I am Woman. I am an African American Muslim. I am an Educator. An Interview with Mariam Ogunsanya

Mariam Ogunsanya is a Nigerian born, Maryland raised teacher who has taught Math Essential Skills at Abramson Sci Academy in New Orleans for the last two years. With a younger sister who required early supportive services to manage Autism, Mariam saw first hand the power of intervention and was driven to narrow her teaching focus on special education.

Even more unique than her area of interest is that Mariam is an African American Muslim who courageously continues to open herself up to her students’ curious minds; in turn, giving her, even more, opportunities to break barriers by debunking societal stereotypes which widen her students’ frame of reference and exposure to the power of diversity.

As a Teach for America(TFA) alum, what are your feelings regarding the community’s often negative perception of their placement within NOLA schools?
I know the message of TFA is in the right place. I went into TFA knowing that I want to teach. When TFA is paired with educators who want to be in it for the long haul, it works, and there is often longevity. TFA’s heart is in the right place. Retention rates are always a thing, no matter what the job is. But the downside of that is the effect on the community. But I don’t think this is always at the fault of anyone. Some educators give their heart and souls for two years and just get burned out and decide that their passion lies somewhere else. I think having that perspective and understanding that it ‘s hard for a community to lose its teachers because the concern is the effect on their children is necessary.

Of course, I’m only giving my opinion, but in a lot of cases, a TFA member’s decision not to teach after their two years is not out of spite for that community or wanting to abandon that community. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of “now that I know how to do it, I am motivated to take what I have learned and impact other communities.

I feel that guilt right now because I’m leaving now, but I remind myself that I’m not going to a private school. I’m still fighting for equality and equity. I’m just moving to another school that serves the same community but is closer to my family.

Admittedly, I completely underestimated how difficult it is to teach skills that we often take for granted like reading and mathematics to students who may have unfortunately slipped through some cracks and present with learning challenges. Can you share some of the difficulties of teaching math intervention in the high school setting?
The biggest barrier that I come across is, “how did I get to this age and be this behind in math?” My students own this as their identity. There’s only so much of this that is healthy. It’s certainly healthy to acknowledge our shortcomings. But not to sit in them. They own a deficit in math as an academic identity, and that is not healthy. “I’m not good at math,” they say. As if this is just what it is and will always be. I want them to remember to humble themselves to own what they don’t know, but accept that they want to learn it, and with this mindset, the sky’s the limit!! It’s dangerous for children to think they can’t get better or become good at something.

I’ve noticed something different about your energy this year. You seemed to be in a more secure stride and had a greater sense of ownership this school year. Did you notice this? What attributed to this growth?
This year, I was able to narrow down my focus. I could not have named that last year. I realized that I needed more feedback and coaching on my implementation of small groups.
I used my planning periods to grade exit tickets so I could better use data to plan for the next day for instruction. Being more mindful of my seating chart. Not focusing just on behavior, but meeting academic needs as well. Even my students who struggled with behavior, when matched with the right student, were able to grow academically. Also, I realized that the only way kids are going to do well in my class is if they understand that my class is a safe space and they could forget about whatever stress they may have had in another class or the hallway. I was just a lot more intentional about the space and my delivery.

You mentioned feedback and coaching. How important are these tools for professional growth?
Super important! I’ve been able to look at good teaching be modeled both on a personal and professional level. My very close friend Jakia Johnson… She is a mama bear teacher. Seeing her interact with her kids was just so refreshing. She approached her students as if they were HER children; having expectations yet giving love. She was honest, and she was passionate. She preaches to her kids, “Arm yourself with education.” I didn’t think I could do anything like this because I taught math rather than any social studies, but what I learned is that when you make it that personal, you respond to them in a way that gets their attention and in turn, makes the relationship a whole lot better. It makes sense to them.

Aside from Jakia, all of the instructional coaches that I have had while at Abramson Sci Academy have drawn a lot out of me as far as helping me to realize how to maintain a positive culture. Whether it was Aidan Kelly, Katie Bubalo, or Alexie Gaddis, they ALL encouraged me to give more of my personality rather than being so rigid and enforcing rules. I struggled a lot my first year because I just wanted compliance. I realized that I had a no-nonsense approach, but what my coaches at ASA taught me what that it is about a balance. Yes, I expect this from you, but I also love you. I love you when you get it. I love you while you struggle. A lot of my kids live in their deficits, and I don’t want them walking away thinking, “I can’t do this” because that is not the goal. Rather, I want them to say, “Hey, I’m getting better at this even those she’s being hard on me.” Balance. I am hoping to continue to get better.

In terms of student performance, what are your feelings on growth vs. proficiency?
Growth drives proficiency! They go hand in hand. If you are always seeking proficiency but not putting in the tools for students to make gains, then you’re expecting magic. If we only focus on growth, then we don’t have a standard of measurement. But if we only focus on proficiency, we neglect acknowledging our kids’ progress in skill development.
A lot of my kids may not hit proficiency levels, but Oh boy!” the growth that my kid’s show should be celebrated. It has to be!

To see a kid pick their stride and grow is THE BEST FEELING in the world.

To see a student transition from saying, “I’m not good at math” to asking me to look over their work for feedback! Man! It’s just so rewarding and what is needed to master outcomes.

I recognize that this year has been particularly challenging for you with regards to the presidential election and the rhetoric regarding Muslims in America. How has this affected you?
Well, even before the election, I struggled for a while. Not only am I Black, but I’m Muslim, AND I’m a woman. These are three significant identifying markers. America hasn’t upheld any of these markers. I wondered for a while what my kids saw me as. Am I black or am I am immigrant? The minute they see my headscarf, the next question is always, “Where are you from?”

Last year, kids asked about my religion all the time, but this year was different. Kids didn’t ask me about my religion. It was weird. The first time it happens, I use it as an opportunity to educate my kids, because they just don’t know. So many of my kids that I taught last year were SO compassionate toward me this year with everything that was going on. I love being able to dispel the myths that are in the media. There have been times in the past when I’ve thought about teaching in a private Muslim setting to minimize the discomfort, but then I reflect on how powerful it is to see the opposite of what they are used to seeing. How many of our students get to see a Muslim in a teaching setting? One student said to me, “I used to be scared of Muslims until I met you.” This just gave me a feeling of power…of hope. If I can change what the world has told you about people like me, that is impactful enough for me to keep going. It’s such a gratifying feeling being able to be so open with my identity and not hide it. A lot of the things that kids say are things that they are taught. Seeing something opposite of what you are taught, especially if you’ve been taught negative, can be life changing.

As you prepare to relocate back home, what will you miss about New Orleans? EVERYTHING! I’m going to miss my kids A LOT! My kids’ personalities are something else. Both the ups and the downs. I’m going to miss being able to monitor their growth. There is no way I would be the teacher that I am without both seeing my friend Jakia teach and the structure of the instructional coaching that ASA has provided me over the last few years. I’m getting emotional just thinking about how I much I want to be able to follow the growth of my kids as they continue to advance in their math courses and take their state tests.

What do you want your legacy to be? How do you want the students of ASA to remember you?
I want them to remember that I care about them. I love celebrating their successes in math. I didn’t give up on them, and they shouldn’t give up on themselves. I want them always to remember that math is NOT impossible. It takes work, but it is something that they can do, and they should never tell themselves that they cannot do it. As I mentioned earlier, it’s dangerous for children to think they can’t get better or be good at something, and I hope that I have made them believe that what they have been taught about their learning is not what it is. It is not true that you “just aren’t a math person”. It is okay to make a mistake. In math making mistakes is critical because it teaches you to get better. We have to normalize mistakes as a part of the process to grow.

Some damage was done somewhere within other schools or among other teachers and possibly families, but I want them to remember that I was motivated to tap into their strengths and change the way they look at their academic identity.

Teaching a child not to quit is a very hard thing to do when a child has been allowed to quit.They can say they need help with something, but they cannot quit, and I want them to remember that they’ve worked through and accomplished what they thought they couldn’t do and this mindset will be transferable to other areas of success in their lives.

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