Proud American, Practicing Muslim

Growing up as a devout Christian, I didn’t interact with any visibly practicing Muslims at all. I remember seeing a few men wear a kufi during my childhood at the supermarket and laundromat. It was not until I was in middle school that I saw a woman wearing a niqab. While I knew that there was something visibly different between the woman and my mom and sisters, I wanted to know why she was covered all over. I remembered staring at her because I could only see her eyes. Since the only religion I ever knew as a child was about Christianity, I inquired from my mother about the Muslim religious practices. She provided me some brief information about the Quran and some of the differences in the religious beliefs.

During that year, I saw a couple of documentaries for a middle school social studies class assignment about countries that practice the Muslim faith. While I don’t remember what I did for the assignment or exactly what I learned from engaging in the activity, I remember being intrigued about what would the woman have looked like with a dress and her hair out. While some non-Muslim people may not interact with practicing Muslims, I wanted to get the perspective of their challenges and discrimination experienced in the US. As you can probably guess, I didn’t have to look too far again. Rabia Nawaz, GOMO’s Restorative Practices consultant, was excited to share a little bit about her journey on this topic.

Senior year of college is exciting for students because it marks new beginnings; that is the year they finally graduate and start applying to their dream jobs. Mrs. Nawaz reveals, “For me, senior year of college marked a whole new journey. That was the year I started to wear the hijab, an Islamic headscarf. When I announced this to my mom, she tried to discourage me from doing so because she was anxious. She feared that people may not be able to look past the hijab and subject me to their stereotypes of Muslim women. She was concerned that I will have a tough time finding a job. She was worried about my safety and being a victim of an Islamophobic hate crime.

I was adamant about my decision and my biggest drive for wearing the hijab was the fact that I finally felt confident in my identity as a Muslim American. I wanted people to know that I am educated. I am independent. I am a practicing Muslim and a proud American.

Fortunately, I obtained a teaching job shortly after graduating college and was even luckier to have landed a job in a positive school climate. My coworkers were understanding of my religious practices and open to learning more. They knew that I would pray during my lunch break. They were mindful of my halal diet when ordering food for an event. (A halal diet strictly forbids pork and alcohol and the meat consumed must be slaughtered in a humane way.) They were eager to know my family’s Ramadan traditions. These small gestures from my colleagues made me feel like a part of the school community. Their open-mindedness helped put my fears of being ostracized at rest. My school’s staff was culturally competent.

Although, I had a very positive experience at work that is not the case for many Muslims around the nation. Some of my friends have had to inconveniently and quickly pray in desolate places because their workplace was not accommodating of their religious needs. For practicing Muslims, cultural awareness and wellness go hand-in-hand. The five minutes it takes to pray really helps Muslims to center themselves and take a mental break from the commotion of life. It helps them to go back to their work with a renewed and fresh attitude.

As a visible Muslim, I am very cognizant of my demeanor when I am out in public. I make an extra effort to be nice to strangers, because I believe it represents my faith. People will judge my actions as a reflection of Islam, and I want to make sure I leave a good impression. Thankfully, I’ve had mostly positive interactions with strangers, and I have never been a victim of a hate crime. That is not to say hate crimes against Muslim women do not happen; as a matter of fact, an article published by the Washington Post states that Muslim women bear the brunt of Islamophobia. The study revealed that women who wore symbols of Islam (like a hijab or a niqab, face veil) were more likely to be targeted. Hate crimes against Muslim women vary from derogatory statements, to forcibly removing their headscarf, and even death. The 2015 Chapel Hill shooting in North Carolina is a recent example of an Islamophobic hate crime in America. Shootings like these ignite my fear of being a Muslim woman, because I wonder if something of that nature will happen to me.

Photo by Brian Lundquist on Unsplash  

My fear was particularly heightened when I lived in Long Island, New York. My town was not very diverse, and I would notice my neighbors staring at me as I walked with my daughter in her stroller. At the time my daughter was only a few months old and I would always cover her stroller to protect her from the sun. I was once asked if I was my daughter’s nanny. I laughed at my neighbor’s comment and took the blanket off my daughter’s stroller to show her a brown baby, just like me. I was never bothered by these statements and just brushed them off; however, comments like these are microaggressions. Seeing a brown, hijabi girl in a predominantly white neighborhood would evoke someone to assume I was not a resident of the town and perhaps I was working for someone there.”

Mrs. Nawaz states, “For the most part, I’ve considered New Jersey to be my home and I love the diversity that it has to offer.” According to the Pew Research Center, New Jersey is home to two to three times as many Muslim adults per capita as the national average; therefore, cultural competence is extremely important. One focus pillar for GOMO Educational Services under the equity umbrella is cultural competence because we understand the value of this practice in our schools, society and country. Participating in a cultural competence training is a start but in reality, cultural competency is a lifelong process. We must continue to examine our own thoughts and attitudes about diverse people, backgrounds and religious beliefs, while addressing our biases. Ultimately, we must embrace our cultural differences and use them to improve our communities.

Cultural Cataracts in the Classroom, Part 2

In my first blog post, I explored the term cultural cataracts.  This is the condition in which one’s vision is blurred due to an inability to see situations clearly.  Cultural cataracts not only applies to my personal narrative but applies to the narrative of equity in education.  Education is often touted as the great equalizer.  However, when many schools are underfunded, under resourced and filled with administrators and teachers who only view students through a blurred lens, education is no longer an equalizer.  Education points out inequities and creates tension in our classrooms and schools based on a singular blurred view. 

In the first post, Mr. Alhassan Susso also provided his understanding of cultural cataracts. Now, he recalls his first encounter with cultural cataracts in the United States two weeks after his arrival. He ran out of clean “American clothes,” so he wore his African clothes to school. He was complimented by the teachers in every class he attended that morning. When he walked into his history class in the afternoon, the teacher seemed to leer at him.  After a few moments, the leer became a glare and the history teacher blurted out, “If people want to wear their funny dresses, they should stay in their country. This is America!” Mr. Susso was shocked and so, it appeared, were my fellow classmates.

A few months after that uncomfortable encounter, his history teacher took the time to get to know him. They eventually developed a strong relationship based on understanding each other’s backgrounds and values.  Mr. Susso reminisced about how many times a week he would visit his history teacher during lunch and ask for help since he literally knew nothing about U.S. history. His history teacher began to understand his story and who he was as a person rather than through stereotypes and assumptions.  As his history teacher began to internalize Mr. Susso’s story, he became interested in the connection between American history and immigration. For this U.S. history class final project, students had to interview an immigrant and write about their experience in America. By the end of the project, these stories were read out loud, the class decided to compile them in a book to share with the rest of our community. The publication of Poughkeepsie Pride: The Stories of our Immigrants became one of the most exciting and memorable experiences of Mr. Susso’s high school days.

Mr. Susso further stated, “I understand the importance of addressing my own cultural cataracts.  As I began to peel my own cultural cataracts, I quickly understood that other peoples’ cultures could be compatible with my beliefs and understandings of the world. That’s when we are able to relate to one another and form productive relationships. I’ve come to learn that teaching is all about relationships. Therefore, it is imperative to adjust our cultural lenses to begin to create a more harmonious world.” If we are to become agents of change and an authentic embodiment of cultural clarity, one must recognize their cultural cataracts.  The first step on this journey is to acknowledge your blinders, remove those blinders and build positive relationships.  The second step is to develop a habitat of reflection and be intentional about your words and actions.

My journey to become a more authentic version of myself began with my relationship with Mr. Susso.  Our unique yet similar journeys have empowered us to use our personal narratives to fight against cultural bias and inequities within education. While the process of clearing our vision of our cultural cataracts is a process, this is just one example of the significance for GOMO Educational Service’s presence with helping educational leaders become more culturally competent and responsive with working in and leading equitable school systems and organizations. If we peel back our cultural cataracts, we begin to see the best of humanity. As educators, it is crucial to empathize with our students’ situation before asking them to understand ours. We’ll create more harmonious classrooms and school systems, tolerant communities and eventually, a more unified world.  We become, as such, better individuals, better administrators, better teachers, better faculty and staff members, and, ultimately, better citizens. The process begins at the foundation, as Maya Angelou insists, “It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity, there is beauty and there is strength.”

How Important are Teacher Walkthroughs?

How Important are Teacher Walkthroughs?

In addition to performing mandated formal observations, administrators conduct classroom walkthroughs of teachers to gauge teaching and learning. In some districts, administrators are required to perform the informal and formal walkthroughs and in other districts, they are suggested. Regardless of it being required or not, we can agree that students and staff appreciate having administrators visible and present in the classroom. 

However, there is a paucity of literature about teachers conducting walkthroughs of each other’s classes. I know that some teachers have always and may always disagree with their peers performing informal walkthroughs because it may be viewed as an evaluative measure. In some cases, teachers conducting classroom visits may go against the practice identified in the district’s teacher contract or the union doesn’t want them to do it because it may set a bad precedent.

So let’s analyze some of the perceived disadvantages and benefits of teaching conducting walkthrough visits of each other’s classes. 


1. A fellow peer will observe you during some bad teaching moments. 

2. A fellow peer will observe you experiencing some behaviorally challenging moments with students. 

3. A fellow peer will observe you not implementing the curriculum to the best of your ability. 

4. A fellow peer will observe you issuing assessments that are not aligned to the state standards or the curriculum.

5. A fellow peer will observe you not academically challenging students.

6. A fellow peer will sneak around and talk about what was observed in your room to their peers. 


1. A fellow peer will observe your implementation of the district’s curriculum with fidelity.

2. A fellow peer will observe students being rigorously challenged to perform their best and think out of the box. 

3. A fellow peer will observe great teaching that allows students to lead, support and challenge each other.

4. A fellow peer will observe how students are drawn to what is presented or discussed during the teachable moments.

5. A fellow peer will observe how you are able to relate everything to a real world application. 

6. A fellow peer will observe the various types of checks for understanding implemented according to the students’ multiple intelligences.

7. A fellow peer will observe you administer standards-based formative and summative assessments.

8. A fellow peer will observe differentiation occurring for content, concepts, process and product. 

9. A fellow peer will observe multi-tiered interventions executed for struggling, average and advanced learners.

10. A fellow peer will observe students so captivated to learn in your class that they have no desire to leave for the restroom or cause any behavioral challenges. 

11. A fellow peer will discuss all of the best practices observed in your class and commend you on it. Then they would ask for you to coach them on certain topics. 

When I first began as principal in this particular school in New Jersey in 2010, I remember presenting my desire for teachers to conduct informal walkthroughs of each other. Everyone originally did it because their principal required them to do it. However, some did not perform it probably because I only modeled it for most but not everyone. I did communicate the purpose of the walkthroughs; to have conversations around best practices observed and discuss how these best practices could be incorporated into the observers class lessons. Some teachers presented their concerns for the walkthroughs to the district’s union representatives. It required us to temporarily halt the walkthroughs. The concerns that existed were: 

1. the original tool was perceived to be evaluative because it required them to put teacher names and subject

2. there was no way to indicate at what point during the lesson teachers were being visited so the identification of rigor level could properly reflect.

3. redundancy of students articulating what they were learning during student interviews and student communication. 

Therefore, I had the school leadership council (SLC) discuss those concerns and present some possible solutions. As a result of the conversations and different type of focused walkthroughs, my teachers developed three different walkthrough tools on their own. Below are the links to the files. 

A) Connecting the Standards Walkthrough Checklist-

B) Questioning Techniques Walkthrough Checklist –

C) Rigor and Questioning Techniques Walkthrough Checklist –

Because I displayed the importance and placed sincere value with teachers conducting walkthrough visits, teachers collaboratively came up with more than one solution. As a result, five years later teachers are still conducting classroom walkthrough visits on a monthly basis. As a PLC, teachers decide which tool will be used before the classroom visits. Teachers can visit any class, grade or subject. When the classroom visits are completed, the teachers come back as a PLC to discuss the best practice observed. It is great to hear teachers say they see value in trying something observed in their lessons or desire to modify a strategy observed because students were very interested. 

My advice to administrators leading the charge with teachers conducting walkthrough visits of their peers.

1. Clearly communicate the vision.

2. Get the teachers involved in the creation or modification of the tool.

3. Model the expectation for the teachers.

4. Ensure the walkthroughs are being conducted. Find the time to participate in the walkthroughs and in the discussions. 

As you can see, the benefits of teachers performing walkthrough visits of their peers far outweigh the disadvantages. More importantly, the disadvantages were mainly focused on the teacher, not the students. Teachers who are still not convinced that they should perform walkthrough visits of their peers, you must remember that you became educators for the purpose of educating and empowering students and giving them access to opportunities they may not otherwise have without you. Teachers performing peer walkthroughs is one of the most cost efficient and time efficient way of conducting job embedded professional development. So it’s not only about you. It’s about you growing professionally for students.