Hi there, Saima! Please introduce yourself.
Who are you (I’d like to invite you to think about your own multi-layered identity)?
Hi! My name is Saima Ahmed and I am a native Chicagoan. I am the daughter of immigrants from Hyderabad, India. I have two brothers, and I am married with two daughters and a son. I am a practicing Muslimah. I love gym shoes, cheesecake, coffee, books, my minivan, and teaching. Also, I REALLY love pizza.
What are your experiences in the field of education?
I graduated with a Bachelors degree in Elementary Education with a Middle School Endorsement in Language Arts from the University of Illinois-Chicago in 2005 and I have been teaching in some way ever since. I spent a few years teaching third grade and when I was expecting with my first daughter, I stepped away from the classroom to make sure I knew what I was doing as a mom.
Six months after she was born, I was desperate to get back to a classroom. Don’t get me wrong, I love my children, but I realized that the stay-at-home role was not enough to make me feel fulfilled. As it was, I couldn’t return to a classroom, so I decided to bring the classroom to me! I started a home daycare with my mother-in-law and we worked together for three years caring for and teaching children ages 3 months - 4 years. It was during this time that I discovered my love for teaching very young children. Two more kids later, I returned to the classroom and have found my place (for now) teaching pre-k and kindergarten.
In what ways can education be transformative and/or liberating?
I suppose that depends on what one chooses to define as an ‘education.’ Class material that I was taught growing up in the American school system was hardly liberating and if it transformed me into anything, it made me self-conscious and insecure.
Learning about Columbus every single year came with the same questions from the same white kids: “Are you THIS kind of Indian? (No.)
Math class: “Aren’t your kind of Indians good at math?” (I always struggled with Math…)
Language Arts: “How can you read faster than me even though you’re Indian?” (...)
Oh yeah, not once did any teachers correct the students making these comments…
Looking back, I realize that this type of ‘education’ was empowering for my white classmates, while it oppressed me. It made me not want to be who I was.
My goal as an educator is to do the opposite: facilitate education that creates people who love themselves and love each other, love their local and global communities, and work to instill love in future generations.
I believe that education can be transformative and liberating by being honest with our students. Honest about the world, honest about people, honest about money and governments, honest about history: the failures and victories of the human race. I feel like I was denied honesty as a student. I won’t deny my students of it.
In what ways can/should the current system of education be transformed or liberated?
Having worked in early childhood for the past few years, I feel that we need to invest more resources into early childhood and lower elementary programs across the country, and especially in school systems that are denied proper funding. These early learning years are so crucial to the healthy intellectual and emotional growth and development of young children. The (unfair) lines are already drawn for many children before they even set foot in a school. This needs to change.
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?
As a student, YES. Growing up, my brothers and I were the only Muslims in our school for years and years. We didn’t celebrate Christmas. We didn’t celebrate Hanukkah. “So what DO you celebrate?” People had so many questions all the time, about the henna on my hands after the Eid festival, the strange looking meat curry I ate with my rice and the “fried caterpillar things” (BTW it’s called Murkul-please go try some ASAP, you’re welcome) at lunchtime, the colorful clothing and sparkly nose ring my mom wore when she picked me up at school. I hated being asked all those questions. I guess I could have been a great source of information for everyone, but I really just wanted to blend in. So, I asked my dad to buy be a Frosty the Snowman sweater and Santa Claus hat to wear for my classroom Christmas parties. I made my mom pack a plain old cheese sandwich and potato chips in my lunch instead. And I tried to be a chameleon for many years…
What advice do you have for teachers of color OR teachers who teach children of color during these deeply challenging times?
To all teachers: Teach your students listen. Listen to people, those who are just like you and even those who are the complete opposite of you and all the people in between. Listen closely to the past, listen closely to what is happening right now. Then, teach children to find their own voices, and let them discover how they can use those voices.
I believe that strong communities can slowly change the world. Connect yourself to your local businesses and get your classroom involved in work that serves the community. Tie your academic lessons to community work. Bring people from the outside in. Show your students the hope that is all around them and let them discover the wealth they have to offer.