I'm a teacher, not a member of the Armed Forces. Don't call me a hero and send me out to die

Being a Muslim educator in Texas has never been easy — but this pandemic has just made things exponentially harder

Kausam Salam
Monday 31 August 2020 23:00 BST
People of color like me are at disproportionate risk from being forced back into the classroom
People of color like me are at disproportionate risk from being forced back into the classroom

Teaching in Texas is not without its challenges. I have been told to consider converting to Christianity by colleagues and secretly gifted Bibles. After 9/11, I was called Mrs “Sadaam” (a clever play on my surname) by one student, who has since apologized. I have talked a misunderstood eighth-grader out of shooting up her school – my first and hopefully last experience holding a gun. In addition to these incidents, teaching through Covid-19 will also have its own chapter in my memoir.

As a Muslim-American teacher, I was not prepared to be treated like a disease during the election of 2016. Now in 2020, our current President’s nonchalant and business-as-usual attitude towards a very real disease has trickled down to the reddest states, and teachers of color have been doubly affected.

Last semester, I fumbled my way through lesson plans B and C at my kitchen table on my computer screen as dozens of glazed-over eyes stared back at me like something out of an Orwellian nightmare. I was told to teach through Zoom because students needed to be reassured that they could manage higher-level learning even through the pandemic. Yet, we were given little emergency funding or healthcare tools to accommodate our students’ needs while teaching remotely. As we adapt to new technologies, teachers were performing a balancing act in the classroom with kids who even show up to class. But in order to protect my immunocompromised, diabetic husband, I swore to find my footing on the teetering seesaw that is today’s educational precipice.

Then everything changed. In my great state of Texas, it seems school is back in session – regardless of the facts and science.

Let us remember that we teachers do not choose to become sacrificial goats (or lambs, depending on which Abrahamic version we follow), taken to the slaughter according to administrators’ biased whims. Our carefully chosen field within education comes from our love for all students’ learning, their dignity, their integrity, their perspicacity under all conditions, and their future in thinking for themselves. Educators of any background are not martyrs for some political war in which we did not enlist. Lawmakers, school board members, and the general public seem to think teachers want to give their lives for their careers. But if that were the case, teaching would be a branch of the Armed Forces.

And yet, armed with dry erase markers and a face shield, educators are expected to march into battle.

We live to teach and teach to live. Thus, for our students, safety during this pandemic depends on continued proactivity. And a lack of proper red tape from leaders on school boards and in government is much like asking students to wear bullet-proof backpacks in case of a possible mass shooting. Just as we cannot train pacifist teachers to shoot at gunmen, we cannot force vulnerable parents and children to choose an education over the safety of their families. These are choices no one should be making.

We must re-teach ourselves what really matters in education today. It is not the way in which we teach, but rather what we teach and for whom we teach. State and government officials may desperately try to absolve themselves of responsibility for what’s about to come. But in doing so, I fear they will become like Lady Macbeth, who asks herself as she desperately tries to scrub blood off her hands, “What, will these hands n’er be clean?”

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