Personal Stories

My Educator Journey: From Teaching Content to Teaching Humans

March 22, 2022
Culturally Responsive Teaching
Nahid Husain-Habib
Relay faculty

I've wanted to be a teacher ever since elementary school. Of course, my main motivation at the time was to write on the chalkboard whenever I wanted. As I got older, I began “practicing” teaching with my sister and her many stuffed animals. Most of the animals received As and Bs for their “effort,” but my sister always failed; this was just one of the ways I asserted my authority as an older sister. 

I have been teaching in one way or another since I was 16 years old. In the beginning, I didn't have a teaching philosophy; I just enjoyed working with my students. But 19 years later, and after my experiences at Relay, I now know that teaching for me, is about recognizing others’ humanity, building relationships, and lifelong learning. 

Developing a Teaching Philosophy

As 25 3rd graders streamed into the classroom, they saw blue cardstock posters set up around the space, covered in pictures. As I guided them in stations to each poster, they explored images of families from around the world, and compared and contrasted what they noticed to their own lives.

In our ELA block, my students learned about how to write letters by practicing writing to me about their lives. We ended the unit by writing letters to our penpals in Australia!

My first teaching philosophy, written during my 5th-year internship with a 3rd grade classroom in Chicago Public Schools, included things like getting to know students as individuals and creating a respectful classroom community. It also included student engagement - creating authentic activities, using group and pair work, and participating in cross-curricular projects. 

All of these pieces are still relevant in my teaching (and they definitely showed growth from the random grades I gave teddy bears) but I look back at this philosophy as something written by a new teacher. It was brimming with pedagogical ideas that envisioned the ideal classroom. The broader ideas and philosophies I now live by came later in my practice. As educators, we all know how much our teaching can change year to year, or even week to week. I never wrote another philosophy, mostly because one document couldn’t define my developing beliefs as a teacher. 

Expanding on Experience

After my first graduate program at the University of London, I worked full-time as a religious education teacher with middle and high school students. I taught Muslim history, ethics, literature, and interfaith connections. These were supplementary classes that most students were brought to by their parents, so building investment and engagement became the priorities. We simulated the first revelation to the Prophet Muhammad and reflected on how he must have felt. We participated in a Shura (council) to simulate the debates of leadership after the death of the Prophet. We explored gallery walks of art depicting the Battle of Karbala and envisioned how the violence and sadness impacted the community. 

These pedagogies required constant learning and research. When our system's professional development wasn’t enough for me and I didn’t have a community working towards the same kind of growth, I continued my own learning through teacher blogs, Google searches, books on teaching and learning, and conferences on various topics in education. These experiences gave me ways to fill my teaching toolbox and continue broadening my beliefs about education. 

The Role of Relay

In 2018, I found Relay and began its residency program in Special Education. This wasn’t the major I walked in with, but after learning more about it, I was curious and knew that I would learn strategies that I could apply in any classroom. Relay’s program expanded my bubble and made me aware of facets of my teaching that I didn’t know were lacking. After all, my previous programs never addressed special education, multilingual learners, or ways in which to differentiate instruction for my students. 

I have always known that learning is a lifelong process, but it amazed me to discover how much I had not yet learned about education. I was able to not only learn practical strategies to support building a classroom community and get the basics down, but also think more deeply about my students’ individual needs and how to address them. Relay’s practical and data-driven approach pushed me to think about whether my students were actually learning what I was trying to teach; tracking standards mastery, using exit tickets and checking for understanding techniques all helped me ensure I was getting the content across. As a special educator, I had the unique opportunities to work with students in small groups and one-on-one, which made my relationships with them even stronger and helped them feel more safe to come to me with their struggles.

My last few years in Relay, first as a student and now as a faculty member, have shown me multiple ways in which my practice can expand and improve. I think back to that first teaching philosophy, and those beliefs still apply. However, I think about education more broadly now. It’s not just about the classroom, the standards, or the activities I plan. Unlike with the students in my previous experiences, I build my curriculum based on each student and their background; relevance becomes the priority and engagement comes afterward. My focus now is the individuals I have in front of me and what they want out of their lives. How I manage my classroom is just a means to help them reach their goals.

When I meet students now, I take the time to have individual conversations about who they are as people and what they find joy in outside of school. I follow-up on sports games, I ask about family members and I ask what they’ve been up to over break. I always keep in mind their lives outside of my classroom and who they are as humans, not just as students.

Relay has also made me reflect more deeply about equity and justice in the classroom and what my role as a teacher can be. As Paulo Freire wrote, “There’s no such thing as neutral education. Education either functions as an instrument to bring about conformity or freedom.” My starting point now is where the student wants to go in their lives; from there, I hope to help them understand the world we live in so they can have the freedom to do what they choose, instead of fitting into what’s expected of them. My ongoing learning over the past several years has helped open my mind even more to what education looks like for different students and has helped me broaden my perspectives on what education can look like in our ever-changing world. 

When I think of where I started as a teacher and where I am now, I am grateful for how Relay has broadened my mind and helped me improve my practice. As teachers, we are always learning and improving, shifting our ideas regularly based on our students and our experiences. Our development is always ongoing; as the world and our students keep changing, we will need to keep adapting to serve them in the best ways we can. 

Nahid Husain-Habib

Nahid Husain-Habib is a faculty member at the Relay Graduate School of Education, where she teaches masters-level courses on the foundations of teaching. She has been in education for 10 years, holding roles such as middle and high-school religious education teacher, high school learning specialist, and instructional coach. Her primary interests are the ways in which teachers are trained to support students with disabilities and multilingual learners.