Yes, I Want To Teach Teenagers

*Dedicated to all my teacher friends, especially high school ones.

Whenever I am asked what I’m studying at McGill, I usually take a deep breath to prepare to say:

“It’s called a Concurrent BSc/BEd program, which is a double bachelor 4.5-year program that gives you a bachelor in science (major concentration chemistry, minor concentration physics) and a bachelor degree in education.”

This is often met with stunned, confused silence. I lamely add the magical comprehensive sentence, “Basically, I’ll be a high school science teacher.”

“OHHH!”  Impressed nods and raise of eyebrows ensue.

It makes sense all of a sudden. Then the predictable question (almost) always comes up:

“But why would you want to teach teenagers? Wouldn’t it be nicer to teach CEGEP level instead?”

My usual reaction is a grin, a shrug, and I reply, “I like challenging myself.”

But now, jokes aside, let us


This question comes to me again & again, again & again, again & again. This question has practically exasperated me. I’ve been ignoring it and leaving it to the side for a while, but now that I am in my last semester, the sudden realization of what I’ll be doing come September (if I get a job inshaAllah) is striking clear to me now, and I have to come to terms with it:

I, Miss Salah, will be teaching teenagers.

And you know what? That’s exactly who I want to be dealing with.

The typical notifications come up: “But they’ve got so much attitude, but they hate school, but they’ll give you so much trouble, but they don’t take anything seriously, but they’re so immature, but they’re so rebellious–

Yeah, you know WHAT:

It’s precisely because teenagers are the outcasts of society that I want to work with them.
It’s precisely because no one takes them seriously that I think they’re worth listening to.
It’s precisely because they hate school that I want to work in one.
It’s precisely because they’re seen as over-aged kids, hence immature, that I want to help them grow as people.

The giving-me-trouble problem is not troubling to me at all, because it will merely teach me patience and a good character trait called 7ilm if I succeed in the ta7allum phase. [“الحلم بالتحلم”]

ImageNow I know people mean well when they recommend I teach college or university; they only want what’s most comfortable and beneficial for me, and I appreciate that. But I need to remind myself here that life isn’t about doing the easier thing, it’s about doing the right thing, what is more in need. I have to remind myself why I prefer dealing in the more challenging environment of high schools, because sometimes I start doubting if I’m actually setting out to do what I’m supposed to do…

So Aya, you like teaching. How about you do a Masters right away, and start applying at CEGEP? You’ll be teaching alright, but with added bonuses: higher pay, and plus the students are much more committed, mature, they have a better sense of direction for their lives, they’ll study harder on their own–

Oh, hold it there, misguided conscience! You’re telling me that the purpose of my life is to help already-dedicated people enhance in their growth? That is truly a noble feat, I must say, it really is. (And who would say no to extra money?)

But I think– it’s just a hunch I have– that I’m meant to accomplish more than that.


  • What if my calling, as I see it, is to help unmotivated people find their way?

What if all it took is that one teacher who believed in your abilities, who saw something in you that no one else did, that made all the difference between a student seeking what he’s passionate in even though he’s deemed  ‘not good enough’, and pursuing a career that he would hate but seemed the only option for his low grades?

I don’t plan to simply teach content, I want to teach them how to teach themselves. I don’t want to simply raise awareness about the world, but I want them to learn self-awareness/ self-knowledge. {For instance: who says you can’t teach something like 7 Habits of Highly Effective People even in a chemistry class? Are potential future scientists not still people that want to be effective?}

  • What if my role as a teacher is not simply to impart/teach knowledge, but to awaken the love for learning?

It is unfortunate that rigid schooling systems force teachers to teach certain content, some of it not even relevant, with horrible pressures for final exams that the educators don’t even write, but the state does… Yet what if all it took was a bit of creativity in teaching the material, a bit more involvement on the part of the students, a different way of assessment to decrease stress levels, less homework at home and more dynamic learning during the day, to make the difference between rote memorization and active self-learning?

  • What if I’m supposed to not control people, but to teach them how to control themselves?

What if a teacher’s main concern was not classroom discipline, and focusing on how to shut up the students the quickest way, but rather he/she instilled the notion of respect and freedom of expression in the classroom so that it could be a community of some sort, rather than a prison?

  • What if I make my main objective in dealing with difficult cases a cause to grow in ta7allum, rather than using it as an excuse to avoid teenagers altogether?

In one of shaykh Rateb el-Nabulsy’s lectures about one of Allah’s names (Al-Haleem), he says that to grow as a person in patience, wisdom and tolerance (don’t know how to properly translate & define al-“7ilm”) one must be prepared to deal with difficult people in a beautiful manner. His exact words were:

“الإمنيح مو عاوزك؛ بطولتك مو مع الإمنيح”

So in all cases, whether I’m working with ideal perfect students, or unwilling disruptive ones, I now know why I’m supposed to work with teenagers.


Alright, I’ll be honest: for all my grand words,

I have NO IDEA what it takes to be a great teacher.

I have inklings, and notions, and brilliant descriptions of what a great teacher would look like, but I have no concrete idea on how to go about becoming one. Knowing and being are two different things.

The rock that I am currently leaning against is my faith in God, my constant renewal of having good intention always, and hopefully, with His grace, I might (just might!) make a small little difference in even one person’s life, and this person can hopefully make an enormous difference in many others’, even if I’m not alive to witness it…

“I know I am part of a story that starts long before I can remember and continues long beyond when anyone will remember me. I sense that I am alive at a time of important change, and I feel a responsibility to make sure that the change comes out well. I plant my acorns knowing that I will never live to harvest the oaks. I have hope for the future.”

(W. Daniel Hillis)


Most teachers will typically say they choose their profession because they simply love teaching, but that isn’t all for me. (I can technically create lesson plans and then teach to an empty room, that is no problem.)  When I want to describe how enriching and rejuvenating a long exhausting day was, it is hard to explain. It isn’t really the perfectly executed lesson plan that hits the jackpot– nor is it the paycheck, which isn’t much to go ballistic over– it’s hard to describe, but there’s something about connecting to different hearts and minds that opens my own heart and mind.

Because in all blunt reality, at the end of the day, no matter how complex they may appear to be, that’s what teenagers are– individual persons, each with a unique heart and mind, just like you and I.

They are not a bunch of nuisances in society that fit neither in the children category because they are too old, and neither in the adult world, because they are “too young”.

The dilemma of teenagers, in my perspective, is that they are not taken seriously enough,

are not given useful roles in society,

are not deemed worthy of anyone’s time–

Well, they are going to be worthy of mine.

May God make it easy for me, and easy for anyone who embarks on this great journey. (Amen!)


And God knows best.



3 comments on “Yes, I Want To Teach Teenagers

  1. Aya, this is beautiful. Our society has such a skewed and unhealthy view of teenagers. Most of it is just self-fulfilling prophecy. If we expect them to be rebellious and lazy and immature, of course that’s what they’ll be. Because that’s what they’ll expect themselves to be. And we are teaching them that that’s okay, and that it’s totally normal at their stage in life, and they don’t even know that they can be much, much more. And even if they do know, we are not helping them or giving them the tools they need to achieve their potential. So they’re stuck being immature, lazy and rebellious. How sad is that?

    Baha’is around the world work a lot with teenagers in educational programs we are developing. This is a quote from one of the guiding documents we refer to in our work:

    “They [the teenagers] may come from any one of a number of educational backgrounds with all the hope in their hearts that, through strenuous concerted effort, the world will change. Irrespective of particulars, they will, one and all, share in the desire to dedicate their time and energy, talents and abilities, to service to their communities. Many, when given the opportunity, will gladly dedicate a few years of their lives to the provision of spiritual education to the rising generations. In the young people of the world, then, lies a reservoir of capacity to transform society waiting to be tapped.”

    Now this is how I like to think of teenagers.

  2. Thanks Nika!

    I agree with the self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s also why I really hesitate to label someone as having a learning disability, or judge a student’s performance based on their last year’s achievements with another teacher. (And I hate it when I walk into a school, and a finger is pointed at a kid with a warning “major attitude, stay away”. Usually they are the kids I most bond with and give me the kindest thank-you letters at the end of the year.)

    I love that quote from the Baha’i guiding document, thank you for sharing! 🙂 It’s good to know we have people like you who bring out the best of others. I appreciate your time in reading & commenting. See you for coffee after March break 🙂

  3. Pingback: On In the Young People of the World: Lies a reservoir of capacity to transform society : Baha’i Views

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