#RealHeroesNOLA Willie Muhammad talks about the #Next10
While at Cohen High School Willie Muhammad learned of Mrs. Jeff’s reputation for academic rigor and her low tolerance for behavior issues, but the “war stories” passed down from other students didn’t deter him from enrolling in her history course. It was in that class that he became aware of the inhumane treatment and atrocities committed against Native Americans, African people, and people of color as a whole across the globe. It was because of Mrs. Jeff’s infamous History class that Willie Muhammad began his journey as a student of history.
As he began to think about college and making a living he knew he wanted to share his passion for history with others. At the time, Xavier University had a program for recruiting more black teachers, particularly black men. He graduated from the program and began his teaching career at John F. Kennedy High School where he taught world history and geography. He quickly became known as the teacher who made history come alive for students. He recalls a professional development meeting where older teachers discussed feeling defeated and lacking ideas to reach the youth; when suddenly, with eagerness, he popped out of his seat in a Jerry Maguire moment proclaiming, “What we have to do is make the subject matter interesting and relevant to students— and I know how!”
“Knowledge of self has to be included in the curriculum and teaching approach in order for education to become relevant to our students. When you teach children history and that their ancestors have made meaningful contributions to civilization in areas like math, art, science and history, this helps them not have a disdain for the subject matter,” said Muhammad. New Orleans youth live in a state of trauma that stems from the stress of post-Katrina living conditions, poverty, and crime— where it’s easier to access guns, drugs, and hopelessness than quality schools. As we approach the next 10 years of education reform in NOLA, an important component will be using pedagogical strategies to undo the conditioning students are indoctrinated into by using history, science, math, and art to help them realize their lives do indeed matter.
Mr. Muhammad said that if you ask a young person to name their top priorities— education would likely not be at the top. Reason being— “Many youth do not see education as a real means for changing their immediate circumstances.” He explained that the real life examples they have learned from don’t come from doctors, engineers and professionals but rather from the tales and experiences of local rappers like Kevin Gates and Boosie Badazz. The #Next10 is about an education that includes knowledge of self. Education that addresses their skills gaps, lack of interest for the content and negative self-worth. Education for children who live in a state of trauma and a city that has yet to heal from the psychological and economic wounds of Hurricane Katrina. Education in New Orleans can’t look the same as education in other cities, our context matters.
He now is a 15 year veteran teacher at McMain High School, remains active in the community, and leads Mosque 46 in New Orleans. The passion that came alive for him in Mrs. Jeff’s classroom still leads him to ignite the interest for history in young people. This real New Orleans hero came out of a teaching program that recruited black males much like Brothers Empowered to Teach (BE2T) and calls for curriculum and teaching approaches similar to those of Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu, author of Understanding Black Male Learning Styles.