Teacher Kerstin Rao believes ignorance is toxic.
Rao, a teacher at Bedford Middle School in Westport, spent a recent evening educating herself at a special conference on how to help students and families who face challenges because of their faith.
The event—“Supporting Muslim Students and Families: What Every Educator Needs to Know,” held at the University of Bridgeport—attracted over 50 educators, including CEA members, students, and family members. Hosted by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the University of Bridgeport in collaboration with the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, the Connecticut State Department of Education, and the Connecticut Council for the Social Studies, the event focused on addressing the issues Muslims face in our current national climate.
“The challenge is to get out of the bubble. I want to learn how to be a better ally,” Rao said at the conference.
Recent world events, coupled with recent restrictions on international travel into the U.S., have prompted a rise in the marginalization of Muslim students and families, who are often fearful and face anti-Muslim sentiment. The conference opened with real stories of local Muslim students: students who face issues with fasting and dietary restrictions, students who worry their families will be deported, and students who are bullied due to their religion.
According to the ADL, 42 percent of Muslim parents with children in K-12 schools report that their children have been bullied because of their religion.
“Our goal is to create environments where all students are valued,” said Marji Lipshez-Shapiro, senior associate director of the ADL, as she opened the conference. This is the third time the ADL has held an event on supporting Muslim students and their families in the past two years, Shapiro said, and there continues to be a need for such events.
“Teachers strive to create a safe and welcoming environment for our students every day,” said CEA President Sheila Cohen. “We endeavor to make sure each child recognizes his or her self-worth and feels secure in order to learn and grow—emotionally and academically. Teachers will stand strong together in support of our core American values and continue to champion generosity, religious freedom, and the importance of protecting our most vulnerable.”
Speaker Shazia Chaudhry, co-facilitator of the Anti-Defamation League’s Muslim-Jewish Dialogue Group, began by explaining how we are all similar yet different: “Our religions are really just how we make sense of the world,” she said.
Chaundhry pointed out that cultural competence—the ability to function effectively in the context of a wide range of human differences—is key to understanding one another.
She proposed different areas where teachers and schools can be sensitive to Muslim students’ needs, such as noting when Islamic holidays take place for planning events and tests, or being aware of dietary restrictions Muslims adhere to, whether it’s the food they eat or how food is prepared. School environments should also be safe and respectful for those students who choose attire appropriate to their religion. Also, educators should learn how to pronounce students’ names correctly and not use nicknames unless students specify to do so, she said. Teachers should be attentive to the socialization of Muslim students in the school community, to make sure they are not alienated or bullied.
Dr. M. Saud Anwar, founder and co-chair of the American Peace Initiative, highlighted many situations where Muslim students struggle. A fourth-grader, fearful that her family would be deported quickly, packed her school backpack with her most prized possessions, including a blanket and beloved stuffed toy. A teenager felt so alienated and isolated that he turned to radicalized religious groups.
Dr. Anwar pointed out that the middle school years are particularly challenging, as students do not like to stand out as being different from their peers, so they often do not speak up to defend their religious beliefs or preferences. During these years, it’s crucial that teachers take a proactive role in being sensitive to Muslim students so that they can feel comfortable in their school communities.
Shifting attitudes, and the role of teachers
The post-9/11 society in which students now live has been a challenge, but the challenges students face have grown since our recent presidential election, Anwar pointed out. However, acquiring knowledge about other religions, whether as teachers, students, or community members, bridges a great divide and conquers fear of differences among us, he said.
“We can help fill the gap with the appropriate information,” Anwar said.
Ben Strange, a teacher at Masuk High School in Monroe, which has a growing Muslim student population, said these guidelines are very helpful for him. He said he first recognized the need to be sensitive to Muslim students in 2001, when a student on a hiking trip was struggling. The student was fasting for Ramadan and didn’t have energy during the hike.
“We all need sensitivity training,” Strange said. “At the bottom of it all, it’s the old-fashioned concept of being a gentleman or being a ‘gentle woman,’ it’s being aware of each others’ differences.”
Marian Kahn, a 14-year-old student at Hamden High School who was part of the event’s panel discussion, said teachers who have had sensitivity training make an impact. Kahn said teachers who use correct information while teaching in class make a big difference in educating the student population in general, not just Muslim students. She also suggested that teachers encourage students to write about their experiences.
“Teachers play an incredibly important role,” she said. “They are the only adults students see regularly, all day, other than their parents.”
Panelist Omer Bajwa, of the chaplain’s office at Yale University, said that teachers can be at the forefront of change.
“It’s important to intentionally model good behavior,” Bajwa said. “We are all in this together.”
The ADL provided additional tips for educators on helping Muslim students:
- Incorporate the experiences, perspectives, and words of Muslim people into the curriculum through social studies and current events instruction, children’s literature, and learning about different cultures. When you teach about world religions, be sure to include Islam.
- Teach about stereotypes, bias, and discrimination in all forms, including religious bigotry. Discuss different forms that bias and discrimination can take in personal interactions, school, the community, and the larger society.
- Help young people learn the different ways they can be an ally when they encounter incidents of bullying or bias that target Muslim students, both in person and online.