To Alah Alhagiko, 21, the education field is a chance to give little girls like the one she once was someone to look up to, a Muslim or covered teacher in a public school setting. “Growing up, I always lacked that, I always wished I had that teacher, and it’s the reason why I went into the field. There was never anyone that came from a similar background like mine,” said Alhagiko, who is finishing up her senior undergraduate year at St.Francis College located in Brooklyn, New York.
Whenever she is in a classroom, Alhagiko finds herself carefully observing each student, a habit she has picked up on while fulfilling her observation hours as a part of her academic requirements in the education field. She is currently a substitute paraprofessional at The Michael J. Petrides School, a public school in Staten Island, New York.
Alhagiko also lives in that borough, and she is a part of the Muslim community thriving there. She is also a Petrides alum, and she graduated high school from there in 2018.
She was amongst the few hijabis and Muslims that were a part of the school during those years. Yet three years later, as she works there, she noticed an increase in the Muslim population. She was the only hijabi in her graduating class, but now, she can spot over ten of them compared to the two she used to pass by in those same hallways.
The field of childhood education is not the easiest college route, but the ambition to raise the future generations of society can be rewarding. The learning experience is a combination of textbook learning and exposure to real-time classes, where there are different types of students with various capabilities and even disabilities to observe and teach.
Aside from her studies and position in public school, she is also a tutor on the side to gain more experience working with kids. Children that she tutors are different and similar on various levels.
They can come from similar backgrounds, go to the same schools, be in the same grade, and take the same classes, but some will excel academically, and some will struggle. She often finds interest in looking into why they struggle and finding a solution that would help.
She calls tutoring either “a wonderful experience or a test of patience,” depending on the child of course. In these experiences, she noticed an issue she learned about in her classes but had not seen it happen in real life, and it was the misplacement of students in where they belong when they struggle academically.
This misunderstanding involved one of the girls she was tutoring. She is currently an ESL (English is her second language) student because she had trouble with reading and writing skills.
Yet this was not a matter based on English but of the preconceived notions surrounding the girl’s hijabi Muslim mother. Alhagiko grew up in a Syrian-American household, and she learned English and Arabic at the same time, and it never came in the way of her academics.
It is easier to address a student’s struggle by placing them in ESL when they have an educational barrier that is most likely not language. Perhaps the mother has a slight accent, but solely judging the child’s capabilities based on their parent’s choice of dress is stigmatizing the child and their bicultural background, leaving them misinterpreted and misplaced.
In all fairness, Alhagiko believes that this should be assessed through observation, not through bias. Teachers play an essential role, and they should not be looking at a child through stereotypical eyes.
“I can see that the student speaks English perfectly. Struggles with reading? Sure, but English is definitely not a second language,” she said, assuming that the student’s educators saw the mother and thought that she is not from the United States. She is not allowed to make a diagnosis herself, but from what she saw, she thinks the student’s reason for struggling in her academics is something deeper than a language barrier.
“The student can tell me a whole story in English. She can talk to me and understand every single word that I say,” she said. “I’ve seen people with language barriers where Arabic is their first language, and they don’t understand English entirely. I feel like you can tell the difference instead of taking the easy way out.”
When she faces dilemmas like this, she feels that she lacks the credibility to speak up against them. Her goal is to become a credible and certified teacher so that when she sees problems like this, she can address them and understand the students who have the same upbringing as her.
She will be their representation and their model. “I am not going to let them get misplaced,” she stated. “I know that their mother’s clothing is not the issue.”
One of her subconscious fears of becoming a hijabi teacher is facing parents who disagree with her beliefs and who she is. It wouldn’t be a shock to face a negative reaction because if Muslim women often face them on the streets, then why wouldn’t they face them in a school building?
“Recently with our generation, I feel like a few upcoming hijabi Muslim teachers are coming into the schools, which is very heartwarming. We are normalizing it,” she said, hopeful for the future of classrooms around America. “It shouldn’t be a weird thing. We are the same. We just dress differently,” she said.
Photo credit: Picture of Alah Alhagiko posing by the view of the Brooklyn Bridge. Photo provided by Alah Alhagiko.