Un-Limiting What Education Is, For Me

tweeeeeeeeet rusul

There’s this bizarre notion that education happens only in the classroom, and life happens outside of it. This is why students these days are assigned more homework than ever before – in the name of ‘education’ – without the guaranteed correlation of “more work, better grades”.

Just to make this clear, I am a teacher. And I do give homework because some concepts are best understood through practice problems. But I make the distinction between a healthy “whatever you don’t finish in class, you finish at home” and “here’re 40 questions you must do all evening because my class is your life and I need to make sure you’re always in a state of “learning”” lines.

As a teacher, I take most pride not in teaching facts, but in teaching others how to teach themselves. Only in intrinsic motivation will students bring out the best in themselves and use their knowledge to better the world. Granted I am a very young teacher so I won’t declare I’m accomplishing my ultimate teaching goal, but I am aware of what I’m striving for and in the process of learning how to do so. The best way is to actually go through the process myself.

How am I going through the process? A bit of context first: I graduated from McGill University with a double bachelor a little over a couple years ago, and since then have been of two hearts. One part of me wishes to jump right into a Masters degree (though I still don’t know what); the other is simply in a mood to acquire knowledge from the real world at her own pace. (And yet, I really do miss rigorous learning which requires self discipline!) 

But life throws things in your way for a reason, and it’s really up to you to recognize how to best use them. I am presently working in an edtech company, which is wonderful in the sense I am learning new skills and trends in the education world. At the same time, I’ve been tutoring physics and chemistry on the side for high school and CEGEP level, and this requires me to continuously brush up on old concepts and delve deeper in them than I had back when I was a student. I’ve become aware to this inner part of me that thoroughly enjoys this; not only the tutoring-a-student part, but the preparation and revision that goes into the sessions beforehand. A new-found appreciation for chemistry & physics has blossomed once more!

Looking Down

Knowing that expanding knowledge begins with mastering the basics, I figure the best way to really understand something is to teach it to someone who knows little to nothing about it. Albert Einstein said that “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

As an educator, I constantly find myself questioning what is the essence of ‘education’, and what does it mean for someone to be ‘educated’. After all, is the acquiring of facts all of it? I really doubt it: “For thorough understanding, for understanding, you must also know what the significance of a fact is – how it affects the truth you are seeking. You do not know much if all you know is what the fact is.” (Mortimer J. Adler)

And yet, the way I’ve learned science all my life has mostly been about facts from textbooks that reduce enormous concepts into a few sentences, which could make perfect sense if someone had the background information on the research itself. The thing is,

  • Until approximately the end of the nineteenth century, the major scientific books were written for a lay audience.” (How to Read a Book, p.255)

… and then, they no longer were.

Scientific books are now written for other experts in the field. There are pros and cons to all of this, none of which I’m about to delve into. All I mean to point out is, unless one puts the conscious effort to really work into understanding the fundamentals, a surface overview is all they’re going to receive from classrooms. (Side note, that’s not always a bad thing. We don’t need to know everything about everything.)

However, Mortimer J. Adler’s book has made me want to challenge myself to not settle on learning scientific facts from books that have simplified the material, but from the direct scientists’ writings themselves. My Goodreads to-read list has grown considerably with additions such as Opticks by Isaac Newton, among others of his books. Hopefully I can eventually get around to Galileo, too.

What am I going to do exactly? Simply, I will read… well. I will try to understand what I can. I doubt I will become an expert down to every last word, and that isn’t my intention – but I want a fuller picture than I have now. Then, I’m going to create short Youtube videos on concepts I found particularly difficult or fascinating – just to drill it in deep for myself, and shed more light on it for others. I hope with my video-editing skills I can soon start to create videos in other areas, such as religion, ideas and more arts on my Vimeo account.

On another note about refusing to stop growing, I’ll be starting intensive French courses at McGill this month, and my aim is to get as good in French as I can before calling myself perfectly “bilingual”. Then I’m going to dramatically improve my Arabic grammar skills before confidently calling myself “trilingual”. (I mean, I am trilingual in speaking and reading these three languages, but in expressing myself fully in all languages? If I can’t write a poem in the language, I do not deem my level satisfactory. English definitely has the upper hand there.)

Yes sirree, 2016 is the year I make drastic changes to my schedule and assigned priorities for the sake of learning what I always assumed I already know.

2016 is the year I dig deeper into the basics in hopes to more easily get higher in knowledge.

2016 is the year I’m going to stop fantasizing about years ahead because I’m already starting to carry out the now.

2016 is the year I am going to un-limit what education is, for me. Who says it must take place in a classroom? Who knows, perhaps this solo path I’m taking will spark some remarkable ideas for a future Masters. But for this very instant in time, I’m taking it one day at a time.

2016 is going to be great. God willing, inshaAllah, it will be.

In the Backyard

Happy New Years!


And Allah knows Best.




It’s The Kind of Tired



Aching muscles down to the bone

Mild headache beginning to form

Lacking sleep, can’t wait for sunset-

Drained of energy, with a beyond hopeless mindset-


Such is the profession of teaching for me.



It’s the kind of tired after an intense workout session

The kind that makes you fall back happily onto a soft cushion

The energy released during a basketball game

Or post dabka-dance training kinda pain…



It’s the kind of tired headache you get

From watching too many awesome movies on your TV set

Of living in a disconnected, different world temporarily

Where dreams and hopes are yet to be…



It’s the kind of tired sleepy when you’ve

Been up til late partyin’

Except my partying these days is prepping for topics,

Laboratories and trying to keep it relevant…



It’s the kind of tired no-more-energy in me

Because I gave it to 100 kids today so freely

Yet it simply takes a nap or a jog

To kick-start the energetic me…



It’s the kind of tired hopelessness

That I can find something as satisfying as this.


For every good day – positive adrenaline

For every bad day – determined adrenaline

For every adventure I have with my master key

Stealing moments in classrooms to pray within unseen…


It’s the kind of tired I’m happy to be.

 الحمد لله



Written Nov.6/13 while waiting for the bus.




The Decisive Element

The Decisive Element

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

― Haim Ginott

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.