional, contributive members of their communities.
What are your experiences in the field of education?
I have many years of experience in education. I taught early childhood for 16 years before transitioning to high school. I have always taught at low socioeconomic schools and that is where I feel at home. I was able to learn, research and implement a Reggio Emilia inspired approach in my public preschool classroom. I fell in love with the curriculum and in addition to having my own classroom also worked as an instructional peer coach. Reggio Emilia focuses on building a community, recognizing and developing each child’s potential and providing a meaningful, stimulating environment that feels like home! I am now teaching high school and my kiddos are all immigrants and refugees representing 15 different countries and speaking a beautiful array of languages. My classroom is definitely not a traditional high school classroom. It is filled with pictures of students and their families, features documentation of current and past projects, and has calming and safe spaces for students who may need some time to deal with big emotions!
In what ways can education be transformative and/or liberating?
In educating a person or educating ourselves, it is a personally liberating experience. It allows us to take initiative, develop our voices and sometimes gives us the assertiveness and pride we need to ensure that voice is heard. It helps us to form ideas, develop social skills and become leaders of our lives. Education can help us in becoming more culturally aware and often instills more global perspectives. The act of educating absolutely causes a shift in viewpoint.
In what ways can/should the current system of education be transformed or liberated?
Sadly, it [education] can also be inaccessible to many or, depending on the situation, often serves as a path to prison or a restricted road for many underserved groups of people.
Have you ever felt like you needed to hide certain parts of your identity (e.g.-race, religion, culture, sexual orientation, social class, etc.) in order to be embraced either as a student OR teacher in school settings?
After 9/11, I remember some parents feeling apprehensive when they learned that their children were being taught by a Muslim teacher all day. All of a sudden, regardless of my credentials or compassion, I stood out and felt belittled and all of a sudden unaccepted by some because of my beliefs. I taught at a school in “The Bible Belt” and while I had many close friends and colleagues, I would, on occasion, hear conversations that made me feel very uncomfortable as a non-Christian. I once witnessed a graduation in which the students were bowing their heads in the name of Jesus. I knew it was inappropriate and against the law, but felt my voice would not be heard considering the administration shared the same faith and would likely find nothing wrong with these actions. While I never hid my identity or pride in it, I didn’t feel comfortable in many educational settings because of my identity. I am very pleased to now teach at a school that embraces and values cultural and linguistic diversity!
What advice do you have for teachers of color/of the Global Majority OR teachers who teach children of color during these deeply challenging times?
To teachers who teach children of color I'd say: Be aware and cognizant of your own social biases--whether intentional or not!
I am graduating in May with a Masters degree in TESOL from Xavier University, a private, Jesuit university in Cincinnati with a focus on peace and social justice. I'm currently working on my thesis and researching the effects of social-emotional learning on underserved populations of students and how it affects academic motivation. It is clear that minority students come to us with challenges and obstacles that their white, socio-economically advantaged counterparts simply do not have to endure. We must amplify their voices and experiences, help them build the confidence to use their own voices to advocate for change, and give them ceaseless support and love, even when it is difficult to do so.
Lastly: Fight against the school to prison pipeline! BE THE CHANGE!
GALLERY FROM MRS. AL-SERHAN'S CLASSROOM
"I was hesitant to transition from preschool to high school and questioned my ability to provide best practices to these students. I teach students who have had significant interruptions in their formal education. It turns out, though, that they still need an engaged teacher, a welcoming environment that houses peace and love, pictures of them and their families, documentation of their hands-on learning, and most importantly, they still deserve the best humanity has to offer--they just happen to have bigger bodies."-Ruba Al-Serhan