Why Our Islamic Schools are Failing

When I was 17 years old, I was given the enormous task of keeping 25 children under the age of 5 entertained at a Sunday Islamic school. Now mind you, 6 years later and I think that group of children turned out fine. What was I thinking? What was the school leadership thinking? They gave a 17 year old a classroom to run. My experience is actually considered mild and the children did learn from me, in fact they learned every letter in the Arabic alphabet give or take a few. I ended up becoming a teacher myself and taught Saturday/Sunday school for 5 years before moving on to administering programs and providing training for Islamic and Arabic school programs and their teachers.
As I work with various centers, Mosques, and organizations to train their staff in “best practices” I frequently  find myself teaching common sense. I spend hours reviewing safety, the need to treat children Islamically and with respect, and  the need to view ourselves as more than a teacher, but as mentors to children. I rarely have time to bring up all the fancy things I learned as a public school teacher. All those theories I needed to memorize for graduate school are never given the chance to shine. By the end of most trainings, I find myself exhausted and defeated. For a while I blamed the fact the teachers didn’t go through a teacher education program. Other times, I shifted fault towards the lack of qualified applicants. It seems weekend Islamic schools have a turnover rate that can only be rivaled by McDonald’s or some other entry level position that required little qualifications. At some trainings, staff would begin as 14 teachers, 10 the second day, and 17 the last day. Even hamsters in a wheel made more progress than I did with some of the trainings.
Training a staff at the beginning of a program is always easier. There are some who take heavy notes and ask many questions. They are eager to work with children in the community. Others present various challenges, they wish to mold the children into mini-versions of themselves. This is a concern because these teachers will often go rogue, not follow guidelines in teaching, and their classes end up learning significantly less.   Being a “community activist” doesn’t entitle you to being an effective teacher. In fact, most of the teachers who have required remediation in my experience are those who have skipped out on trainings, bypassed the curriculum, and had chronic absences due to other commitments and projects.
When I am asked to visit programs mid-year, I face a completely different situation. Teachers are often informed ahead of time of the school improvement walk through about to happen. Some try to actually follow the rules during this time and it shows ever so clearly when a student comments “our teacher isn’t like this usually.” This isn’t as bad as the classrooms we’ve visited were teachers sat and texted or ate lunch while the children were rolling around on the back carpet. In spite of this, we have also seen exceptional teaching. Teachers who work on a volunteer basis but give their students their time, energy, and resources.  I have visited classrooms that have inspired me as a professional educator to even make changes in the way I teach.
What separates the effective teachers from ineffective ones in our weekend programs? In classrooms where teachers are following curriculums, rules, and the needs of their students, the children genuinely seem to want to be there. When teachers make an effort, they are rewarded with students who are happy and feel safe. It’s a myth that all children hate weekend schools. For the ones that do, I don’t blame them. They spend 5 days a week in an organized school where teachers are consistent and know them. Children then come to weekend programs that are operated in the back of centers, where teachers quit every week, and they are 13 years old and stuck in a classroom with 6 year olds. Anyone would dislike coming.  However, most programs seem unnerved by the fact their students and staff are unhappy. They are unaware of the cost of pushing children away from Arabic and Islamic schools.  We should not be in the business of making profits through our schools. We are in the business of building little people into strong, competent, and sincere Muslims. This can only happen if our programs are run and staffed by such people.
How children are treated in programs is another issue we have yet to truly overcome. Many teachers find it acceptable to yell at children. When I bring up the fact you can effectively run a classroom without screaming at the top of your lungs, people look at me like I grew a third eye or am from another planet.  People ask me what’s the trick? Does my own classroom run like a well-oiled machine all the time? I respond that my philosophy has been for the past few years both with my own students and those of others is to treat children as Islamically as possible. I don’t buy into a set of classroom management rules or theories completely. However, I try to treat my students in a way that is fair and in a manner that when I come before Allah (swt), I can hold my head high with. Unfortunately, what many of our programs lack is Islam in their fiber and core. We are not businesspeople, we are not faculty members, we are not self-appointed leaders. We are Muslims. The day we start acting like true Muslims is the day our weekend schools will begin to serve their true purpose: to educate and shape the hearts and minds of young Muslims.
It doesn’t end with treating children Islamically, it begins there. We also need to look at the way teachers are treated and spoken to. I’ve seen staff members berated and made to feel like failures over small mistakes. Other times, we see flagrant violations of Islamic rules and program codes and the staff member isn’t redirected because of nepotism or favoritism. Neither approach is Islamic and neither is constructive to building our communities up. The way staff members are treated will directly correlate to how they treat the students under their care and authority. It’s high time our community advocates for higher standards in our programs and schools.
Often I’m asked what the solution is to the many programs that plague our weekend Islamic institutions. I wish I knew exactly what the magic words were to fix these problems that are robbing our children of quality Islamic experiences at a young age. The first step to improving our situation is to come to an agreement that the state of our weekend schools is not acceptable. It does not meet the sublime standards established by our religion and Allah (swt). We need to have a discussion moving forward about how to improve the standards in our programs and those that work in them.

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